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Don't get caught by dealer scams!

Chris Kennedy wrote: “I read your editorial regarding routine maintenance being done by a dealer and was in disagreement about avoiding dealer service departments unless it is absolutely neccessary. I work for a large dealer in Oklahoma and I think we have a lot of excellent technicians that are trained well in servicing your Chrysler product. While I agree that there are a few bad eggs out there that are looking to write big $ service tickets, I don't think that your editorial accurately represents the intent of the some of the good dealers out there. I promise you that there are more independent repair facilities that prey on people and overcharge for sometimes unneeded repairs than authorized Chrysler dealers. Maybe the dealership that I work at is an exception, but I don't think your editorial accurately represents a majority of the GOOD Chrysler dealers in this country. Oh, and by the way, I thought it was common knowledge that the MDS system requires 5W20. I'm just a salesman, and I knew that.”

We've always been amazed by the sheer number of otherwise-intelligent people who fall for common dealer scams, in the belief that they are taking care of their cars. Here's our personal favorite:

The tune-up

When we were growing up, tune-ups actually meant something. There were points to be gapped and cleaned, spark plugs which needed replacement, rotors and distributor caps, and settings for timing, fuel mixture, and idle speed - warm and cold. Slowly, though, it all disappeared.

Studebaker introduced electronic ignition for the 1966 model year, and with it, points disappeared; Chrysler was the first to use electronic ignition across the line, completing the conversion in the 1970s. Computerized fuel injection and distributorless ignition, which became universal in the 1980s and 1990s respectively, eliminated carburetors, distributor caps, and rotors. Meanwhile, feedback systems and computer control made timing, fuel mixtures, and idle speeds automatic. Eventually, the industry even brought out 100,000 mile spark plugs, even as detergent gasolines, sophisticated fuel injection, and precise spark control doubled, tripled, or quadrupled the life of ordinary plugs.

So what is a tune-up these days? That depends on who you go to. Most mechanics will check the wires, belts, and fluid levels, replace the spark plugs and air filter, and go for a test drive to see if anything is wrong. Some may even check the computer for stored fault codes, and maybe clean out the intake path.

Pay for these separately, and they will probably cost under $200, including parts, if you need every possible part. Go to a dealer, and you can easily pay $400, plus parts, for the same service. And those parts will be expensive compared with street prices. It's a scam. Use a good corner mechanic with strong references, and only replace what needs to be replaced. Modern fan belts can easily last 80,000 miles. Spark plugs can last two or three years, in most cases (some engines go as far as 100,000 miles). Wires can last 100,000 miles, though there's no shame in replacing them after five years.

Scheduled maintenance

This may be the biggest scam of all time, government affairs excluded, when added up across the country. There are three major components of the scam.

First, dealers almost invariably follow the "severe service" charts when scheduling maintenance, though most people can use the "normal service" charts. On Chrysler vehicles, this means cutting the service intervals roughly in half, doubling the cost of maintenance overall.

Second, dealer rates are outrageously high, and dealer mechanics tend to be no better than independent garages. In fact, some research shows that independent garages have better mechanics than dealers - and they tend not to be constantly rushed by "service advisors," in our experience.

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

The independents are not always better.

A good dealership has competent mechanics with up-to-date tools, equipment, and, most important, training. Independent mechanics may not get service bulletins immediately, if it all, and like bad dealer mechanics, may not read them when they come in. Chrysler supplies its dealers with a wide variety of tools, and dealer parts often do fit better than aftermarket parts.

Len Gard, a dealer mechanic, reminded us that “there are many ripoff independents as well, and people need to know that just because they are taking their car to an independent shop they are not necessarily getting fair service. I know many techs from independent shops that are very good. Most of them are ex- dealership techs that have got tired of the warranty bug that takes a big hunk out of their paycheck....But these techs often get behind the times because they do not have the source
of the latest and greatest info unless they get it from a dealer. Often these independents bail out when the going gets tough (such as a hard to find electrical or driveability problem) and will throw parts at a car and then say "you will have to take it to a dealer." I take pride in fixing the difficult cases ...[and] spend a lot of time in a Chrysler training center learning about new models and repair secrets that you can't find in any manuals.”

