Car maintenance the right way, part 1: Avoiding unnecessary work

Consumer Reports News: September 22, 2010 10:22 AM

Blindly letting a mechanic perform maintenance on your car or truck can easily leave you overpaying. A recent case involving one of our staffers is a good illustration.

The staffer brought his 2005 Sienna minivan to a Toyota dealership for 60,000-mile service and ended up paying much more than he should have.

The Toyota service manual recommended only an oil change, tire rotation, and replacing the engine and cabin air filters (along with the usual litany of items to inspect, including brakes, fuel lines, gas cap gasket, steering gear box, and so on.)

We did some research and found that he could have paid around $150 for the entire job, about two thirds of that if he did most of the work himself. Instead, the bill came to $382.

Why? The dealer performed unnecessary procedures or replicated work it had done recently.

One big mistake our staffer made was not asking in advance for the list of work that would be done. Here are some examples of why his bill was unreasonably high. (In most cases, the listed prices are for parts only and don’t include the additional charge for labor.) 

• Replacing the cabin air filter. $26.95. The same dealer had replaced the filter a year earlier. It's task that needs to be done only every 30,000 miles or 3 years, according to Toyota. And it’s an easy do-it-yourself job. Incidentally, we found the filter online for $17.46, including shipping.

• Replacing windshield wipers. $24.90. The staffer had replaced the wipers about six months earlier for about $10 at Walmart.

• Rotating and rebalancing the tires. We don’t know how much the dealer charged for this because it was included in the labor cost. But the same dealer rotated and rebalanced those very tires three months earlier and two months before that. Also, the tires were worn out. The staffer replaced them less than two months later

• Replacing  spark plugs. $26.95.  Toyota doesn’t recommend this for another 60,000 miles.

• Replacing the transmission fluid. $22.78  Toyota doesn’t ever recommend changing the transmission fluid under normal driving conditions.

• Flushing and refilling the coolant, included in the labor charge. This service wasn’t needed for another 40,000 miles.

• Replacing PCV valve. $8.95. This item, which we found online for $6.35, doesn’t ever need to be replaced under the Toyota recommended service.

In our next Consumer Reports Money blog, we'll tell you how to deal with the shop to ensure you're not overpaying.—Anthony Giorgianni


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