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Car repairs & maintenance: Avoid overcharges

A 'piggy bank car' on a car lift.
Don't be swayed by services offered beyond the list in the owner's manual.
Illustration by Bob Eckstein
These days, new car models seem to come right out of a “Star Wars” movie. Computers may control or monitor dozens of systems, including the brakes, the engine, and sometimes even the tire pressure.

But that doesn't mean that every foray into the shop for maintenance or repairs has to cost you an astronomical sum. The secret to saving money is knowing what the owner's manual says needs checking, when to use a dealer, and when to consider an independent mechanic.

checkups: cutting costs

You don't need a dealer. For maintenance, there's no reason you must rely on a dealership, which might charge more than an independent shop. It rarely takes a lot of special equipment and know-how to change the oil or flush a cooling system. Federal law gives you the right to service your vehicle wherever you like without affecting your warranty.

Specify needed services. Use your owner's manual to determine which services need to be performed at specific mileage intervals. Then tell the shop those services you want performed. Don't be swayed by the extras that a shop might want to throw in, padding the bill. Avoid using terms such as “tune-up.” You'll only invite a quote for an expensive package.

Blindly following a dealer's recommendations can be a big mistake. That's what Linda Minucci of West Islip, N.Y., discovered when a Nissan dealer advised her to change the timing belt as part of the 60,000-mile service on her 2000 Pathfinder. Minucci balked at spending the $429 after noticing that the owner's manual recommended replacing the belt at 105,000 miles.

“Am I supposed to listen to them or am I supposed to listen to my service manual?” she asked, noting that many people probably don't think to check the manual. The dealer told Minucci that her manual is incorrect. Nissan told us the manual is accurate.

Shop around. You might think that prices for maintenance don't vary much, especially among dealers. You'd be wrong. When we called seven Nissan dealers in Minucci's area, we were quoted prices for 60,000-mile service from $269 to $1,078. Most dealers went well beyond the recommendations in the owner's manual. A few added services Nissan advises against, such as putting additives in the fuel and oil.

When we called the dealers back with the list of the manufacturer's recommended services, the quotes dropped as much as $521.

We had a tougher time getting quotes from the five independent shops we sampled. Most asked us to drop off the vehicle for an inspection and estimate. One shop charged $384, among the least expensive quotes. Only one offered its own list of items, including a $100 transmission-fluid service that was not in the owner's manual.

Repairs: Where to go

Under warranty. Go to a dealer if your car is covered by the original warranty and you want the manufacturer to pay for the fix. Use a dealer, too, if your car has been recalled or is the subject of a “service campaign” in which the automaker offers to correct a defect. You don't have to use the dealer that sold you the car. If you have an extended warranty, you'll need to check the terms to see who must perform covered repairs.

For everything else. A reputable independent shop should be able to handle most other repairs. Shops that specialize in your vehicle's brand are more likely to have the proper training and equipment. A good technician will let you know when a problem warrants a trip to the dealer or a specialty shop.

A federal bill, the Right to Repair Act, would help independents because it would require automakers to provide them with technical information they need to compete with dealers. The bill didn't pass last year but is expected to be reintroduced.

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