Len also reminded us that many independents — especially oil change places — use the wrong fluids, e.g. Dexron in place of ATF+4, 10W30 where 5W30 is called for, or, worse, 10W30 in Hemis with MDS — which can cause serious problems. And we admit that now that we have found a decent dealership (Chrysler of Teterboro) we go there instead of the garage down the street, which we have found to be less trustworthy.

Let's look at an example. This comes from a bill from Chrysler-Plymouth of Paramus, New Jersey, which we believe is owned by the same people that own the Dodge dealer across the street, and another Dodge dealer (Grand Dodge) in Englewood. (We have nothing in writing, but service advisors told us this was the case).

The bill in question was given in August 2001.

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), $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 $1.50 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, or roughly double what our independent mechanic would charge. No, the customer was not told it would be nearly $700. Who would expect to be charged for combustion chamber cleaner? Independent mechanics and Jiffy Lube-type shops never charge for everything they put in. Windshield washer is free. Topping off the brake fluid and such is usually free. The grease they use on the doors is free.

Our local mechanic doesn't charge unless he fixes something. Want him 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 your local dealership?

Was all this stuff even needed? Probably not. But it was "scheduled." Not by Chrysler Group. By Chrysler of Paramus.

(Keeping in mind that the car had been through a similar 30,000 mile service and was not driven on "Severe Duty."

Overpriced, shoddy work

Then we get to the repairs you really need - things like brakes and clutches. The webmaster's family actually spent over $1,000 to have a clutch replaced at Dodge of Paramus. You guessed it, the whole thing had to be done again a few months later. Dodge of Paramus didn't resurface the flywheel when they replaced a clutch that had failed completely. Nor, according to the mechanics who eventually re-did the entire job (for $425!) actually install the clutch correctly. That's right, they charged more than double the going rate to do an incredibly poor job.

Let's look at another case - an acquaintance with a minivan. They did a front only brake job for $360, including resurfacing the rotors and flushing the brake fluid. Did it actually need to have the brake pads replaced? Maybe. What would an independent mechanic charge? The price we got was $60 for the brake fluid change, plus $90 for the brake pad swap. That's less than half of what the dealer charged - using the same parts. Go figure.

It's not just this shop!

We've singled out Chrysler Plymouth of Paramus and Dodge of Paramus out of convenience, but there are lots of others out there pulling the same scams. For example, a Volvo dealer performed the same sort of scheduled maintenance on an 1995 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.

A Midas mechanic wrote, "We had a guy that didn't have time to mess with his 2003 Acura 4x4 brakes. The Honda dealer said all 4 wheels were shot-fronts gone, rears 20% remaining. Some $700 from the dealer! It seemed that only the fronts were worn and the rears were only 20% worn. Midas price=about $130 - $160 to turn the rotors, clean and lube the slides, grind out the rust, and install the pads. Happy customer. $160 = Lots cheaper than $700. We frequently get people that have the dealer say they needed brakes that are not worn out.

To be fair

Sometimes, things do cost a lot more than we'd expect. Some spark plugs can run up to $5 each, even on the aftermarket. You pay for good wires - $40-60 is not unreasonable. Good tires are also expensive, though you can save a small fortune if you buy from Tire Rack. Dealer parts are often higher quality than aftermarket parts, and a number of reputable dealers sell across the Internet at below-list prices. (It can be illuminating to compare an Internet dealer's price to your own.)

The moral - implications for action

Stories like this abound. Here is our advice:

1) Don't go to the dealer for anything unless you really have to, or you have a very good relationship with an unusually good dealer.

2) Never have the scheduled maintenance done as a package. 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.

By the way, don’t forget to visit our Dealer Lies and The Other Side sections!

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