Why Does It Cost So Much to Fix My Car?

December 13, 2011

I am often asked, “Why does it cost so much to fix my car?” or a friend will say, “I was charged $500 to install a $20 part!”

When you get right down to it, the reason car repairs are so expensive is because everyone involved is trying to make a living. The parts supplier must manufacture the part. The parts distributor must inventory and supply the repair shops. The repair shop must charge a labor rate that will allow them to remain in business. The technicians must be paid a hourly wage that reflects their investment in training, certifications, and tools.

In the past, the cost of car parts would rise with the rate of inflation. However, as our vehicles have become more complex, the parts have become more complex, and the materials they are made of have become more exotic. As a result, some parts have become very expensive.

Tooling, training, and vehicle design have also combined to drive up the labor costs over the last few years. In order to diagnose and repair our late model vehicles, repair shops and technicians have invested and continue to invest heavily in scan tools, lab scopes, and multi-meters, which are necessary to diagnose the on board computer systems. It seems as if each new model year brings with it a new set of challenges for tooling and training. As a result, technicians must continually attend training classes to keep up to date on all the latest vehicle systems and tools.

The last piece of the puzzle is the actual time the technician spends diagnosing and repairing the vehicle. The more complicated the vehicle system, the more difficult and time consuming it becomes to diagnose. While the on-board computers have some self diagnostic capability, it is not as simple as “hooking up the machine to tell you what’s wrong.” Fault codes must be analyzed, computer data reviewed, and often times, specific electrical measurements must be taken from the affected system in order to determine the actual fault.

Also, as additional parts are added to the vehicle for each new feature, space becomes more of a premium. We are adding all of these additional parts while our cars are actually getting smaller. This has resulted in many repairs simply taking longer than they used to. In many cases, parts that are in the way must be removed before the failed part can even be accessed for diagnosis.

I can remember not too long ago, technicians would say about a new vehicle, “If I cannot see the ground when I open the hood, I don’t want to work on it!” What that means is, when looking inside the engine compartment, the open space around the engine would allow you to “see the ground” when looking past the engine. This open space allowed some room for technicians to work. When looking under the hood of most late model vehicles, you can no longer see the ground.

Can you “see the ground” when you look inside the hood or your vehicle?

About the Author

Jim Taddei has been in the automotive field since 1975 and has over 25 years of experience with General Motors products, achieving the designation of GM Master Technician. He is also currently certified as an ASE Master Technician, and holds an Advanced California Smog Check License. He has been the lead technician and team leader at a multi-line dealership. After leaving the dealership he spent a couple of years working in an independent shop and now uses his experience and expertise to help verify the quality of RepairPal Certified shops.

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