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Vehicle Repair vs. Vehicle Maintenance

Jeff Zurschmeide

Adobe Stock

No one likes taking their car to the mechanic. It's almost always expensive, and too often it's impossible to predict exactly how much it's going cost. Yet with any car, paying the mechanic is nearly unavoidable. What is often surprising is the fact that paying for regular maintenance helps reduce vehicle repair bills down the line.

Vehicle Repair vs. Vehicle Maintenance

The first thing to understand is the basic difference between routine maintenance and a true vehicle repair. Obviously, maintenance is not an emergency. Your vehicle continues to function normally. You can drive your car, truck, or SUV to the dealer or to your trusted independent mechanic and have them perform maintenance at any time.

Repair

A repair is necessary when something has already broken or otherwise gone wrong. Your vehicle may or may not be drivable. Even if you can drive, continuing to drive the broken vehicle can cause even more damage. By any practical definition, a repair is at least a little bit of an emergency.

Why Vehicle Maintenance Is Necessary

Any motor vehicle is a collection of mechanical parts. Like any machine, those parts wear down over time and as the vehicle accumulates mileage. Some parts, such as tires and brake pads, are designed to wear down as you drive. If they did not wear down, your car would not stop or turn as efficiently as required.

Still more parts tend to wear out over longer periods of time and mileage. These include shock absorbers and struts, steering parts, and driveline components. Generally speaking, the moving parts of your vehicle rub together or are subject to stresses as your vehicle ages. In short, every time your vehicle rides over a bump or a pothole, some more wear and tear happens to the chassis, suspension, and steering components.

Your vehicle's engine is another part that wears out. Every day, the metal components in your engine rub together, get hot, and work hard to move your vehicle down the road. Modern technology has reduced the amount of regular adjustment required, but the manufacturer's maintenance schedule is critical.

Repair

All parts that wear eventually will eventually require repair, but you can extend the life of many components by performing regular maintenance.

Manufacturer Maintenance Schedules

The maintenance schedule for any vehicle is detailed in the owner's manual. Each car has a different schedule, and sometimes there are variations based on the climate where you live. For example, extremely hot climates may require more frequent replacement of engine coolant and oil. If you use your vehicle on rough roads or in dusty conditions, that can affect air filters. Finally, if you use your vehicle to pull a trailer or carry heavy loads, that can increase maintenance requirements.

In the first years of a vehicle's life, scheduled maintenance generally includes regular oil changes and examination of wear components such as engine and cabin air filters, brake pads or shoes, and tires. Early scheduled maintenance is usually inexpensive and doesn't take much time.

Repair

As time and mileage accumulate, other wear items such as spark plugs, serpentine drive belts, transmission and gear oil, coolant, and shock absorbers or struts might require replacement as well. This maintenance is just as important, and keeping to the manufacturer's schedule helps your vehicle give you many more trouble-free miles.

Engine Timing Belt Maintenance

One particular item to remember is your engine's timing belt. On vehicles that use a timing belt rather than a timing chain, this is usually a flexible belt with gear teeth on one side. The timing belt is not usually visible, but it keeps your engine's valves operating in harmony with the crankshaft and pistons. Most manufacturers have a scheduled timing belt replacement at 60,000 to 100,000 miles or six to 10 years from the initial sale of your vehicle. 

Because the timing belt is hidden inside your engine, maintaining it is often expensive. Sometimes it's necessary to remove components like the engine's coolant (water) pump to perform the timing belt replacement. In that case, it makes sense to go ahead and replace the coolant pump at the same time, so many dealerships and independent shops include that in a maintenance package.

Repair

The reason for that is that if you've accumulated enough miles or time for the timing belt service, the coolant pump and other components are also likely to fail soon. Doing those repairs as the components fail is actually more expensive and less convenient than handling them all at the same time, before they fail.

The last thing to say about engine timing belts is that this maintenance should never be put off. If you defer this work, the timing belt could fail and destroy the entire engine. When the timing belt breaks, some of the engine's valves become stuck in the open position. The engine's pistons hit those valves a fraction of a second later, bending the valves and damaging the pistons. At a minimum, it's a much more expensive repair. 

When Your Vehicle Needs Repair

Eventually, all vehicles need to be repaired. When that happens, the first thing is to understand what repairs are needed. Modern vehicles are complicated, and it may not be obvious what's wrong, especially if you only see a "check engine" light on your dashboard.

This is where an expert shop or dealership service center can help. Chances are those professionals have seen your problem before. Automakers often issue communications called technical service bulletins, which detail known issues, to dealers and other service professionals.

Repair

Don't be afraid to take your vehicle to several shops to get competing quotes for the repair, as well as to double-check the diagnosis. Sometimes even the best shops can misdiagnose a vehicle's repair needs.

Using a Dealer Service Center or Independent Shop

There are good reasons to use the dealer's service center, and also good reasons to use an independent shop. Dealers have the best access to the latest service bulletins and parts from the manufacturer and have a deep knowledge of your particular vehicle. However, dealers can be more expensive than an independent shop unless your vehicle remains under its factory warranty. If you're still eligible for a free warranty repair, the dealer service center should be your first stop.

Independent auto repair shops work for you, and they often have less-expensive repair options. Choose your independent garage carefully, and make sure it is certified with the training required to diagnose and repair your vehicle. Finally, always ensure that the independent shop will stand behind its work.

Can You Do It Yourself?

It's tempting to save money by performing maintenance and repairs at home. Some maintenance items are easy, such as replacing air filters. Others, such as changing engine oil, are messy and leave you with a gallon or more of used motor oil to recycle.

Tip: Many auto parts stores will accept used motor oil in gallon jugs for recycling.

With modern cars, most maintenance and repair tasks will be impractical unless you have plenty of experience with car repairs. The easy parts, like air filters, are folded in with the harder parts and it ends up being less expensive and more convenient to pay a professional to perform the work.

Buying and Selling used cars

If you're buying a pre-owned car, always ask if all the scheduled maintenance has been performed. If you buy a certified pre-owned vehicle at a dealership, that's part of the certification, and there's usually a warranty. However, if you're buying from a private party or a dealer not affiliated with the vehicle's brand, be sure to ask for documentation that all scheduled maintenance has been performed.

Especially with private-party sales, it's common to find that routine maintenance has been neglected. Sometimes it's easy to see, such as bald tires and dirty engine oil, but without documentation, how do you know that the engine timing belt was replaced?

Conversely, when you get ready to sell your older vehicle, it really helps to have all the service records available. Written records prove to potential buyers that you have maintained the vehicle properly. That leads to a quicker sale and more money for your vehicle. If you have deferred any maintenance, it's often economical to have that maintenance performed before you try to sell the vehicle.

Maintenance Is Always Cheaper Than Repair

The last thing to say about maintenance and repair is that it's always cheaper, and definitely more convenient, to invest in regular scheduled maintenance than to wait until something breaks. There's never a good time to have your vehicle out of service, and emergency repairs tend to take longer and cost more than a service appointment — and they can strike without warning.