£100 an hour: mechanics who will dent your wallet

Melanie Bien sees dealers go into overdrive on car-repair costs
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The Independent Online

Car repairs can drive anyone to drink when big bills are handed over for even the most basic work. But while we may be accustomed to greasing the palms of mechanics, few motorists realise just how much more expensive it is to go to their manufacturer's franchised dealer.

Although this might be your first choice in the hope that you'll get more specialised care, on average labour costs are 44 per cent higher than those charged by independent garages.

Motor warranty specialist Warranty Direct says the maximum hourly charge for repairing a car in a dealer- owned garage has increased from an average of £52.96 to £76.37 over the past five years. Independent garages charge between £28 and £41 an hour.

"Customers are having to pay more and more for the salubrious surroundings of a franchised operation," says Duncan McClure-Fisher of Warranty Direct. "As new car prices have tumbled, squeezing dealer margins on the way, labour rates have rocketed."

Volkswagen drivers are the worst off, with labour rates for VW technicians almost doubling from £51.11 an hour in 1998 to £100 today. Over the same period, there has been an 85.6 per cent rise at BMW and a 79.2 per cent rise at Volvo.

Mike Orford, manager of product affairs at VW, points out that the "average VW garage won't be charging anything like [£100 an hour].

"We cannot dictate to retailers what they should charge for labour and repairs - we can only suggest how long the job should take," he says. "Charges have gone up since 1998 due to inflation and the better standard of technicians. [Warranty Direct] has compared the highest price in 1998 with the highest price this year, which isn't an average over the past five years."

The most expensive individual dealer unearthed by Warranty Direct's survey was a BMW operation charging an hourly labour rate of £115.62, including VAT.

If you are thinking of buying a new car and want to take labour costs into account, you might opt for a Mazda. In the past five years, its hourly labour rate has gone up just 2 per cent to £51.81. Citroën (3.3 per cent) and Renault (3.6 per cent) aren't far behind.

Another way to save costs is to drive past your local dealership and keep going north. One Ford dealer in Greater London charges £82.25 an hour, for example, compared with a Ford garage in Perth- shire that charges £32.90.

"Don't ignore reputable independent garages, national chains or specialists," adds Mr McClure-Fisher. "Most of these are staffed by vastly experienced former franchised technicians." In other words, you'll be getting the expertise at a fraction of the cost.

The problem is that even though independent garages are cheaper, many new owners have to stick with their franchised dealer to avoid invalidating their car's warranty [the guarantee which usually runs for five years]. "Having the main dealer's stamp on your log book will add value to the car when you come to sell it on because it means the warranty is intact," adds VW's Mr Orford. "This gives the new buyer peace of mind which they wouldn't have had if you'd gone to an independent garage and invalidated the warranty."

And given that cars are becoming increasingly complex, some models might be beyond the comprehension of an independent garage mechanic. The VW Phaeton, for example, has 63 black boxes to keep things running smoothly. "Can you imagine the average guy down the road trying to cope with that?" asks Mr Orford.

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