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by John Cadogan

Over a period of several months, visitors have been requesting servicing information on the cars we review. It’s become something of a quasi-regular request, and something that’s sparked a bit of a debate internally. Let me give you the summary.

Reporting on servicing is a great idea in principle, because the cost of servicing is very important to car buyers. In practice, however, it’s very hard – almost impossible in fact, and often irrelevant – to report car servicing costs in our reviews. At least it’s impossible to do it in a meaningful way.

Here’s why:

For starters, the distance interval is irrelevant to most Australian car owners. Believe it or not, the average kilometres driven annually by car in Australia, according to Ausstats, is less than 15,000km. The general servicing intervals specified by car companies is based on both distance and time – for example 12,500km or six months; whichever comes first. And while the distances recommended often vary – they could be 15,000 or even 20,000km – by far the most common time interval is six months.

And that means the difference between a car with a 15,000km service interval and a car with 20,000km is likely to be irrelevant even to drivers who cover twice the average annual kilometres – they’ll still be in the dealership every six months dropping the oil.

And, sure, for high-mileage drivers, the distance interval is important. However, for the vast majority of private car owners, even reporting the longer-distance servicing intervals (at least doing so without the context above) would be tantamount to painting a false picture on which cars offer tangible advantages over which for the average driver.

The next point is about servicing cost. And here I’m on about the cost of the standard ‘log book’ service – dropping the oil, changing the filters, etc., as specified in the owner’s manual.

Unfortunately, prices cannot be fixed under Australian law. This means car companies are generally unable to tell their dealerships, which are mostly separate companies that own a franchise to sell the brand to the public, how much to charge for servicing. The rules also mean car companies are unable to set the retail price of cars, happily enough, allowing informed car buyers to trade one dealer off against the other.

This means that for every particular car there is simply no set price for either the parts required in a standard service – the oil, the filters, the timing belt, etc. – and no set price across any of the brands for the cost of the technician’s labour.

The best piece of servicing advice I can give any car owner is always – and I mean always – call the three closest dealers and get a quote for the next standard service.

A mate of mine, who used to be the motoring editor of a major newspaper, used to run a column in the paper in which they ‘mystery-shopped’ the cost of a standard service across several dealerships. The variations were simply humongous across nearly every brand.

Once, he said, they got dealerships to quote on a service that didn’t even exist on the log book – it might’ve been a 15,000km service on a car with specified 10,000 and 20,000km services – and all but one dealer gave them a price. Only one informed the journo who called anonymously that the service wasn’t due for another 5000km. It makes you think.

Of greater interest, perhaps, is the cost of spare parts – is a front headlamp assembly for a Commodore the same price as that of a Camry or Aurion? How about the engine management computer? The windscreen?

This stuff is especially relevant for people buying a used prestige car. See, many prestige cars bleed like stuck pigs, financially, for their first three years of life. They seem like a real bargain – check out a 2006 model BMW 7 Series on redbook.com.au, for example, compared with its ‘new’ price – but the warranty’s expired. If the i-Drive control computer spits the proverbial six weeks after you buy it, well, you should brace for impact. There’s no reason to expect the price of the parts has moved in line with the depreciation on the car itself. The term ‘second mortgage’ comes to mind.

The only problem now is for us to report accurately the cost of spares. See, there are 250-something cars on the market now, plus all the permutations of spares on older models stretching back, say, maybe 10 years, times six or seven key parts for an indicative spare-parts snapshot.

That’s … ummm … about a thousand e-mails and one helluva database, which would require constant updating. Anyway, gotta go – the nurse is fixing me a Valium sandwich.