A yellow car up on a lift at a car repair shop
Photo: Porsche

If you’ve ever shouted, “It’s going to cost how much?” it might be because you’re driving a car that’s especially expensive to fix.

What might sound like a simple repair isn’t necessarily easy on some cars and SUVs, where the cost to change a belt, fix a wheel bearing, or replace an alternator may cost five or even 10 times more than average. We call these deal breaker repairs, because they’re significant enough that they might sway your decision on whether to keep a vehicle after its warranty expires. And if you’re in the market for a used car, these are the sorts of repairs that might scare you away from making a purchase in the first place.

To find these deal breakers, Consumer Reports analyzed estimated repair cost data from RepairPal. (We already partner with RepairPal to help drivers locate trusted mechanics, so we trust RepairPal when it provides cost estimates for common repairs.) Then we talked to expert mechanics at Consumer Reports and elsewhere to find out why some cars cost more to fix. We also uncovered some ways to plan for surprise expenses and cut costs when they do happen. After all, even the luckiest used-car owner can’t avoid parts wearing out over time. Note that the vehicles on this list aren’t necessarily likely to need these specific repairs, just that the repairs are exceptionally costly if the vehicles do need them.  

Almost all the deal breaker repairs we uncovered were related to luxury cars, which is no surprise. Today’s premium models are more complex and feature-laden than ever. “There’s going to be a direct proportion between the cost of the car and the cost to repair the car,” says Jill Trotta, vice president of industry and sales at RepairPal and an ASE-certified technician with 30 years’ experience. In other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the BMW 7 Series—which can cost more than $100,000 new—can cost a lot more to fix than a Honda CR-V.

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So if you see a used luxury car with a surprisingly low purchase price, that may be why, says John Ibbotson, CR’s chief mechanic. “These luxury cars drop in value partially due to the expense of repair, and they’re more likely to need repairs the older they get.”

Our list of deal breakers is also populated with cars that use highly specific parts that aren’t shared with other makes and models, including a few hybrids and limited-edition performance models. They may require access to complex diagnostic equipment that’s usually available only at dealers or specialized independent mechanics who have paid extra for it.

Some sportier trims of luxury vehicles might cram in a larger engine, or put components in hard-to-reach places that improve weight balance for better handling. Those choices make it harder for mechanics to access parts, Trotta says, and can turn a simple 2-hour repair into a 6-hour ordeal. This applies to even common items, such as the starter, battery, and spark plugs—some of which require removing body panels to change. 

The Deal Breakers

These are the cars and SUVs with some of the highest repair costs for common repairs. Estimates are based on RepairPal’s data for labor and parts from Motor Information Systems’ vehicle repair database, and aftermarket parts pricing from NAPA. They are limited to vehicles sold within the past five model years. (See recent models most likely to have problems in key trouble spots based on Consumer Reports’ latest reliability survey. Data for the past 20 years can be found on each vehicle’s model page.)  

Interior of a BMW sedan
Photo: BMW

AC Compressor Replacement

Air conditioning compressors usually last for at least 100,000 miles, Ibbotson says. If yours fails, remember that AC is not only for comfort but also for helping to remove fog from windows. Your air conditioning won’t work without a functioning compressor, and even though a used 2015 BMW 750Li can be found for about the same price as a new Honda Accord, it’ll cost more than a tenth of the BMW’s value to replace the AC compressor if it fails.

Alternator Replacement

The alternator is driven off the car’s engine. It uses the current it produces to charge the vehicle’s battery and run electrical systems. If the alternator fails on your out-of-warranty Porsche Cayenne or BMW 7 Series, you’re looking at a repair that costs more than three times the national average.

Photo: Lexus

Fuel Pump Replacement

Lexus vehicles tend to do well in our reliability survey, but two sedans—the rare IS F sport sedan and the luxe LS460—show up on this list. They are both powered by a similar V8 engine.

Serpentine Belt Replacement

Like a coiled snake, a serpentine belt winds through various engine pulleys powering various systems, usually including power steering and water pumps. Although the belt is likely to need replacement between 90,000 and 120,000 miles, according to Ibbotson, it’s not always an easy repair. Depending on an engine’s design, it can be a labor-intensive process to replace. While the BMW i8 is a rare, flashy hybrid, the X1 is a mainstream vehicle and one of the most affordable choices in the German automaker’s lineup. This may be one of the lowest-cost repairs on this list, but it’s still significantly more than average.

Photo: Porsche

Starter Replacement

In the case of the Audi RS5 and Porsche Panamera, the starter is hidden away where it’s impossible to access without removing other parts first. It’s an increasingly common problem as cars get more tightly packaged, RepairPal’s Trotta told CR. “A lot of times I don’t think there’s a huge connection between the people who design the cars and the people who have to service them,” she says. “The starter is not going to last as long as the car, so that’s a repair that’s always going to have to happen.”

