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Avoiding dealer scams and unnecessary maintenance

We've always been amazed by these dealer scams, which fool even very smart people into spending hundreds or thousands for ... nothing.

The tune-up

There was a time when tune-ups meant gapping and cleaning points, replacing spark plugs, rotors, and caps, and setting timing, fuel mixture, float level, and idle speed (warm and cold). Then electronic ignition killed points, computerized fuel injection (first sold in 1957!) eliminated carburetors, and and distributorless ignition ended distributor caps and rotors. Timing, fuel mixture, and idle speeds are all controlled by computer; there's nothing to adjust. Even belts are almost invariably self-adjusting, with automatic tensioners.

So what is a tune-up these days? Most mechanics will check the belts and fluid levels, and replace the spark plugs and air filter. Some may clean out the intake path (others just charge for doing it). The cost at many dealers (and some other garages): $400 and up. Other items, like changing antifreeze and transmission fluid, are optional.

If you read the owner’s manual, you’ll usually find that there’s not much to be done. Spark plugs are often good for 50,000 miles and up. The air intake rarely needs cleaning and antifreeze is often good for ten years or 100,000 miles. Even belt checking is usually not done frequently.

Naturally, if you have a car without all these features - an older one, for example - you may have to replace things, but even then, you can do it yourself and save a bundle. Changing the spark plugs on our car cost under $18 and took about an hour, including figuring out how to do it, buying the plugs, and getting the right size Torx wrench. We only had to do it once in 80,000 miles.

Scheduled maintenance

Dealers almost invariably follow the "severe service" charts when scheduling maintenance, though most people can use the "normal service" charts (which is why they're called NORMAL service, and not, say, gentle service). On many vehicles, this means cutting the service intervals roughly in half, doubling the cost of maintenance overall.

Some dealers also charge insanely high prices for parts, in addition to high prices for labor.

Let's look at an example. This comes from a bill from Chrysler of Paramus (which might be renamed Grand Chrysler), New Jersey (owned by a group that lost three Chrysler dealerships in 2010, but kept this one). The bill in question was given in August 2001, so adjust for inflation (for example, $467 then was $584 in 2011).

The bill for a 60,000 mile service is $467.50. What does that service include? A "major tune up" (as far as we can tell, replacing the spark plugs, wires, and filters), changing the transmission fluid and filter, ostensibly adjusting the transmission, rotating tires, oil change, lube, front wheel alignment, throttle body cleaning, and rear brake adjustment).

How much would this cost at your local mechanic? Our guess is $340. But wait, there's more!

Chrysler of Paramus also charged for materials - $13.80 for antifreeze, $10.35 for a valve body filter, $8.28 for an unspecified filter, $13.05 for oil, $4.03 for windshield cleaner (you know, the stuff that costs $2 a gallon at NAPA), $10 for "cleaner," $17.25 for another filter, $65.19 for wires (on a four cylinder engine), $14.28 for four spark plugs (that retail at $2 each), $14 for combustion chamber cleaner, $2.53 for an oil filter, and $51.94 for another unspecified filter. In short, $224.70 in parts.

That puts this dealer service at an actual cost of $692 ($865 in 2011 dollars), or roughly double what our independent mechanic or an honest dealer would charge. No, the customer was not told it would be nearly $700. Who would expect to be charged for an antifreeze topoff or windshield cleaner? Independent mechanics and Jiffy Lube-type shops never charge for anything they put in, at least not without telling the customer. Windshield washer is free. Topping off the brake fluid and such is usually free. The grease they use on the doors is free. They don't charge $4 for half of a $2 bottle of washer fluid.

The guys at Teterboro Chrysler, around 15 minutes away, don’t charge unless they do something. Want them to adjust your self-adjusting rear brakes? No charge. Need to have your belts inspected? Free. So why spend $700 to have rushed mechanics do the same thing at a different dealership?

Was all this stuff even needed? No, but it was "scheduled" — by Chrysler of Paramus / Grand Chrysler. Not by Chrysler itself.

The last little stinger? The car had been through a similar 30,000 mile service and was not driven on "Severe Duty."

Post-script: The Internet Director of the JelMac Auto Group wrote to us in 2006 and said that “our Sales and Service staff and business approach have since been totally revamped. We've won Service awards from Chrysler Corporation for our improved customer service, and our satisfaction index scores have improved greatly.” He suggested that this page was outdated, based as it is on a 2001 experience, and talked about the new management. However, the service director for the company remains the same person, and our simple request for an apology to the customer in question was turned down flat. We would still take our car to pretty much anyplace other than a JelMac Auto Group shop for service. ... private feedback from other customers indicates that practices have not changed.

Overpriced, shoddy work

Then we get to the repairs you really need - things like brakes and clutches. One family actually spent over $1,000 to have a clutch replaced at Dodge of Paramus (yes, another JelMac Auto Group dealership — in fact Chrysler of Paramus / Grand Chrysler is now using the old Dodge of Paramus location). You guessed it, the whole thing had to be done again a few months later. According to the mechanics who eventually re-did the entire job (for $425!) they failed to install the clutch correctly. That's right, they charged more than double the going rate to do a poor job.

It's not just this shop!

There are lots of others out there pulling the same scams. For example, a Volvo dealer performed the same sort of scheduled maintenance on a Volvo 850, and told the owner that there was nothing wrong despite constant stalling. The same dealer told the owner that they could not check the computer because it was too old! If they had checked the computer, they would not have been able to "guestimate" a long, expensive series of unnecessarily replaced parts, because a single, inexpensive sensor was at fault. (The computer did store fault codes — including the one that would have told the dealer exactly what was wrong.)

The moral - implications for action

Stories like this abound. Here is our advice:

1) Don't trust the dealer or mechanic blindly.

2) Don’t have the scheduled maintenance done as a package unless the factory recommends it. Keep your owner's manual handy - photocopy the pages with the recommended service intervals - and follow them. You may be surprised to see that cars require far less maintenance than they did the last time your dealer sent you a notice. You may also discover that only doing what has to be done will save you thousands of dollars over the life of your car.

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