Mechanical Repairs - Anatomy of a Car Parts & Car Service Rip-off (one we managed to prevent)

If you’re a chick with a car, doing business with bad mechanic is like a knife fight in a phone box - and you’re armed with a toothpick.

Face facts: Women (and some men) are soft targets as automotive consumers. And there's no shortage of rip-off artists out there.

Scroll down for the original and follow-up correspondence that sparked this report. 

Above: See bottom left for the repair items that did not allegedly need anything done at all - apparently a $3150 rip-off (click to enlarge)


Frankly, I’m getting pretty ticked off over dealerships and service centres systematically viewing half the population as fair game, just because they’re women. All it does is deliver more evidence to those prosecuting the argument that ‘all men are bastards’. Ripping off a woman just because she has a car is actually one of the last great bastions of gross gender bias. This story is essentially how to stop anyone fraudulently bleeding you dry, via your car, if you’re a chick.

Perversely, this whole issue seems to have escaped the ire of most feminists. Germaine Greer and her bosom buddies might prefer to vilify you in the street, if you ever opine publicly that women who think they can have it all might actually be operating in a parallel universe. But the feministas seem deafeningly silent on the systematic financial violation of women in cars. And in so far as I can tell the entire servicing sector is drowning in these rip-offs.

This report originates from Julie, who tracked me down online after listening on Radio 2UE in Sydney. This was supposed to be an affordable standard service - from Kmart Tyre and Auto, a purportedly reputable and professional servicing operation. Julie gets the bad news, and she’s not happy. Understandably. The mighty Kluger - the great Camry of SUVs - has let Julie down. It’s supposed to be intrinsically reliable. Bulletproof. It’s a Toyota. It’s done only 100,000 kilometres, and no off road driving. And it’s been serviced regularly.

The bad news from Kmart Tyre and Auto is: the front lower control arm bushes have lost their battle with entropy. I hate entropy. Don’t get me started on the heat death of the universe. What was God thinking? Entropy has allegedly also claimed the front driver’s side damper and matching tyre. Allegedly the front brake rotors also needed machining and the air filter was cactus. Total proposed cost: a bit over three grand. 

It’s a big hit, isn’t it? So I call Julie, and we talk it through. And what I’m not hearing is any doubt this work actually needs to be done. Julie has taken the advice of Kmart Tyre and Auto entirely at face value. The repair bill is going to put a serious dent in the family’s budget. She does not want to put the kids in a car that’s unsafe. So it’s gotta be done, right? She has to cop it on the chin.

And I’m thinking: Does she? How do we know? Thankfully, Julie lives broadly in my neck of the woods in Sydney. So I put it to her that a second opinion is a good idea. And one of the cool things about being a lapsed engineer is that you can tell the good tradies from the bad ones very easily - and I know a real good one. I think of him as The Stig with a Spanner. The car whisperer.

Stig With a Spanner's real business. I don't get anything out of recommending him - he's just good at his job. A handy contact if you're in northern Sydney

Julie trots off to see Stig with a Spanner - and, frankly, I’m just hoping the repair bill will come down and get more manageable. Perhaps some of this work can be safely delayed. Maybe she can budget for it over the next few weeks or months. Anyway, Stig with a Spanner grabs his lightsaber - and not the gay one from The Force Awakens; the old school one from the 1970s - and he does his thing, up on his Jedi mechanic’s hoist. He does this, I dunno, Leonard Nimoy mind meld with the mighty Kluger, and discovers what the Vulcan hell is actually wrong with it. And the answer is....

Nothing. The bushes: Intact and functional. The front shock absorber: not leaking, as alleged. Copa-friggin-cetic on the brakes, as well. Air filter: clear as a bell. But the tyre pressures are way low, accounting for some premature wear - even though they are all still serviceable for thousands of kilometres to come. And to me that just takes the cake, because Kmart Tyre and Auto serviced that SUV just three days previously, and last time I looked, checking the tyre pressures was a non-negotiable, elementary part of servicing.

In my honest opinion, there are only two options: The more benign one is: the Kmart diagnosis is merely grossly incompetent. But if that’s the case, it’s breathtakingly and comprehensively incompetent. Certainly not what you’re paying for. What’s more likely in my view is this: A woman in an SUV fronts a service centre that’s down on budget this month, and they invent some work that doesn’t need doing, which pumps up their profit margin substantially. Arseholes.