A car shock absorber
Photo: Nissan

Suspension Shock or Strut Replacement

Suspensions wear out over time from use, Ibbotson says, so you should budget for repair or replacement if the car has close to 100,000 miles on the odometer. The Porsche Panamera offers an air suspension that promises a smoother ride and more responsive handling than a traditional setup, but it’s a complex system made up of expensive parts. That’s true of all air suspensions, so keep that in mind if you’re shopping for a car that offers one. The Nissan GT-R may be more affordable than super-cars from the likes of Ferrari and McLaren, but that doesn’t mean it’s as cheap to run as an Altima. CR checked with some Nissan dealerships and found that factory parts alone can cost at least $2,000 per strut or shock. Considering that a performance car like the GT-R is unlikely to be driven as much as a commuter sedan, however, Ibbotson says this might not be a repair that owners encounter often.

Timing Belt Replacement

A timing belt is what keeps your engine’s valves and pistons moving in sync. If it fails, your engine won’t run. And on these Audis—and other vehicles that have what’s known as an “interference engine”—a broken timing belt could cause the pistons and valves to collide, which results in a very expensive repair. Timing belts need to be replaced on or before schedule, and usually aren’t covered under warranty. If your car has one, the owner’s manual should tell you how many miles you can go between replacements. If you’re buying a used car with a timing belt, make sure it has been replaced before you buy it—or factor in the cost of a replacement when negotiating a price.

A technician repairing a car
Photo: Nissan

Water Pump Replacement

This is another repair that could cost more if you ignore it. If your car’s water pump fails, your engine could overheat and require a very costly repair. And it’s an especially common repair as cars age, Ibbotson says. Although the RS7 is produced in low volumes and every GT-R’s engine is hand built by a select group of engineers, the RX450h is a popular mainstream hybrid—and replacing the water pump costs more than four times as much as it does on the gas-only RX350.

Protect Yourself From Pricey Repairs

Regardless of what you drive, here’s what you can do if you’re worried about getting surprised with a surprisingly high repair bill.

Get rid of a potential problem car before it’s out of warranty. If you already own one of the cars on this list, there’s no guarantee it’ll need one of these pricey repairs. But it might be worth selling it or trading it in before the warranty expires just in case.

Look for warranty coverage. And if you’re set on buying one used, it might be worth looking for an example with remaining warranty coverage. Certified pre-owned vehicles can sometimes cost more than noncertified cars, but they typically include additional warranty coverage. Although extended warranties aren’t usually worth the money, if you’re looking at one of the cars on this list, buying one might be worth it for coverage that can protect you against a pricey repair. Just remember that you can negotiate a price with the dealer who sells it, and be sure you understand what it covers and where the work can be performed.

Get a prepurchase inspection. Ask the dealer or owner if you can take the car to an independent mechanic. If they balk, consider that a sign that they’re trying to hide something. A prepurchase inspection will look for parts that are about to wear out, and can tell you what has already been repaired. If a car needs only a few fixes, you can negotiate a lower price up front and plan for future repairs.

Look at prior repair records. Items like alternators, fuel pumps, and AC compressors are not considered “wear items” and usually last at least 100,000 miles, Ibbotson says. But if a part wore out earlier than that, it might need another replacement sooner rather than later. If you’re deciding whether to keep an aging car or buy one that’s out of warranty, look at records of prior repairs; they might help you predict the future. “In general, if a part fails at, say, 60 thousand miles, you can probably plan on replacing it again at another 60 thousand,” Ibbotson says.

Use an independent mechanic, if possible. Our survey results show that consumers tend to have a more satisfying experience at independent shops, where they are also more likely to get a discount. But when it comes to luxury brands or rare models with hard-to-find parts, steer clear of shops that lack the specific tools or skills to do the job. “Independent shops are your best bet when they have the tools to do the repair,” Ibbotson says. “Shops that specialize in a particular brand are often even better. You may pay a little more for the labor, but the parts are more likely to be better, and they will know the most cost-effective way to get you back on the road.”

If you choose to purchase a somewhat rare model, you should factor in access to such expert help—and look out for local recommendations from model-specific forums or clubs.

Consider aftermarket parts. Aftermarket parts are made by someone other than the vehicle’s original manufacturer. They’re kind of like store-brand cereal: They do the same thing as the name brand but cost less.

Although the quality of aftermarket parts varies, an honest and skilled mechanic will know which ones to use and which ones to avoid. Trotta says that some aftermarket parts are even better than original equipment. For example, she says some aftermarket suppliers sell suspension components that are easier for mechanics to install than the parts on offer from the factory, so consumers will pay less for labor. And sometimes they’re better-built or have a longer guarantee. “A lot of times the warranty is the same, if not better,” she says.

But some parts can be purchased only from the manufacturer, Ibbotson says. “The more obscure the part, the less likely it will be available aftermarket,” he says.