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FT Undercover checks out three auto brands


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A technician gets to work at a Jiffy Lube shop in Roseville, Minnesota.

I looked at the small TV in the oil-smelling waiting area of Jiffy Lube in alarm. A car tech was laughing and loudly revving the engine of my Honda as a crowd of his fellow techs cheered him on. I am not a car guy. My idea of routine maintenance is panicking when any of the warning lights come on and idling home to Google what it means. But what I was watching didn’t seem quite right. So when I was ready to pay I asked, “What the heck were you guys doing out there?” The manager explained that to really clean the fuel line, they had to push gas and cleaning solution through the line and get any final gunk with some hearty revving. OK, I thought, I guess that makes sense (and Google confirmed it). Since that very odd experience, however, I’ve noticed that Jiffy Lube has become a little more transparent about services, discussing options both before and after. They cordially invite me in to look under the hood at my disgusting air filters and my ice scraper-shredded wipers and walk me through how my driving life could be better. I applaud the move toward transparency, even thought I still say “no thanks” most of the time.

The upshot: Jiffy Lube’s moves toward communication get a car numbskull like myself feeling like a car novice with a little agency over the doodads, whatsits and thingamabobs that get me around town. —NU

The buying of new vehicle tires is perhaps the least satisfying purchase there is to make. After spending anywhere from $300 to upwards of $400, what are you really getting? A safer driving experience, sure, one could argue, but it’s just not the same as, say, slinging a new Louis Vuitton purse over your shoulder. Despite any misgivings, it was time to outfit the Nissan with some new rubber, which meant a visit to Big O Tires. This location in St. Paul, Minnesota, was formerly an NTB Tire & Service Center but was converted after Big O Tires franchisee Mark Rhee acquired 44 NTB units to add to the 12 Big O stores he already owned. Even before setting foot inside the building, the Big O Tires experience has an advantage over other auto shops thanks to one feature: online appointment booking. No one wants to actually call a store anymore, and Big O makes it easy to book a service time by simply selecting the date, time, service needed and some vehicle information. The drop-off was seamless, the employees friendly—even as they worked out some lingering computer issues from the NTB transition—and there was no attempted upsell. The only hiccup came two days later when one of the new tires had quite clearly lost air, necessitating a return visit for what turned out to be the replacement of a faulty valve stem, done free of charge.

The upshot: Online appointment booking makes it easy to find a convenient time for the necessities of vehicle service, but I’d still rather have a new handbag.—LM

Ever wonder how consumers feel about your franchise? Editorial staffers Laura Michaels, Nick Upton, Tom Kaiser and Beth Ewen check out three brands in a different genre each issue, and report back.

Ever wonder how consumers feel about your franchise? Editorial staffers Laura Michaels, Nick Upton, Tom Kaiser and Beth Ewen check out three brands in a different genre each issue, and report back.

I was overdue for an oil change plus my window washer fluid was empty, so I pulled into a Valvoline, blinded by the setting western sun and guided by a person giving surprisingly precise and detailed hand movements. The friendly technician told me washer fluid, coolant and tire fills are always free, so I was in. I was told to stay inside the car and it smelled heavily of exhaust—that can’t be good for the technicians’ health, can it? They use car-side computers with a time clock ticking—with 6:05 past still no help. 7:53 still nothing. Valvoline’s motto is, “Service you can see. Experts you can trust,” and at the cars next to mine they seemed overly eager to show everything they did, like bringing out the dipstick to display the oil on it (but not showing that the plug was in the tank, the real key to a positive oil change.) Then it was my turn, and the technician recommended the medium grade oil for $66.76 with tax.

The upshot: Friendly but smelly place for service, and the emphasis on the time clock actually raises customer expectations and anxiety. Final time for a promised 10-minute service: 28:30, but my washer fluid was full and my tires checked.—BE

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