Car servicing: dealer or elsewhere?

Car mirror with no glassThe other week my right hand car mirror lost its glass. I have no idea why. I had adjusted it because I noticed it was out of alignment, then a minute or two later, it fell off and shattered while driving. Bizarro.

I put a temporary $6 concave mirror on it, and in the process walked into Autobarn for possibly the first and last time ever.

But the broken mirror provided the impetus to go get the car serviced, along with the remote locking not working, which had been is a constant pain.

I had previously been going to the dealer I bought the car from, Alan Mance. As long as I was going to them for regular service for the first two years since buying it from them, the used car warranty stayed current, but that’s all over now.

So I thought I’d find the closest dealer, figuring that taking it to a dealer avoids delays with parts, or dodgy repairs because they don’t know what they’re doing. At least that’s the theory.

They had a look, and gave me some quotes (parts plus labour).

Transponder and key cutting… $260. And apparently it’s not the most expensive Holden, either, for keys. Ouch.

They reckoned it needs a new clutch pedal… $30. Yeah, okay.

New glass for the mirror… $177. Ouch. Lucky it was just the glass.

Plus the actual service ($225).

Bloody cars. Expensive.

Plus I had to battle horrible traffic in the rain to get there (remind me not to use Nepean Highway again in peak hour).

Dropping the car off, I knew it was a ten minute walk to the station, but the rain was coming down. A lady was waiting for a cab to the station, and the service guy suggested we split the fare. We waited. And waited.

After about 15 minutes, she noted it’d actually been about 40 minutes since the cab had been called. The rain wasn’t so hard at that point, so I bailed on her and walked. Ten minutes later I was at the station and straight onto a train — a little soggy, but on my way. I found out later the cab never arrived. Marvellous.

The pickup

Coming back in the afternoon, it was dry. I got there about 5:15, only to find (as I’d been warned) the car was still being worked on. It took until just after 6pm for it to be done and dusted, and although the waiting room is terribly nice, it wasn’t much fun to be sitting there, places to go, nothing to do but fiddle with my phone and watch the TV, silently wondering how the constestants on Millionaire Hot Seat could not know that “Northern Exposure” was set in Alaska (rather than Hawaii, Florida or New Mexico, and respite Eddie emphasising the obvious clue of Northern).

The dealer had also found a fault with the reverse lights (in short, they don’t work) for which they don’t have the part in stock. And it’ll cost another $110 including labour to do it. That’s pretty annoying too, but it’ll have to happen.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom: they came up with a rather clever way of avoiding paying for a whole new key, despite a little bit missing off mine which means it doesn’t all stay together well. A piece of electrical tape to keep it intact.

And they let me know what with that model of Astra, it really doesn’t matter if it goes a year between oil changes. Given I barely drive it, this is good to know. I needn’t feel like I need to rush back every six months for a pointless service.

Still, I drove home pondering if I shouldn’t have just gone to Ultratune in Mckinnon, which is a much shorter (especially in peak hour) trip, only a stone’s throw from the nearest station, and undoubtedly cheaper.

Some lessons from this

Dealers don’t necessarily have all the parts you need in stock.

Close is good, because driving through peak hour traffic is not my idea of fun.

Don’t bother waiting for a taxi in peak hour when it’s raining if you’re in a hurry.

Will consider using Ultratune next time, especially if it’s just an oil change and basic stuff like checking brake pads. It’s not like a continuous record of dealer servicing matters for re-sale value of a car that is already 12 years old, and that I have no plans to sell anyway.

What do others do when getting their cars serviced?

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

11 replies on “Car servicing: dealer or elsewhere?”

What I have found over 20 years of driving, plus another 20 years of my parents owning new cars, is that service departments at dealerships are not very good at what they do, and are the most expensive way to have your car serviced. A specialist mechanic for the type of car you have is likely to be a better bet.

For example, Alpine Affaire in Ringwood is full of experts who know how to fix French cars. They’ve been trained by the manufacturers and have spent decades doing their work, and they care about keeping your car in good condition. They are not any more expensive than any other average mechanics I’ve been to. They’re about half the price of a Renault dealer mechanic, and I had quite poor service from Renault when I took my car to them after buying it from them.

The Volvo dealer I went to spent many hours trying to trace an engine fault for me, but eventually found a simple fault that they should have looked for in the first place. They appeared to have no basic diagnostic knowledge. The only reason I took the car there was that I assumed they should have the correct drawings and parts lists for it, but they spent two days going in circles. If I’d had the service manual, I could have fixed it in an hour.

For spare parts, it’s always best to subvert the pricing mechanisms of the importers. For example, an air filter for my Renault is made by a generic air filter manufacturer and then badged and sent out to the world. Renault charges a fortune for it, various spares shops in Melbourne quoted between $30 and $55 for it, and I bought it from a shop in London for $14 including postage. Your mirror glass is a good example of this. A glass shop could have supplied you with a mirror to suit for a few dollars. The price charged by Holden is simply ridiculous.

Find a normal, local mechanic who talks honestly with you, knows where to get parts and charges a reasonable hourly rate, then use them all the time.

I currently get my Toyota done at the dealer because Toyota have a fixed price setup while the car is under warranty, ($130 each service for three years and 15k intervals). However, once the warranty expire I will be looking at other places such as Ultratune or Midas or even our local Goodyear tyre place does servicing. That would allow me to get tires, a service and a wash&clean all in one go.

What happened to the Aussie male who could do a simple oil change in 15 minutes himself?

Sorry, I know not many ppl do there own services any more which means the dealerships can employ apprentices for $12 an hour and charge you $100 an hour for labour + parts.

