CLICK AND CLACK: Who’s to blame for high bill?

Ray Magliozzi

Dear Car Talk:

Is my local Subaru dealer trying to help me, or get his freebies back and then some? We bought a new Outback, and the dealer said to bring it back every 5,000 miles for free service for two years. The first four times, we brought it back without reading the fine print, and we got free oil and filter changes ($69 with synthetic oil), tire rotation ($20), multipoint inspection and state inspection ($16/year where we live). So here’s the problem: We brought it back again before the two-year period was up, and the dealer took the car in, and never said a word. When we came back to pick it up, the bill was $545! The service manager said it was because the odometer had passed 30,000 miles and we had already gotten our “four free services.” The bill was for a 30,000-mile service, a brake flush, front and rear differential fluid change, an air filter and a cabin air filter. Did we get taken, or is Subaru trying to get the car to go the distance without problems for us? — Lee

I think that was sneaky, Lee. You have some responsibility here, but the dealership has more.

For your part, you should have been aware of the limits on the “free service” you were getting. And you could have confirmed it when you dropped off the car. You could have said, “This is all free, right?” Perhaps you didn’t ask because you were afraid the answer would be “no”?

But at the same time, the dealership absolutely should have given you an estimate as part of the check-in process. If they had told you right then that the service was going to cost between $500 and $600, you could have had a heart attack and dropped dead at the service counter, eliminating the need for that expensive 30,000-mile service.

And not only did they fail to give you an estimate, they also gave you the “gold-plated” service and then charged you up the exhaust bearings for it. The consequence for you is that you’re out $545.

The truth is, you could have gone to an independent mechanic for your regular service, and probably paid half as much. As long as you save the repair receipts that prove that your oil and filter were changed and key maintenance was done at the appropriate mileage intervals, your warranty will remain in full force.

The consequence for the dealer is that he’s lost a regular customer. By taking advantage of you and doing everything short of flossing the tire tread, he’s lost your trust, and your scheduled service business.

You still can go to the dealer for warranty work, and for complicated problems that your independent mechanic can’t figure out. But, as you now know, you’ll need to get an estimate upfront with these guys, and request that they call you to authorize any further repairs before proceeding.

If you’re interested in repairing this relationship, you can try writing a letter to the dealership’s owner, explaining why he’s losing a previously loyal customer. If he’s a decent guy, he’ll refund half of the money, apologize on behalf of his service adviser and ask you to please try them again. If he doesn’t, you’ll know that he considers all things to be fair in love and Subaru service, and you can take your business elsewhere.

Good luck, Lee.

If you buy a used car, will you just be inheriting the previous owner’s problem? Tom and Ray dispel this and other myths about used cars in their pamphlet “How to Buy a Great Used Car: Secrets Only Your Mechanic Knows.” Send $4.75 (check or money order) to Car Talk/Used Car, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803.

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