I also brought my car in for service, something I should have done long ago and had been procrastinating on. I couldn't be more pleased with the experience. The owner came across as one of the most trustworthy, helpful salesman I've ever met, and it was a pleasure to give him my business.
There were two symptoms: a brake warning light and a clicking sound when accelerating with the wheels turned. I knew the clicking sound was a bad CV joint. I had no idea about the warning light. Both symptoms have been present for quite some time (>6 months), but when they started they were very mild and intermittent, and I guess I just got used to them and stopped worrying. (Stupid, I know. Very stupid.) As of this morning they were too bad to continue ignoring; also I knew I needed to take care of the brake light in order to pass my smog check.
My previous experience with a mechanic in Beaverton had been a bad one, so this time I checked out the Car Talk MechaniX-files and found the highly rated Twin Oaks NW Automotive. I am very pleased I did.
When I walked in, the owner, Steve, was finishing up a phone conversation with another customer. He was taking his time, which was fine by me, since it gave me a chance to scope the place out and get comfortable. I gleaned from Steve's side of the conversation that the customer on the phone was about to embark on his honeymoon, and Steve was doing a routine oil change/tuneup to make sure the car would be fit for the trip. That was another reason I didn't mind Steve taking his time on the phone--having been in the wedding party of a few weddings, I know what an unspeakable act of cruelty it is to rush a groom.
Anyhow, when Steve was free I gave him the full Alice's Restaurant Massacre about my car. He said, "Ok, well I guess we'd better take a look at it. You know, the problem with the brake warning light is that it's usually wired to about four different sensors, so you have to assume the worst until you can actually look at the car." As for the CV joints, he explained that the clicking sound isn't really a problem, but when the joint finally blows out completely, it's a very expensive repair because it usually takes the differential with it (because it leaves one side of the differential completely unloaded, causing shearing forces that it wasn't designed to withstand). Anyhow, he said he'd have a look within a half hour, so I went for a walk.
When I got back, bad news was waiting for me. "It turns out the CV joint and brake problems were related," Steve said. His theory: after the CV joints blew out several months ago, they started spraying lubricant all over the place, and a lot of the lubricant got on the front brake assembly. The lubricant is corrosive, so since I let the problem go for six months, my brakes corroded. He said my front breaks were down down to the last fraction of an inch and I was nearly out of brake fluid. As for the CV joints, he said he had never seen them so far gone, and he thought it was a miracle I hadn't blown an axle yet.
In short order I had an estimate in my hands, and it wasn't pretty. Interestingly enough, he waited until I was in the room with him before he even attempted to check on part prices. IMHO, that was brilliant PR move, because it meant that I got to hear about the repair item by item rather than being slapped immediately with total. I also got to hear him talk on the phone with his parts guy, saying things like, "That's too expensive for an axle shaft. How much for a rebuilt one?" The total wasn't pretty, though: $926.67.
At this point the real PR job began. Steve is an extremely suave con man or a man of high integrity. The first thing he said was "I'm not asking you to decide yet." Then he engaged me in a fairly in-depth conversation about what I thought of my car. Was it the right kind of car for me? Did I prefer driving old cars or new cars? Did I like it? How much did I drive it? Am I at a point in my life where buying a new car is even an option? I asked him questions like: How many miles does a 12-year old car typically have on it, and he responded by quoting data from AAA on average miles/year (15000, he said). He also told me AAA's average repair cost/month for a 10-15 year old car (can't remember that number), and told me that according to AAA, 10 years is the age where a car is about the most economical, because the depreciation is over but the repair cost is still pretty low.
To my amazement, Steve even talked candidly to me about the option of not repairing the car at all! He explained that in his opinion it wasn't safe to drive, but if I wanted to drive it he recommended not taking it on the freeway, and being as gentle as possible with acceleration. I had walked in there thinking that I would pretty much have no choice but to accept whatever he said was wrong and pay whatever price he wanted to charge. Suddenly I felt like I had three legitimate choices: do nothing for a while and think about it, do the repair, or buy a new car. And if I chose to buy a new car, there was an implicit message that we would be delighted to help me find a good one.
Of course, I knew that two of those options were bogus. Knowing myself, if I didn't get the car fixed today I would drive it until it died. And I had absolutely no interest in buying a new car. Maybe Steve realized that too. But it felt amazingly good to be given the options. Steve came across as wanting to give me the information to make my decision, and seemed prepared to accept whatever I decided.
Then he changed the subject and asked if I wanted to look at the underside of the car ("sure!" I said). He had one of his assistants put the car up on a lift so he could show me the problem (I overheard him telling the guy to go easy on the gas because the CV joint was weak--again, either this guy was genuine or a brilliant con artist). So we walked around underneath and he explained how various things worked. He pointed out stuff like my leaky oil pan ("That's normal. I've never seen a car without a leak. Your car is actually in really good shape--I could show you a few 97's that leak more than this.") It was a lot of fun to poke around the car with him and at no point did he pressure me at all.
When we returned to the office he looked at his watch and said, "Well, that's about all I can tell you. If you decide to repair it, all the parts are available, so I could do it today. But you'd have to decide in the next ten minutes, because I have to place the parts order by 1pm. Or, if you want to take it home and think about it, just go easy on the accelerator and don't drive on the freeway."
Naturally I went for the repair.
So now I'm relaxing at home, listening to music, and chatting with people on AIM. Ah, so nice to have a day off.