Philip, your a brave man to buy European cars, I have a friend who’s a mechanic and has worked for SAAB, Volvo, Volkswagen and Rover and said it’s amazing how many new Euro cars come back to the workshop on tow trucks, they are overly complex and have poorly designed electronics (compared with Asian and Aus cars) which causes them to be quite unreliable.

That’s rubbish about European cars, frankly. My Renault has been the most reliable car I’ve ever had, breaking down less than my previous Laser, Astra and Telstar, made in Australia and Japan. The Volvo runs a close second and only because I’ve only had it a short time. I’m sure it will prove just as reliable as the Renault. Neither of these cars needed, for example, a new head gasket after 100,000 km like the average Falcon does. There’s nothing magical about the electronic systems in a European car; that’s just an old wives’ tale spread by old-fashioned mechanics. I do the regular servicing on them myself, and both are easier to do an oil and filter change on than my Corolla was. I couldn’t believe where the filter was on that car.

Daniel’s Astra (European-built, unlike mine which was based on the Pulsar) should go for ages. But I wouldn’t follow the 12-month oil change recommendation. I’d do it every six months.

You’d probably have been better sourcing the part for the mirror from the wreckers (there are plenty that specialise in holdens).
I’d still be careful of the stealer (dealer)… those Opel Astra’s of that age are nearly at the point where things start to need replacing. Make sure at some point they change the crankshaft position sensor and the Oxygen sensor. If those haven’t been replaced (they are not part of routine servicing), they can fail and leave the car either stranded or in ‘limp’ home mode. But buy the parts from the UK (where they were sold as Vauxhauls)… much cheaper!

One reason for changing engine oil is to get rid of the acids that gather in the oil, these are a by-product of the fuel being burnt, and will build up in quantity faster in an engine that is used for mainly short trips much faster than an engine used for longer trips. This is because the engine used for short trips spends a higher percentage of its operating time running at below optimum temperature, whereas the engine doing a long trip will manage to heat the whole engine, plus all the oil up properly, and tends to evaporate the built up fuel, and acids that dilute the oil. (Ever wondered why a car thats usually used to drive 10 km trips most of the time, without ‘using’ any oil, suddenly seems to start using oil if you do a long trip with it…… its the evaporation of all the unwanted stuff that gets mixed in with the oil.

One thing I found many years ago, when doing an engine rebuild, ans stripping a few engines from vehicles which I had a knowledge of their trip style in the past. One particular engine which had a history of taking its owner to work and back each day, but never having any really long trips, when pulled apart showed lots of acid damage to vital parts like valve lifters, crankshaft bearing journals etc, all having classic acid pitting in what should have been nice shiny polished surfaces…. that engine never did get rebuilt even though it was the lowest mileage engine out of the 8 that I pulled apart. It was in the worst condition.

So oil looking dirty is not the only issue to look at when you are thinking of having the oil changed….. if the engine is sitting there with acidic oil in it for 9 months, then its not going to last nearly as long as an engine which usually has nice fresh clean oil in it.

Been taking my car to Subaru Docklands since new but out of warranty now. Also have Ultratune McKinnon as my next best bet for convenience. I have definitely found independent mechanics a better bet than dealers but it’s still all about finding a good one.

Have a great, trustworthy mechanic, but in Braybrook, so a little out of your way. Like a few commented before me, I used a dealer when I bought from them (like you, due to warranty issues) and found them more expensive. Tony’s Lancer was leased first, and therefore had to be serviced at the dealer. They did a fine job, but I’ve no idea on price, as it was part of the lease, so I can’t comment on that part.
If I were you, and was no longer obligated to go through the dealer, I’d opt not to. But if you are happy with their service, and to be honest – you didn’t have to do any running around (to go to a mech for a service, then a wreckers for a mirror, then put it on yourself, or have a third party do it) that’s a lot more time, so I guess you should weigh up time v money and all that.


I took my VW to that Ultratune when I lived in McKinnon, and considering its proximity to the Ormond station, just do it. They were good, fast and cheap (or they were 10+ years ago).

6 month / 3000 mile oil changes were mandatory in the 1950’s when clearances were rather agricultural and oil of extremely variable quality. European cars are now mandated to do 30,000 km / 2 year oil service intervals for environmental reasons. BMW made their cars work out when they needed a change and this often exceeds those figures.

As you use the car so little, buy it a decent synthetic oil (yes, 2x the price, but a far superior product that doesn’t break down so quickly compared to cheap oils).

If you’re going to eventually sell the car privately, do the service as per the log book (if it’s 10 or 15k or every 12 months which ever comes first). Private buyers of second hand cars look for thorough service records. Most dealers will not care, particularly if your car is over 7 years – they’re going to sell it immediately to an auction house or to wreckers / scrap dealers depending on condition.

If you’re going to drive it into the ground, do it every 10-15k (as per the log book) and don’t worry about the time interval as long as you use good quality oil.

As someone noted above, changing oil and most log book services are not hard or a lengthy process. Have a go at it. Get a decent repair manual and a few quality tools. It’s rather satisfying doing your own services. I’d only use UltraTune for things I have no desire to own (like an engine hoist or a welder i.e. exhaust replacement), or things that have a real safety element, such as getting the steering geometry right.


@Dogsbreath: well, when a simple procedure like changing a fanbelt requires dismantling the frontend of the car, count me out! :)

As for who to get, well, the mobile units that come to your work or home are convenient. Costs more, but then there’s no taxi fare. I’d get them to do the work for minor services and stuff.

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