Photo: AP/Carlos Osorio

“I hate cars.” I never thought I’d understand why someone would string those three words together. Now, after trying to comfort a frustrated friend who got slammed with a huge repair bill, I totally get it. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As someone who’s devoted his professional and recreational life to cars, I always try to figure out what could possibly drive people to detest automobiles. After talking to lots of car-haters, it seems one of the main factors causing people to deride these wonderful machines is that feeling of vulnerability as they wait for the mechanic to “tell them the damage.”

Photo: LM Otero/AP

See, every now and then, I get a call from someone I haven’t spoken to in years. “I’m sure he’s calling just to catch up and definitely not because he needs something from me,” I lie to myself before picking up.

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After some brief pleasantries, the person usually gets to the crux of the matter: “So Dave, there’s this noise coming from my car, and the shop wants [insert insane number here] to fix it. What do I do?”

The conversation usually ends with me telling the friend what I think is wrong, and the person groveling in self pity because he’s at the mercy of a shop. I always feel bad, not just because the person only calls me when he needs answers (just like the college days), but mostly because this person sees cars as just a gigantic pain in ass—and that’s not how anyone should feel about cars (though I occasionally feel that way myself).

The Tale Of The Crappy Jeep Compass

What got me thinking about this topic was a call this morning from an actual friend who was feeling down and wanted to tell me what was on her mind. My friend had just taken her Jeep Compass in for inspection, and it failed miserably. What should have been a $20 check up resulted in a $1,200 bill.

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The mechanic told her the car had an exhaust leak, a power steering pump that was “on its way out,” and a bunch of other issues that would wreak havoc on her pocketbook.

My friend told me how she felt backed into a corner with no way out. There’s so much money involved here, and, because she doesn’t know anything about cars, she’s just trusting some random guy with a wrench.

She has to believe the shop’s diagnosis and that the price is fair, knowing full well that the mechanic has strong financial incentive to up-sell and give improper diagnoses. “This makes me want to not have a car; just move to New York City. I hate cars.”

That last line broke my heart.

But I get it. When everything seems to be going fine, you go into a shop and get slapped with an unexpected bill that seems arbitrarily high. And you’ve got no way to know if the shop is being honest. You feel defenseless.

Next thing you know, you’re checking out your bank account, and a heavy bead of sweat drips down your forehead as you wonder how you’re going to keep your car on the road and pay all your other bills.

People hate cars because they fear them.

Making Rash Decisions

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

This feeling that they’re being taken advantage of often drives people to make rash decisions.

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In the case of my friend, whose Jeep Compass—a total crap-can of a car, if we’re honest— now has a hefty $1,200 bill looming over its shoddily-built hood, that rash decision involves buying a different car.

The problem is, she realizes that even if she bought a newer used car, there are no guarantees that the car will be any more reliable than the DaimlerChrysler-era piece of shit she’s driving now, and she really doesn’t want to deal with the stress of car repairs anymore. Dropping $15,000 on a 2014 or 2015 vehicle, while not knowing if she’s going to be slapped with a nasty mechanic bill next month makes her feel very uneasy. And I can see why.

Which brought her to the idea of buying a new car, which she sees as her only real way out of the black hole that is the mechanic’s bay thanks to the new car’s warranty. But, of course, she doesn’t want to drop 30 grand, and she’d rather not go to some dealership and haggle with a guy who says bullshit like “let me talk to my manager” while he goes to walk around in circles in the broom closet.

Plus, if we’re honest, all she’d be doing by buying a new car is biding time. In a couple years, she’d be back in the vulnerable situation, sitting in the mechanic’s waiting room, preparing to be hit with a bill that contains far more digits than she thinks is fair.

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But it looks like that’s what she’ll end up doing. She’ll buy a new car, even if it’s not the best financial move. She, like many of my other friends (and anyone who leases a new car every few years), is willing to pay a premium to no longer have to deal with the stress of car repair shops.

Yeah, I totally get why people hate cars.

So What Can You Do?

Cars break. They contain components like ball joints, tie-rod ends, tires, brake pads, wheel bearings—things that wear out over time. That’s just the way it is. And unless you know how to fix cars, you’re going to have to go into a shop, and you’re going to have to pay money. That’s life.

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But that’s not the problem, here. The problem is that so many car owners (I’d venture to say the vast majority) feel helpless and vulnerable when they go to these shops, and that scares them away from car culture as a whole.

But the thing is, owners don’t have to feel like they’re being taken to the cleaner every time they get their cars checked out. There are things you can do to feel more confident.

Find A Decent Shop

The first thing you need to do is find a decent shop—one that is highly rated on internet sites like Yelp and Google reviews. If others like the shop, chances are, you will too.

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And there are some decent shops out there—ones that make conscious efforts to prevent their customers from feeling like they’re being ripped off. These shops do this through transparency, which is always the name of the game when you want happy customers.

Many of these shops will gladly show you the old, worn part that came off your car, helping you feel at ease that the mechanic isn’t BS’ing you, and that the repair is warranted.

I talked with Automotive Authority, a shop near my house, and they acknowledged that the automotive repair business has quite a tainted reputation. But they told me about some of the things they do to make customers feel more at ease, including actually sending pictures and videos of worn out parts to customers.

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The shop also says they try to be up front by giving customers a “worst case scenario” of what the repair might take, because no customer likes to see surprises on a repair bill.

Some shops will also walk you through their pricing structure (the hourly rate is usually market-driven) and how many hours it takes to complete each repair job (these are often standardized in “labor guide” software like Alldata and Reynolds.) So find a good shop that’s highly rated, and known for its transparency—that’s step one.

Get Educated About Cars

So finding a good shop is the obvious solution to the “vulnerable at the shop” issue, but owners themselves need make a conscious effort to learn about how their cars work.

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Stop complaining about how ripped off you feel every time you go to the mechanic, when you haven’t even spent a moment trying to get smart on auto repair. I’m not saying you need to take a graduate level course in mechanical engineering, either—I’m saying you just need to learn the basics.

Even if the most honest mechanic hits you with a $1,200 bill, you’re naturally going to question the shop and feel like you’re being duped if you don’t know anything about how your car works. With some practice, you’ll be able to confidently go into that shop, look at the ball joint the mechanic has in front of your face, and say “You know what, that is a bad ball joint. Go ahead and fix it.”

So get on YouTube, talk to your mechanically-inclined friends (heck, bring them to the shop with you), post on internet forums, maybe even pick up a book from the library, and check out our wrenching posts on The Garage.

A little knowledge goes a long way towards learning not to hate cars.