How To Save Big Money on Car Repairs

We have all been there. The car is at the dealer or mechanic's shop and they say a repair is going to cost four figures.

Do you just grin and bear it, or challenge it? This happened to me and I won.

My personal car was making a chirping sound. I didn't think much of it, but had it checked out while I was having another repair made. The diagnosis: a flywheel in the transmission that was coming apart: $1,600 to fix.

What? I exclaimed. How does a part in the transmission completely fail at 55,000 miles. Is it covered by warranty? I asked. No, I was told. It is considered 'wear and tear,' I was told by the dealer service manager. That afternoon, I called the customer service center of my car maker and complained that I didn't think this part should fail under the 'wear and tear' clause of my warranty. I think they may have been surprised that I knew what a flywheel is.

While I was waiting for the company to run their process and get back to me, I went on the Internet and found that a failed flywheel was not a new problem for this company or this car. I Googled my model of car and 'flywheel' and found public forums discussing the problem going back to 2006.

The most troubling thing, as I read the comments and complaints of other motorists, was the inconsistent response from dealers as to whether the part was covered under warranty. Some said it was, and some said it wasn't. One owner was told after only 12,000 miles that it wasn't. Another had just 22,000 miles on the car, and was told it wasn't covered.

Most companies have two warranties on your car: one is bumper to bumper and covers everything. The second warranty is usually longer for the power-train, which covers true engine, transmission, drive-shafts, differentials and the drive-wheels. Examples of the way warranties work: Ford and Volkswagen covers its cars bumper to bumper for 36,000 miles and the power train for five-years and 60,000 miles Hyundai's warranties are more complex, but some powertrain parts are warrantied up to 100,000 miles. Chevy has a long power-train warranty going to 100,000 miles too.

Twenty-four hours later, after I had pressed the issue, the news came in that, as I had known and demanded, the flywheel being part of the transmission was, in fact, covered by the powertrain warranty. The $1,600 would stay in my bank account.

The lesson?

1. Use the Internet. Most people do not know even the mechanical basics of the car and don't know what to ask. But thanks to the Internet, you can search on your car and the problem and find any number of references to it. There, you will probably find queries by other owners of your car and some information that at minimum will give you ammunition if you want to challenge whether a repair is warranty-covered or not.

2. Don't accept No. Don't just immediately accept the diagnosis of a mechanic or dealer service bay and agree to pay. You have a smartphone? Go into the waiting area and look it up while there, or use their computer access. Many dealers have them for customers. Your willingness to challenge will often make them double and triple check.

3. Buy smart. If you are the sort of person to whom dollars really matter, then you may want to base your purchase decision at least in part on warranty coverage. Chevrolet, for example, has a 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, but a 100,000 mile/five year power train warranty. That is a better warranty than Chevy's archrival Ford offers on the powertrain.

4. Call the automaker. When failed parts are at issue, always be ready to challenge the cost with the automaker customer service center. But be prepared. Not only should you search on the problem, you should specifically look to see if you can find what is known as a technical service bulletin (TSB) on your problem. TSBs frequently (but not always) address a recurring problem and include illustrated instructions for repair, a list of the parts needed, the warranty status and the labor charge.

If an issue addressed in a TSB is widespread, the automaker may decide to send out 'Owner Notification' letters - directing you to get the problem fixed at an approved mechanic. Dealerships will make the repair for free, provided that your vehicle is under warranty and the mechanics are able to confirm the problem.

5. Don't be passive. The most important tip is to not be a passive customer. Dealerships and mechanics will normally be honest, but with so much money at stake, you can assume nothing. And it isn't always going to be dishonesty. People make mistakes, and you can't correct them if you aren't willing to be at least a little bit educated. In general, though, it pays to be inquisitive, informed and even a little pushy when it comes to important dollars.