When it comes to repair costs, many car owners are driving blind. Cars have become increasingly complex, making it increasingly hard to know how much repairs should cost…or to know about money-saving alternatives. To make car-repair cost decisions…

When You Take Your Car for Repair

These tips apply to independent garages and service departments at dealerships…

Some “aftermarket” replacement parts are as good as original parts—but you should know which to accept. A garage might make its repair prices lower by always using “aftermarket” replacement parts—parts not made by the same companies that made the parts originally installed on the car—and might tell you that costlier “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM) parts never are worth the extra money. Meanwhile, a new-car dealership might always recommend OEM parts despite their high cost and tell you that aftermarket parts are inferior—even though the automakers themselves sometimes buy parts from these aftermarket companies.

The truth lies in between—it’s fine to save money by buying certain aftermarket parts and from certain parts makers…but there are times when it’s better to pay up for OEM.

What to do: Ask what company makes the aftermarket part. If it’s ACDelco, Bosch, Denso or NTK, the part likely is every bit as reliable as the OEM part. These companies are highly respected in the industry—the automakers themselves often buy parts from them. If the aftermarket part is made by a different company, ask someone at your repair shop (or your dealership’s parts department) if he/she would trust this part in his own car. You’ll probably get a straight answer because the shop could easily sell you the OEM part instead.

Exception: If you need to replace a component that performs a significant amount of computer processing, pay extra for the OEM part if it is available. Opting for an aftermarket computer component is a false savings—it might cause problems with other systems in your car that could be very expensive for your mechanic to chase down.

High-end brake pads are one upgrade that truly is worth the price. When you take your car for a brake job, you might be offered several brake pad options including “organic” brake pads for as little as $10 per set…“low metallic organic” pads for perhaps $20…or ceramic brake pads that could cost $80 to $120. Is a garage that recommends high-end brake pads just trying to up-sell you for little or no benefit?

What to do: Ante up for ceramic brake pads—they likely will stop your vehicle faster than other pads and therefore keep you safer. They also last longer than organic pads and don’t cause as much wear to brake rotors as metallic pads, so in the long run they won’t add as much to your car-ownership costs as their up-front cost suggests.

Female drivers are more likely to be overcharged in major metro ­areas. It’s not news that female car owners sometimes get charged more than men for the same repairs—studies show that they pay around 8% more, on average. But while these overcharges are common in big cities, it turns out that they are much less likely in small cities and rural regions. Repair shops and service departments in small communities cannot risk ruining their reputations with the locals—if word got out that they were overcharging, everyone in the area would soon know it.

What to do: Anyone—woman or man—would be wise to use an online auto-repair price estimator, such as the “Get an Estimate” tool at my employer’s site RepairPal.com, to judge whether an offered price is fair. And unfortunately, this is especially true for women who live in large cities or other densely populated areas.

Bills for “scheduled maintenance” might be inflated by fluid flushes that you don’t need. If a shop recommends replacing your car’s coolant, brake fluid,  power-steering fluid and/or transmission fluid when you take it in for scheduled maintenance, beware—the shop might be trying to sell you a service that your car does not need. These fluid changes once were routine, but they are needed far less often with modern cars.

What to do: Check the scheduled maintenance section of your vehicle’s owner’s manual—not a maintenance schedule created by the shop!—to see whether this fluid replacement is recommended at your current mileage. If it isn’t, ask the shop to justify the fluid change. There might be a valid reason—perhaps the mechanic did a test that revealed the presence of excess water in your brake fluid, for example…or perhaps the fluid change is a potential solution to a problem that you have been experiencing with the car. If the shop’s only explanation is some form of “It’s better to do it more often than the owner’s manual says,” decline the service and, if the shop persists in pushing the service, find a different shop.

Before You Buy Your Next Car

High-end cars don’t just cost more to maintain than economy cars, they cost a lot more. Thinking about treating yourself to a $50,000 or $60,000 luxury car this year…or something even more expensive? Get ready to treat your mechanic as well. As a rule of thumb, a vehicle’s cost of repairs will be roughly proportional to its original sticker price—for example, it costs about four times as much to keep an $80,000 luxury sedan on the road as a $20,000 economy car.

Expensive vehicles have more systems and features than economy cars, so there’s more that can break. When their parts do break, they often are very expensive to replace—and less expensive aftermarket parts might not even be available. And the complexity and relative rarity of high-end cars means that mechanics may take longer to diagnose and fix problems or that the vehicle must be taken to a specialized mechanic who charges a steep hourly rate.

What to do: Don’t stretch your budget to buy an expensive car unless there’s also room in your budget for four-figure annual repair bills once the warranty ends. RepairPal’s Cost Index Score can give you an idea about the repair bills you might be in for with a particular model (RepairPal.com/index_scores).

If you want a luxury car that won’t inflate your maintenance and repair bills any more than necessary, buy from one of the Japanese luxury brands—Lexus, Infiniti or Acura. Lexus is a division of Toyota…Acura is a division of ­Honda…and Infiniti is a division of Nissan, so these generally can be worked on by mechanics familiar with mainstream Japanese cars. They even use some of the same parts as those brands. If you don’t want to pay thousands per year, on average, in repair bills after warranty, avoid European luxury brands such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes and Porsche, which tend to be among the most expensive cars to maintain and repair.

One make of car known for reliability can be more expensive to repair than buyers expect—Subaru. Subaru has a reputation as a reliable brand (although in the latest reliability rankings by Consumer Reports and JD Power, the brand didn’t do as well as you’d expect). But while Subarus often are reliable, they can be surprisingly expensive to repair when something does go wrong. In many ways, they are built a bit differently from other makes, so they can be tricky—and time-consuming—for mechanics who do not work on them regularly. Example: Many Subarus have “boxer” engines mounted in an unusual position in the engine compartment and with pistons that move horizontally rather than up and down.

What to do: If your Subaru is out of warranty, take it to a dealership or independent mechanic specializing in Subarus even if that means traveling a bit farther. If there is no such shop in your area, that’s a reason to lean toward a different make of car instead.

One type of car is less expensive to maintain than car buyers fear—electric vehicles. Despite car-buyer concerns about the high cost of replacing worn-out lithium ion batteries, electric cars (and some hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius) actually have proved very affordable to keep on the road. The current generation of batteries generally will last at least 150,000 miles if not longer. And overall, electric cars break far less often than gasoline or diesel cars because they have many fewer moving parts and because the parts they do have tend to be less stressed. Example: An electric vehicle has no gas engine, so you never have to replace a timing belt or a head gasket—or even change the oil.

A recent study by AAA found that average annual maintenance and repair costs for electric cars were nearly 20% less than those for the average gas-powered vehicle. The savings can be even greater if you opt for an economy-oriented electric car, such as the Chevy Bolt or Volt, rather than a performance-oriented one such as a Tesla.

What to do: If you’re looking for an economical car for short-to-medium trips—say, up to around 200 miles—strongly consider buying electric. Not only will you save money on fuel, you’ll probably save on repairs and maintenance as well.

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