But there's a lot to be wary of. Turns out, many parts don't comply completely with the original tolerances and dimensions, let alone materials. And they might jeopardize your safety if you have another crash.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), "the collision market is a hodgepodge of domestic and overseas suppliers who build structural parts to their own internal guidelines, so there's no guarantee the parts are equivalent to original equipment in terms of quality and safety." If a bumper—the first area to make contact—doesn't yield in the same way, the rest of a vehicle might not crumple in the right way if you have another accident, potentially resulting in a greater chance of injury.
And in the down economy, according to industry data cited by the IIHS, collision shops have had greater pressure to keep costs down and have increased the use of aftermarket parts from 11 percent in fourth-quarter 2007 to 13 percent in second-quarter 2010.
The IIHS just found, through a battery of tests, that fenders, grilles, and bumper covers might vary in fit, finish, or wear, but they don't affect a vehicle's collision performance.
For bumpers, they do, however. And for that, the Certified Automotive Parts Association (CAPA) has established a new certification standard, called CAPA 501, to make sure auto bumpers meet the same dimensional, material, and construction standards as their original equivalents. The standard is being extended to include surrounding structural parts as well.
To show how the new standard works, the IIHS tested three vehicles—a 2008 Dodge Ram 1500, a 2009 Toyota Camry, and 2005 Ford F-150. They fitted the Ram pickup with an aftermarket bumper that conformed to the new certification requirements and ran it through their 5-mph bumper test, then their 40-mph frontal offset test. The results were nearly identical to those of the pickup with original bumpers.
"This is what we expected," says Adrian Lund, the Institute's president. "It shows that aftermarket parts can be reverse-engineered without compromising safety. An aftermarket bumper that meets CAPA's new standard should perform as well as the original."
Likewise, a CAPA-complying bumper on a Toyota Camry performed nearly the same as an original, but testing another aftermarket possibility that didn't comply ended up buckling in the center even in the low-speed bumper test; the IIHS notes that it could affect airbag deployment or force dissipation at higher speeds.
On the F-150, the IIHS tested an aftermarket bumper that didn't meet the new standard and actually found the monetary damage lower with it ($1,777 versus $1,909 for the original) because the fog lamp recesses were in the wrong place.
The tip to take with you when you need to do some repairs after a fender-bender: Make sure that collision-repair uses either original components or certified replacement parts. If they don't, take your business elsewhere, and inform your insurer about the potential compromise in safety.