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The Great Tune-Up Swindle

As an auto-repair shop owner the bane of my existence is when a customer asks me how much a tune-up costs. Nowadays the word tune-up is an obsolete and effectively useless term but I still get asked this question on a near-daily basis. I usually ask my customer if they want me to perform routine maintenance, or if they have a problem they need addressed such as a misfire or reduced fuel mileage. Many seem to have some vague notion that all cars need a common set of parts replaced, and checks performed every once in a while and it should cost the same on every car. This might have been the case 40 years ago when all cars had points, plugs wires, caps, rotors, often clogged fuel filters, or needed their valves adjusted regularly.

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, manufacturers provide maintenance schedules with each new car that shows a recommended mileage time frame to accomplish specific tasks. These could call for an air filter to be replaced every 10,000 miles or a timing belt service when you hit 100,000 miles. Many manufacturers consider the 60,000 and 100,000 mile services very important and they often can cost $500-$1,000. These schedules vary greatly between brands and models. The cost to perform these services also vary greatly. The main problem is they can often lead to doing more than is truly necessary for a well maintained car, costing a boatload of money. And sometimes they can lead to problems by not addressing something to be concerned with, namely some cars going to a "lifetime" automatic transmission fluid.

Following a rigorous dealership maintenance schedule doesn't usually hurt anything (wallet not included), though a schedule may recommend changing your coolant every 30,000 miles even though the coolant can be tested to determine if it is functioning adequately. Coolant can often last many years and many many miles. A good shop will check the coolant with every oil change and recommend its replacement when it begins to degrade. Its reasonable to change your belts and hoses when they start showing signs of age and wear, but not because a little manual told you it needed to be done right at 45,000 miles. Some climates are especially harsh and they may need to be changed early or the climate may allow for rubber to last extraordinarily long. Changing your oil or rotating your tires regularly according to the manufacturer is always a good idea, as is changing the spark plugs and timing belt when recommended. But, if you aren't driving in an extreme environment your air filter probably isn't getting dirty every 10,000 miles. A quick check during every oil change should provide you with enough information to make an informed decision about when it needs changing. Some models may claim a non-serviceable "lifetime" fuel filter and some may recommend changing a fuel filter every 30,000 miles. Which is right?

There are dozens and dozens of other examples that can be given on the inadequacies of these schedules. If you aren't an enthusiastic expert on your car, willing to get your hands dirty on a regular basis, you may be best relying on the advice of a trusted mechanic with knowledge of your specific car, or just following your schedule. Finding a good mechanic can be difficult, but they are out there. A good honest independent mechanic should be able to save you thousands of dollars in maintenance over the years compared to using a dealer for service who will recommend the maximum they can get away with.

Unless you drive a car 30 or more years old though, please don't refer to the maintenance of your car as "a tune-up."  Your mechanic will appreciate it.

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  1. Many maintenance parts are mistakenly seen as non-critical. Though not true tuneup parts, the functions of these parts can definitely impact the benefit of any tuneup. Plus, as emission laws have gotten more stringent, these parts have become essential. If you want your car to pass emissions the first time around.
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