WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
Servicing your car? The options are:-
Don’t lift a finger until something breaks. False economy – you’ll save a few hundred dollars now; pay thousands in expensive repairs later.
The dealership service department – they want you back as a new-car customer, so they’re motivated to look after you, but they’re also generally the most expensive option.
A local, trusted mechanic – one-on-one relationship with you and your car, and can generally save you money, but might not own the full complement of expensive brand-specific specialist diagnostic tools.
Specialist servicing franchise – some offer come-to-you convenience, plus valuable service quality ‘to manufacturer’s specification’ guarantees.
INTERVAL TERRAINING: HOW LONG SHOULD I LEAVE IT?
Service intervals are specified in the owner’s handbook. Usually it’s based on time and distance – whichever occurs first. Six months/15,000km is common. Leaving it too long between drinks early can have knock-on effects later in a car’s life. Scott Fleming is a servicing professional better known by his alter-ego: The Rev Doctor. He advises an oil change every three or four months with a more thorough once-over every six months. “Engine oil really is the weakest link,” he says. “The short-distance, stop/start driving common in our cities contaminates engine oil quickly with combustion byproducts – that’s why it goes black.” Fleming says three or four oil changes a year for an average car are “cheap insurance”.
WHAT ABOUT MY WARRANTY?
Many people believe preserving a new-car warranty requires servicing by a manufacturer’s authorized dealer. In fact, that’s anti-competitive, and if it were a condition of your warranty it would be illegal. According to the ACCC, your warranty requires servicing to be performed by “qualified staff” and “according to manufacturer’s specifications” – which is not the same thing as ‘by an authorized dealer’. A qualified mechanic who does the specified work is acceptable, ACCC-wise: “Provided these conditions are met, regardless of where you choose to get your car serviced, your warranty will remain intact.”
Should you fit genuine (made by the vehicle manufacturer) or non-genuine parts? Equivalent ‘non-genuine’ parts are often cheaper, but will they void your warranty? Not necessarily. The ACCC says: “The issue here is not who manufactured the part(s); it is whether the part(s) are fit or appropriate for the purpose intended.” Scott Fleming advocates quality non-genuine parts that meet manufacturer specifications, often called ‘OEM’ parts. “Quality aftermarket parts can save you a great deal,” he says. “There are good non-genuine options across a range of parts – from oils and filters to exhausts, timing belt kits and brake parts, often made by the same companies that supply parts to car manufacturers. But you do have to be careful, because there are also cheap, poor-quality parts on offer.”
BUDGETING FOR THE BASICS
How much should a basic service cost? Once a mechanic knows you and your car, the basic oil change (including the oil and a filter) plus an inspection of the brakes, suspension, lights, wipers and fluid levels shouldn’t set you back much more and $150-$200. Scott Fleming says, like with a GP, your first consultation with a mechanic might be more expensive. “I’d want to do a more detailed inspection just to get my head around exactly what condition an new, and therefore unknown, car was in,” he says. He adds that a good mechanic who understands you and your car can, and should, help you forward-plan for more expensive repairs. “If the brakes are going to need replacing in 5000km, or the timing belt needs replacing next time, it’s easy to give you a ‘heads up’, which gives you a few months to budget.”
BUSTING BIG BILLS
The dreaded phone call: You’ve just been told the brakes need doing … and the discs need replacing. “About $1500. Is that okay?” asks the receptionist. Stop right there. Before green-lighting this, get additional quotes. Parts prices and labour rates can’t be fixed under Australian law, which means different outfits (even the same car manufacturer’s dealerships) charge vastly different prices for essentially identical jobs. Quotes from a range of repairers (especially clutch, brake, transmission, tyre, etc., specialists) could result in a substantial saving without denting your warranty.
DIY – STILL AN OPTION?
Without a trade background, the right tools and a workshop – and the time/inclination – it’s not cost-effective to service your own car. Scott Fleming says there’s still plenty you can do. “Cars are very reliable,” he says. “Which means hardly anyone checks their oil level, or their radiator level, or even the air in their tyres. And you should – every two weeks. If you notice a drop, it’s time to involve a professional. Fixing a coolant leak is usually a simple job – fixing an engine that’s seized because it’s run out of coolant is expensive.”
Ian Tunbridge, a.k.a Mister Tyres, says more than 50 per cent of his customers could have had 25 per cent more life from their tyres – call it 10,000km, or $200 more value – if only they’d remembered a simple ingredient: air. “The air at the service station is free,” he says. “The fuel might cost $80, but the air is free – and tyre wear accelerates rapidly when your tyres are even mildly underinflated. Yet most people drive around with tyres like that.” Tunbridge says every car has a tyre placard (usually in the driver’s door aperture) that specifies the recommended pressures. “The other thing that kills tyres is poor wheel alignment. If you biff the kerb while parking, or hit a pothole, get a wheel alignment – especially if you notice the steering tugging a little to the left or right.”