Auto Tune Up

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Reader Question:

I wanted to get a tune-up on my car and I called around to get some prices. The dealer quoted me 4 hours of labor to do the job. Another mechanic told me they charge a flat rate fee unlike the dealers. What is the difference? The mechanic that I chose only charged me for two hours, not four.”
Thank you,
Tom P.

Tom, you can easily see that when you call around for an estimate you can get some pretty dramatic price differences. Most larger shops and all dealers that I am aware of will charge an hourly price for each job that is listed in a shop hourly manual. For example your car tune up might have an estimated repair or replacement time of four hours in the shop manual. This time is calculated using the shop hourly rate {i.e., 4 x $60}. Pretty straight forward right? Not all the time.

So what do you get for the four hours of labor? If you call my shop and ask for a car tune up price we automatically figure in the price a fuel filter, spark plugs, air filter, PCV filter, and distributor ignition rotor plus all applicable labor charges. So my car tune up price would probably be much higher than a shop that only replaces spark plugs as their auto tune up package. You need to make sure you are comparing apples to apples when you are calling around for prices.

Some shops that I know in my area purposely give low ball telephone estimates just to get you in the door. Example: You call to get a price for a new radiator installed. Does the estimate include new antifreeze, a new radiator cap and taxes? I would automatically figure these items in to my estimate, not only because I want to do a nice turn key job, but also I don’t want to have to sell you parts later on that I already know you will need. For this reason, my phone estimates can be higher than some of my competitors, but your final bill might be lower.

There are also different brands of shop manuals on the market, so the GM dealer would be using a different labor estimating guide than my shop and most independent shops would be using. Not only would these guides possibly give different replacement times, but they could also classify an auto tune up differently like in my example above.

So the shop that Tom found only charged him for the time they actually spent working on the car? So is that a better deal? Maybe not, if all they did was replace spark plugs and call it a car tune-up. Just for grins Tom, call the dealer back and ask them how much they charge just for spark plugs. What if this shop has a slower mechanic, or deliberately takes longer to do the work just to rack up more time on the clock?

On a different note, as a shop owner I would want to know why you are requesting a car tune up in the first place. What I have found is that if the car runs poorly or differently than normal, the customer often automatically asks for a car tune up. Cars of today are very sophisticated and full of computers and sensors that can cause your car to act strangely. So an auto tune up might not fix the problem, and a proper diagnosis from the mechanic could be beneficial.

Austin Davis, The Honest Mechanic

Austin Davis,
The honest Mechanic