Five Common Myths About Car Service


By Rick Popely,

Myth No. 1: Independent repair shops are always less expensive than dealer service bays.

Many independent repair shops (as well as some national and regional chains) charge lower labor rates than franchised new-car dealers, but we can’t guarantee they are always cheaper. We know of independent shops that charge in the neighborhood of $100 an hour for labor and charge for diagnosis, not just for time spent replacing or repairing parts.

Though dealers may charge more for labor, the differences might not be huge. If you don’t see a labor rate posted, ask any repair shop what it charges.

Bear in mind that labor isn’t the only cost for service and maintenance. All repair shops charge retail prices for the parts they install, and some mark them up more than others. In addition, a dealer may be required to use factory original-equipment parts that are more expensive than aftermarket parts that an independent shop uses.

Besides weighing the cost, you also should consider the quality of the service you receive, the quality of the parts you’re getting and whether the repair shop sees you as a customer or as a steady source of revenue. Your goal should be to find a repair shop that performs good work, doesn’t pressure you into work you don’t need, and is looking to maintain the safety and reliability of your vehicle.

Building a relationship with that kind of repair shop could cost you more in the short run, but good advice and cost-effective service will save you money in the long run.

Myth No. 2: Cars today are virtually maintenance-free.

Today’s cars certainly require less maintenance than cars built 25 years ago, particularly in the first few years of ownership, but they still need regular care. Oil changes and tire rotations should be done at least annually and, for most drivers, at least twice a year. In addition, engine air filters and cabin air filters usually need replacing every couple of years.

With some exceptions, though, those are the main service items for many vehicles during the first three or four years.

Depending on where and how you drive, brake pads and rotors may need to be replaced every couple of years, though some drivers can coax more time out of theirs. Tires and batteries can last five years or longer but may need replacing sooner in hot climates and on vehicles that rack up a lot of miles.

Transmission fluid, engine coolant and spark plugs usually don’t have to be changed until 100,000 miles or longer, so there isn’t a lot on the to-do list until you are years down the road.

All of that is good news compared to cars from the 1990s and older, when service and maintenance was more frequent. Low maintenance, though, doesn’t mean no maintenance, so don’t get lulled into thinking you can kiss off everything. Check the service schedule in your owners manual to see what your vehicle needs and how often.

Myth No. 3: Mechanics alway push more work in order to drive up repair bills.

Mechanics and service writers at repair shops often push more work than you may have planned on, and at some shops they’re trained to do that. When you go in for an oil change or a brake inspection, they may come back with a long list of things that need repair or replacement.

That’s part of the job description at some repair shops: See what else drivers may need or might agree to pay for.

How do you know when it’s legitimate and when it isn’t? Unless you’re trained as an auto technician it can be hard. This underscores the value of building a relationship with a repair shop that you can trust and rely on for good advice.

One resource that can help you decide is the maintenance schedule in your owners manual. If your car has 40,000 miles on the odometer, and a shop says you need new transmission fluid, check the owners manual. It might say the transmission fluid is good for at least 100,000 miles.

You also should ask for solid evidence that a repair is needed. If you’re told you need a new cabin air filter or windshield wiper blades, ask them to show you. Were the wipers squeaking or leaving streaks? If not, maybe you don’t need them now. Is the cabin air filter really that dirty? Remember that you have the final say on what’s done to your car.

You shouldn’t dismiss warnings about safety issues, but you don’t want to get scared into something you don’t need either. If you have doubts about what you’re being told, get a second opinion, just as you might do when a doctor recommends invasive surgery.

In defense of mechanics and repair shops, they might be looking out for your well-being when they warn you about a real safety problem or an issue that could leave you stranded. Don’t ignore the messenger simply because you don’t like the message.

Myth No. 4: There is only one standard for oil changes, and it’s 3,000 miles.

Changing the oil every 3,000 miles was regarded as an industry standard once upon a time, but that hasn’t been the case since most cars still had carburetors.

BMW changed to a 10,000-mile recommended interval for the 2014 model year. Prior to that it was 15,000 miles (though many BMW owners did it sooner).

Some of the longer intervals are for synthetic oil, but some vehicles can go up to 10,000 on regular oil.

Manufacturers such as GM, Honda and Chrysler don’t list a specific mileage interval for some engines but rely on oil-life monitors to tell the owner when it’s time to change the oil. And that can be 10,000 miles or more.

Ford also uses oil-life monitors and on most models says you can go up to 10,000 miles or one year between oil changes with regular oil, but should change it more often if the monitor says so.

Note that turbocharged and other performance engines may have shorter maintenance schedules, so these intervals usually apply to most, but not all, engines.

If changing your oil every 3,000 miles helps you sleep better at night, and you don’t mind paying a little extra for that peace of mind, go for it. Just understand that you’re spending more than you need to and contributing to what some see as a growing problem: how to properly recycle all that used oil so it doesn’t damage the environment.

Myth No. 5: Only mechanics should do any work on today’s cars.

Despite the growth in car technology, owners can still do many maintenance tasks on modern vehicles, but the secret is to know your knowledge and skill limits, and whether you have the tools you need.

We know some dedicated do-it-yourselfers who still change their own oil (even though they probably can get it done cheaper at a quick-lube shop), others who replace brake pads and rotors, and a truly adventurous owner who replaced the timing belt and water pump on a Toyota V-6.

For the not-so-mechanically inclined, there are routine checks you can perform on a frequent basis. Checking the oil level is one. Doing that every two weeks or so will alert you if there is an oil leak. Ditto for checking the tire pressure. The tires may look OK, but you might not be able to see a nail that’s imbedded in the tread, causing a slow leak. Frequently checking the air pressure can help spot a small problem before it becomes a big one.

You also can check all the other vital fluids under the hood (brake, power steering, transmission and washer fluid, and engine coolant) and make sure all exterior lights are working. Engine air filters and cabin air filters are easy to check and replace on most models. Changing light bulbs is not as easy as it sounds on some vehicles, so check the owners manual for guidance before you start. Some cars require removing the front bumper cover to change a headlight or turn signal bulb.

We have seen and heard of owners who do much more in the way of maintenance, repairs and upgrades (such as larger air intake systems, LED lighting and window-shaking sound systems) with mixed results. Online forums are filled with success stories and how-to advice, but they also have cries for help from distraught owners trying to salvage a weekend project gone wrong.

Yes, you can still work on your own car, and no, you don’t need to be a certified mechanic as long as you don’t bite off more than you can realistically chew.

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