Save hundreds on auto service

Last updated: April 2009

When budgets get tight, many people are tempted to cut back on regular car maintenance. But that can lead to serious repair problems and even larger bills down the road. We’ve found that you can save a lot of money on maintenance simply by shopping around.

We called dozens of dealers and repair shops throughout the country to get quotes for regular maintenance service on three popular models. Here’s what we found:

  • Think all dealers charge the same price? Think again. When we asked for the cost of a 60,000-mile checkup for a 2004 Ford Explorer, for example, prices varied by as much as $252, even among Ford dealers in the same general area.
  • Dealers often wanted to charge for extra work that the automaker doesn’t require. We discovered that when we compared the service items included in quotes with the maintenance lists in the owner’s manuals.
  • Check out independent shops, too. Quotes from independents that included all the items in the manual were sometimes $150 below the cheapest dealer.

Dialing for dollars

The maintenance schedule in your car’s owner’s manual is the automaker’s prescription for keeping the vehicle in good operating condition. Those regular checkups should be performed at the proper mileage intervals. But although the automaker sets the schedule, individual dealerships set their own prices.

We called 27 dealers in the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York metro areas and asked, as a typical owner would, their price for a specific scheduled-maintenance interval and what service items they included. In each city, we chose dealers that were in relatively close proximity.

We asked for the 30,000-mile maintenance service for a 2005 Toyota Camry, the 60,000-mile service for a 2004 Ford Explorer, or the 120,000-mile service for a 2003 Honda Civic.

For the Camry’s 30,000-mile service, we were quoted $187 at one Chicago-are Toyota dealership but $388 and $400 at two others. In Los Angeles, quotes ranged from $273 to $389.

Similarly, for the Explorer’s 60,000-mile service, we were quoted prices of $400, $499, and $589 by different Ford dealerships in the New York City metro area. In Los Angeles, the same service drew quotes ranging from $338 to $590. For the Civic’s 120,000-mile service, we received quotes ranging from $392 to $560 in the Chicago area.

It’s a good idea to shop around. Also keep an eye out for maintenance specials. Several dealers were offering special prices for a limited time, which could carve more than $150 off the regular price.

Why service prices vary

Many dealers’ estimates included extra service items that go beyond what’s listed in the owner’s manuals. Those can include engine and transmission flushes or automatically replacing fluids and filters that the automakers’ maintenance schedules call for just inspecting.

At 60,000 miles, for example, the 2004 Explorer’s owner’s manual calls for rotating tires, changing filters and the engine oil, and performing a number of inspections. Many dealers also would have changed the engine coolant and the transmission fluid and filter, which could add $100 or more to the bill. Some included flushing the fuel-injection system or decarbonizing the throttle body, services that added $110 and $165, respectively, to bills.

When we asked the automakers about the extra services, all three said that you shouldn’t need maintenance beyond what’s listed in the owner’s manual.

We checked back with some of the higher-priced dealers, asking for a price that included only the items in the owner’s manual, and their prices dropped around $100 to $150.

Regular maintenance can also be performed by independent repair shops without voiding the car’s warranty. When we called about two dozen independents, we generally got lower prices than the dealers offered, but they didn’t necessarily include all of the service items printed in the owner’s manual. The shops usually wanted to perform basic service, such as an oil change and tire rotation, and inspect the car for any additional work that might be needed.

That can save you money, but it’s important to make sure the shop knows exactly what’s in the manual. When we did that, an independent shop in Chicago gave us a price that undercut the dealers by $70 to almost $200. As with many dealers, however, some shops wanted to include items that weren’t in the manual.

Bottom line

You’ll get the best price on maintenance by comparison shopping and calling several dealerships and independent shops. Always check what you’re being charged for against the maintenance items in your owner’s manual. If the price includes items that are not in the schedule, ask for a price without them. According to the manufacturers we talked to, you’ll be giving your car everything you should to keep it on the road.

If an inspection reveals that additional service needs to be performed, get a separate quote for each item and then decide what additional work, if any, you want done. If parts, such as brake pads, aren’t worn to the allowable limit, you might be able to put off the job or have it done later at another shop for less money. Or you can perform simple tasks yourself, such as changing an air filter, for a fraction of the dealer’s cost.

It pays to shop around

Below are quotes we got from dealerships in three metro areas for the same maintenance interval on the same models.

  New York Chicago Los Angeles
2005 Toyota Camry
30,000-mile service
2004 Ford Explorer
60,000-mile service
2003 Honda Civic
120,000-mile service

Don't get dinged: 5 auto-service rip-offs

1. Flushing the engine or transmission. Those are common ways for dealers to pad their maintenance bills. Several of the dealerships we spoke with wanted us to pay for such a service when none was specified for normal driving in the owner’s manuals. Automakers recommend against flushing the engine.

2. Automatically charging for “severe” maintenance. Some shops assume you need the car’s severe-use maintenance service, which typically involves changing filters and fluids more frequently than the regular schedule recommends. That is a more comprehensive schedule for vehicles that frequently tow or are regularly driven in demanding conditions, such as stop-and-go traffic or dusty areas. See your owner’s manual for details, but most drivers need to follow only the normal schedule.

3. Frequently replacing different parts. A mechanic who keeps charging you to replace different parts to solve the same problem is probably having trouble diagnosing your car. Even if the mistake is an honest one, you shouldn’t have to pay for it. Ask the mechanic to refund the cost of the first repair, which probably wasn’t necessary. Otherwise, replace the mechanic.

4. Replacing the same part over and over. That might indicate shoddy workmanship or a poor-quality part; neither should cost you extra. The Internet makes it easy to see whether a model is prone to certain problems. Search for your model in forums. Check for automaker service bulletins and consumer complaints. Or go to our Maintenance & Repair Forum.

5. Insisting that only dealerships can perform maintenance. Legally, you can have maintenance performed by any mechanic without affecting your warranty. Just keep thorough records in case of a warranty claim. The only service that needs to be performed at a dealership are warranty repairs, recalls, or post-warranty work that you want the manufacturer to pay for.

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