In an era of both high technology and high jinks, an old-fashioned visual inspection and road-test still is the service staff's first line of defense against misdiagnosis and/or recommending the wrong maintenance for the situation. Like other service shop owners and managers, many tire dealers become consumed with or distracted by the onslaught of high-tech test gear and diagnostic techniques.
But as a rule, new diagnostic gear complements-not replaces-using our God-given senses to their fullest. This includes getting a seat-of-the-pants feel of the vehicle via a careful road-test and thorough visual inspection.
The latest salvo fired at the auto repair business-a scathing report aired last fall on ABC TV's news program 20/20-also reinforces the importance of a thorough visual inspection. The service personnel embarrassed by 20/20 walked around easy visual warning clues and right into the television producer's trap.
What to look for
You can debate the merits of that auto repair expose until you're blue in the face. But due to my roots as a technician, I have little sympathy for anyone foolish enough to walk past the visual clues we saw on those vehicles.
Let's see what we could have learned from the bread-and-butter, front-wheel-drive Chevrolet used in the news report.
Consider the MacPherson strut scenario. According to 20/20, the subject vehicle's front struts only had several hundred miles on them. To help preserve the vehicle's condition for the duration of the undercover operation, the producer even transported it across the country on a flatbed trailer.
Any service writer or technician worthy of the name ought to recognize relatively new parts-especially fairly high-wear items such as shocks or struts.
Replacing shocks and struts can be a judgment call. If the strut hasn't developed an obvious leak or isn't physically damaged in another way, it's usually OK.
If you've spent any time in a service department, you know that many frustrated consumers would rather switch than fight. If another service shop's recommendation-say, a new set of struts-doesn't cure their complaint, they chalk it up to experience and seek the solution at another shop.
So the sight of relatively new struts or shocks on a car with a steering- or handling-related complaint ought to be a big red warning flag for alert service personnel. First, it eliminates those parts as a possible cause of the complaint and should prompt service personnel to look elsewhere for solutions. Second, it also should prompt service people to work extra hard at building trust with this car owner. Although the car owner isn't likely to admit it, he probably is very disappointed and distrustful at this point, because expensive new parts didn't solve his complaint.
Also, this should spur service personnel to do what's commonly not done the first time around on steering and suspension complaints-road-test the car, preferably with the driver on board!
One of the best-kept secrets of successful alignment and wheel-service shops is their savvy at road-testing vehicles!
To me, road-testing is a dynamic visual inspection because it reveals conditions we don't see with the vehicle on the driveway or on the hoist at the store. This includes drifting or pulling to one side of the road, steering wheel shudder or shake under certain driving conditions and excessive body roll or nose-diving when changing lanes or during braking.
When struts look OK, the only way to gauge their performance-and, therefore, the need for replacement-is to put them to work during a road test.
Basically, the springs support the vehicle and control the suspension. Shocks and struts, in turn, help control the movement of the springs. (One hapless service salesman, when questioned on camera, wasn't even able to get this right!)
Without putting the suspension to work, it's tough to condemn struts that pass a ``static'' visual inspection.
Replacing original struts on a 100,000-mile-old vehicle may be smart preventive maintenance for a driver who plans to keep his vehicle. However, the car 20/20 used on their program was not a high-mileage one.
Also, suspect service personnel interviewed in the segment never referred to the results of a thorough road-test.
Makers of brake, suspension and wheel-service parts and equipment have countless tips for service shops on both road-testing and visual inspection. Seek out and take advantage of this information ASAP!