It makes me wonder how often this stuff goes on. Probably a lot more than you think. I’m discounting any possibility that Stig with a Spanner could be incompetent - because I know he’s not. That’d be like watching Casino Royale and finding out that Daniel Craig is actually a woman. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But he does have the lips. And the legs.

My strong advice to you is: any time you’re face to face with a repair bill you can’t jump over, especially if it doesn’t seem like there’s anything substantially wrong with the car: get a second opinion. Find a mechanic that somebody you trust, trusts. Ask them to give the car a once-over. If they corroborate the initial findings, then I guess its goose is cooked. You need to assume the brace position, financially, and hope the impact is ultimately survivable. That’s bad, but at least you know for sure.

Go on a mission. Find your own Stig with a Spanner - because A) he’ll do the job properly, and B) he’ll save to you thousands over the years. Y’know, Stig with a Spanner didn’t even charge Julie for the inspection - but he did pump up the tyres. He’s a good bloke, but it’s also a smart commercial play - it took him 15 or 20 minutes and he scored himself another customer for life. That’s a bilateral win. I dunno about you, but I like it when nice guys finish first.

One of the legends of TV news in Australia is a guy named Peter Meakin. He’s been news director of everything. He postulates, from time to time, allegedly, that there’s only four stories in top-rating current affairs TV: Neighbours at war, leukaemia kid, What’s really in food?, and dodgy dealer. It’s like that because none of these imperfect aspects of the human condition is going away anytime soon, and they do cut deep. Except sausages. I think it’s well established that they’re made of toxic waste. You’ve just seen the anatomy of a particularly dodgy dealer. So if you’re walking a mile in Julie’s shoes, make sure you get that second opinion, or you risk finding yourself bent over the workbench, humming Moon River, which in my view certainly brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘unauthorised service’.

If this has happened to you, tell me about it in the comments section below.

Read how to save thousands on service - and not void your new-car warranty >>

More warranty and service reports >>


First E-mail

Hi John

I did the 100,000 km service on my 2008 AWD Toyota Kluger today. The mechanics have identified that the front control arm bushes are torn and the d/s/f shock is leaking. One of my tyres is damaged as a result of this and needs to be replaced. Total cost to repair is $2527.00.

I am so disappointed as we try very hard to look after the car. I am disappointed as we only drive mostly around the city with the car driving the kids around to school and sport. No off road driving at all. 

I would have thought that the car was a very strong robust car that could take this sort of city driving. We always service the car every 10,000km so this damage has occurred since it's last service. 

Is this a common problem with Klugers? Or is it my driving? There are a few speed bumps in the local area. We are quite shocked to see this happen to a car that has only done 100,000km.

I really enjoy your radio segments and have learnt quite a lot from you.

Many thanks,

Second E-mail

Dear John

Firstly thank you for taking the time to call me on Wednesday and then passing on the details for The Rev Doctor.

Scott has put my Kluger on the hoist and inspected the car this afternoon. He looked specifically at all the items that Kmart listed that needed addressed and repaired. 

There are no problems with the car. The front control arm is not torn. No d/s/f  shock leak either. Front brake pads are OK also.  Air filter OK, however plastic edging a little warped due to being installed incorrectly by previous technician. 

The tyres are a little worn around the edges, but this is due me running the pressure to low. Scott pumped them up for me and told me where to keep the pressure at in the future to avoid wear on the edge of the tyre. However he did say that the mechanics should have checked the tyre pressures when they serviced the car 3 days ago. 

I am very happy and relieved that the car is OK. However I now truly shocked and disappointed that Kmart service department would do this to me.  I am unsure how to handle this. Do I simply cancel the appointment next week when the repairs were to be done and say nothing.  Or is it worth taking this further? 

Thank you for your referral as I have now have great mechanic going forward. Scott would not accept any payment for his time to take a look at the car. However between you both you have saved me $3148.75 in total  which included changing the air filter and machining the front brake pads they said had to be done. I also have restored faith in my  trusted Toyota Kluger.

Kind Regards and sincere thanks,
Julie Trobec