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Free New Car Maintenance: Is It a Good Deal?Jerry Edgerton
Television pitches from car companies still pan over those breathtaking outdoor scenes, still promote those low, low-priced deals and, increasingly, talk about their cars' high gas mileage. But now some companies are adding another enticement: free maintenance for your new car.
That's an issue most buyers don't think much about. But the cost for those oil changes, windshield wipers, and brake pads isn't covered by a regular warranty. And it can add up to $1,000 over four years, according to automotive website IntelliChoice.com.
Should free maintenance sway your opinion? Only if it's a car, SUV, or van that you like anyway. But if you're deciding between two or three similar models, it could tip your choice toward the one with free maintenance.
In past years, free maintenance has been a perk for buyers of luxury brands whose companies worried that high maintenance costs were spooking potential buyers. BMW adopted an early version. More recently, Detroit luxury brands Lincoln and Cadillac have added such plans. And now, mainstream brands Toyota and Volkswagen have launched free maintenance programs for new car buyers as well.
Free maintenance does help your budgeting for car costs. "The offer of free maintenance is a great way for consumers to reduce the overall budget they need to set aside for owning a vehicle and provides a secondary level of comfort and peace of mind in the vehicle they choose," says James Bell, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, Irvine, Calif.
What does it cover?Most free maintenance programs, including Toyota's and Volkswagen's, cover free oil and oil filter changes and lubrication of key parts. Many plans don't include brake pads or rotors, which often have to be changed after 30,000 miles or so. Bell points out that the Toyota program, like some others, does not cover parts and labor costs for items such as air filters, belts, hoses, and windshield wipers that may be recommended for replacement after inspection. So keep a savings reserve for such added items.
How much are you saving?If you pay for Toyota's routine maintenance for two years at the dealership, analysts estimate the cost would be $300 to $400. Figure that savings will be a bit higher with Volkswagen, which covers three years or 36,000 miles. And with luxury brands, where service costs tend to be higher, assume savings could add up to $1,000 or more.
Would you go to the dealership for service anyway?
Auto companies, of course, hope that free maintenance will prompt you to visit the very profitable service departments of their dealers. Maintenance or repair at the dealership almost always costs more than at an independent auto repair shop. A study by the auto repair website AutoMD found that a car owner can save an average of $300 a year by using an independent shop vs. a dealership.
"Routine maintenance like oil changes will be much cheaper at independents unless the dealer is running a promotional special," says AutoMD president Sean Evangelist. And if you do need to replace pads and rotors on front disc brakes not covered by free maintenance, the AutoMD report estimates it would cost an average of $330 at a dealership vs. $265 at an independent mechanic.
What does your warranty say?
AutoMD points out that, contrary to popular belief, having maintenance or repairs done away from the dealership does not void your warranty coverage as long as you keep careful records. But if you do need a repair covered by warranty, go to a dealer for a free repair.
Instead of the traditional three years or 36,000 miles, many warranties now cover engine, transmission, and other power train components much longer. For instance, General Motors and Chrysler brands now offer five-year, 100,000-mile power train coverage. Ford offers five-year, 60,000-mile coverage. Other companies fall into a similar range. Be sure to check the warranty for any car on your shopping list.
Here, in alphabetical order, are auto companies offering free maintenance and the details of their programs:
- BMW, one of the first companies to offer free maintenance, covers a wide range, including brake pads and rotors, for four years or 50,0000 miles.
- Cadillac, which calls its plan Cadillac Premium Care Maintenance, will provide free scheduled maintenance on all its 2011 models for four years or 50,000 miles. This free maintenance includes oil changes, air filter replacement, and tire rotation.
- Jaguar, now owned by India's Tata Motors, is starting a program for 2011 models that covers five years or 50,000 miles—longer than competitors—and includes a full array of maintenance, including brake pads.
- Lincoln offers free maintenance for three years or 45,000 miles. It also covers oil changes and air filters and adds additional items, such as belts, hoses, and brake pads.
Having maintenance or repairs done away from the dealership does not void your warranty coverage as long as you keep careful records.
- Mini, owned by BMW, has a shorter program than its parent at three years or 36,000 miles, but it covers important brake and belt replacement.
- Toyota includes free oil and oil filter changes and lubrication of key chassis parts for two years or 25,000 miles. It also covers a 19-point inspection at the dealership. It does not include brake pads or rotors. This plan also covers Toyota's Scion brand.
- Volkswagen covers maintenance visits for three years or 36,000 miles but does not include items such as brake pads.
- Volvo, now owned by Chinese car maker Geely, covers maintenance for three years or 36,000 miles, not including brake pads.
With a purchase as big as a car, you need to do very careful homework. Check prices, standard equipment, and gas mileage at websites like Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com, and TrueCar.com. An offer of free maintenance is one more factor to add to your research.
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."