How to drive a fair deal with garages to keep car maintenance costs down
It's widely accepted in motoring circles that in the not-too-distant past, Irish motorists were not very fastidious about maintaining their cars.
Certainly before the early noughties, it was rare to find used cars on the Irish market with any kind of documented service history, let alone a fully stamped main dealer service book.
Since then, thanks to the introduction of the NCT and the general explosion in new car sales, things have changed. Besides a little blip during the recession, when reports suggested that people were skimping once again on basic servicing, we've definitely turned a corner.
"We do feel that a key trend in recent years is that more consumers have a greater understanding of the importance of servicing their vehicles, from both a vehicle safety perspective and the benefit of their cars running more efficiently," said Alan Nolan, chief executive of SIMI (Society of the Motor Industry).
He says some still view servicing as a discretionary rather than essential expense but, "with more people looking to trade-up to a new or newer used car in the last 18 months, car owners who have a full service history are seeing further value when it comes to trading in their car".
The cost of servicing your car might not be a big issue if you buy your cars new and change every year or two as many new models come with a short period of free servicing or attractively priced two or three-year main dealer servicing packages.
For instance, Mini offers a 'TLC' servicing plan for five years or 80,000kms for just €375. Ford's 'BlueService' plan for all Ford cars up to five years old charges the fixed price of €175 for a single standard service on a Focus that includes oil change, new air, oil and cabin filters and a 'health check'.
However, if your car is a few years older or the manufacturer's warranty has run out and you plan to keep it for a while yet, there is a lot of scope to keep costs down by shopping around for cheaper car servicing at independent garages, mainly thanks to lower labour costs.
Up until recently, shopping around for car servicing hasn't been particularly easy. Most garages have websites but many of them won't list any servicing packages or what they would typically include in a service, so it's hard to compare what you're getting for your money.
Nolan of SIMI says that pricing transparency has improved a lot. He said customers dealing with garages face-to-face should certainly expect to get a full explanation of what's included in a service and, more importantly, that permission must be obtained if the mechanic feels any extra work is needed. "Customer invoicing has also become very detailed, with many retailers providing line-by-line detail of each component of a service, including parts numbers along with the labour time taken on the vehicle."
Last year saw the launch of a garage price comparison and booking website called Autoservicing.com, which allows you to enter in your car's details and your location, and see a range of offers for a standard servicing package and then book a service.
Checking out prices on the website suggests that it definitely pays to shop around: prices for the same standard service on a 2005 Ford Focus C-Max in the Dublin 9 area ranged from €125 to €250. The site also enables you to book whichever package you want and pay a deposit, and prices include VAT.
When undertaking the initial market research for the site, co-founder Kevin Hogan found that there was a strong demand for an online comparison facility where you could see exactly what garages would do for the money. "The main response we got was that people would definitely shop around but had never actually thought about it," he said.
The site covers all of Dublin and a limited number of counties including Wicklow, Louth, Sligo, Tipperary and Cork, and is continuing to expand, he said.
But if your car is still under warranty, can you start shopping around at independent garages for cheaper servicing without invalidating it? Kia, for instance, offers a market-leading seven-year manufacturer warranty.
"There are no hard and fast rules here, other than stick to the terms of the warranty in the initial period to ensure it remains valid," said Shane O'Donoghue, editor of Completecar.ie.
A few years ago EU rules were changed to allow independent garages to compete for servicing business for cars still under warranty. A look at several manufacturers' websites confirms that warranties will remain valid as long as any work by non-franchised garages is done according to its guidelines, including using genuine or OEM (original equipment manufacturer) replacement parts and the right grade of engine oils.
Hogan says all Autoservicing.com participating garages have to use genuine or manufacturer-approved parts, filters and oils.
O'Donoghue adds: "It really is down to individual preference, but we would certainly recommend owners of newer and high-value cars to use OEM parts. As a car gets older and of less value it's completely understandable that motorists would then consider going for cheaper alternatives."
But as well as price, a garage's reputation and quality should also influence your choice. "Remember that price is not everything; you need to bring the car to someone you trust or that has been recommended to you. It's worth paying a little bit extra for that."
Nolan echoes this point, and adds that opting for a SIMI-affliliated garage offers a further guarantee of quality, not to mention access to a formal complaints procedure if you're not happy with a service.