Today's cars are staying on the road longer; the average American car is now 11 1/2 years old, according to IHS Automotive. And older used cars are remaining reliable for a longer time, based on data from Consumer Reports.
"The reliability of the vehicles and the components in them has shifted the equation from repair to taking care of maintenance items at the right intervals," says John Tisdale of test development operations at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. "Seventy percent of the work being done is maintenance."
As a result, the increasing longevity and reliability of today's cars, coupled with longer maintenance intervals, are squeezing the profits of dealers and independent mechanics alike.
To be sure, "free" inspections can often detect problems that might cripple your car down the road. But some less ethical mechanics are taking those shop visits — often for a safety recall or as part of a routine oil change — as an opportunity to pressure car owners to perform service work that isn't necessary.
Tips to keep in mind
How can you fight back? With a little bit of education. Consumer Reports offers the following advice:
• Beware recall add-ons. Car owners should take recalls seriously and have them performed at a dealership to ensure their vehicle's safe operation. But owners should be wary of dealerships that will take advantage of the recall service to bamboozle customers with additional frightening sounding, but unnecessary, repairs.
Consumers have told Consumer Reports that certain dealers have refused to perform recall work unless the owner agrees to expensive repairs or maintenance items as well. That's not only unethical but also a serious violation of the detailed consent orders between NHTSA and the manufacturers.
The scams don't just happen with unscrupulous dealers adding extra work during recall campaigns. A minor service can turn into a major hassle if a shady mechanic gets his way. In the past, a typical car needed its oil changed every 3,000 miles. But modern cars can go much longer between services -- and with modern synthetic lubricants, oil-change intervals can now stretch beyond 10,000 miles. The annual "tune-up" is a thing of the past because intervals for replacing spark plugs and oil and air filters have also been extended. That means fewer times a dealer gets to make money servicing your car.
• Respect routine maintenance. If your car hasn't reached the manufacturer's suggested mileage for a service interval, or the item is outside the scope of routine maintenance, regard recommendations to replace those extra parts with skepticism, even suspicion.
Though the owner's manual will tell you what each service interval entails, certain modern cars' onboard computers will inform you if that period has changed based on your driving habits. If your owner's manual says you are at or past the recommended interval for, say, air filters, it makes sense to replace them. And if your car's engine has a timing belt, you really don't want to postpone that major service, which should be performed between 60,000 and 105,000 miles.
• Break down the breakdown. If a mechanic says your car isn't running properly, you're entitled to a simple explanation. In most cases, he or she should be able to explain the problem in detail, in terms that you can understand.
If the explanation doesn't satisfy you, ask the mechanic to show you the worn part in question. If you still don't like the answer, get a second opinion.
In the end, avoid headaches by using your network of friends to find a local mechanic with whom you can build a relationship.
To learn more, visit ConsumerReports.org.