Let’s start with the humble tune-up. Many dealers still have this set up as “the 24,000 mile service” or “50,000 mile service” if they’re less greedy. Chances are it’s not in your owner’s manual, but since few owners actually check the maintenance intervals, shady dealers don’t have to worry about that.
The times of annual tune-ups are long gone. Once, mechanics gapped or replaced points and spark plugs, changed rotors and caps, and set engine timing, fuel mixture, float level, and idle speed. These days, with distributorless ignition, 100,000-mile spark plugs, and electronic fuel injection, there’s nothing to adjust, and not much to replace. Even fan belts are self-adjusting.
So why do some shops charge hundreds of dollars for a tune-up, and claim you need them every year or three? What do they do?
What they usually need to do is adjust the parking brake, and check belts and fluid levels; spark plugs are supposedly good for 100,000 miles on most cars, but often have to be changed earlier, from 60,000-80,000 miles. Many don’t even check the parking brake, much less adjust it, at the “xx,000 mile service” or “tune-up.” The full list, with suggested miles, is in your owner’s manual — the best resource.
Some dealers clean out the intake path; others just charge for doing it. This is rather expensive for emptying a spray can into the air cleaner, and usually unnecessary anyway, since all modern fuels have detergents added.
Changing antifreeze and transmission fluid are usually add-on costs. Most cars now have ten year/150,000 mile antifreeze and many have “sealed” transmissions whose fluid is not supposed to be changed.
Our talks with engineers confirm that little usually needs to be done. The intake rarely needs cleaning, and almost all cars have long-life plugs, antifreeze, transmission fluid, and such.
If you have an older car, 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.
Garages usually follow the “severe service” charts when scheduling maintenance, though most people can use the “normal service” charts (which is why they’re called “normal”). This often means doubling the cost of maintenance. Some techs claim that nearly all cars operate under severe service; a call to the automaker can refute that.
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 (DCH), New Jersey. The bill in question was given in August 2001, so adjust for inflation (for example, $467 then was $584 in 2011). A dealer rep has spoken with us but refused to provide any sort of help to the customer (we keep a copy as evidence). Updated: many years later, another dealer rep asked us to take down this example. However, the dealership refused to help the original customer, so we did not remove it. They did not refute the facts.
The bill for a 60,000 mile service is $467.50. That included 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).
Your local mechanic would probably charge much less — say, $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 ($941 in 2016 dollars). The customer was not warned in advance. Who would expect to be charged for an antifreeze topoff or windshield cleaner? Most garages never charge for anything they put in, at least not without asking the customer. Windshield washer is almost always 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 if the car’s already there. 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 (DCH Chrysler). Not by Chrysler itself.
The last little stinger? The car, a 2.4 liter minivan, had been through a similar 30,000 mile service and was not driven on “Severe Duty.” This should have been a $30 visit… or no visit at all.
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 (now merged with Chrysler of Paramus). The whole thing had to be done again a few months later. According to the mechanics who eventually re-did the entire job (for less than half the price), the dealership failed to install the clutch correctly. They charged more than double the going rate to do a poor job.
There are lots of others out there pulling the same scams. For example, a Volvo dealer did the same sort of scheduled maintenance trick on a Volvo, 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 swap out a long, expensive series of parts, because a single, inexpensive sensor was at fault. Like the computer in every car since the 1990s, it did store fault codes — including the one that would have told the dealer exactly what was wrong — and was easy to read with cheap aftermarket gear that the dealership surely had.
Implications for action
Stories like this abound. Here is our advice:
1) Don’t trust the dealer or mechanic blindly. If this happens to you, complain. Seek out their Facebook page and tell your story there. Go to state authoritie and the automaker itself — which does care, even if they are often powerless.
2) Only have the maintenance recommended by the factory unless you have special circumstances. Make copies of the owner’s manual pages with the service intervals, and follow them. Cars require far less maintenance than they used to and many dealers haven’t changed their “requirements.” It may save you thousands of dollars over the life of your car.