Car mechanics 'charge more than barristers'

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A survey reveals that motorists are frequently paying more than £100 an hour for labour at car dealers franchised by manufacturers.

Hourly rates vary across the country, from £49 for Vauxhall in Scotland to £140 for BMW in London.

Steve Fowler, the group editor of What Car?, which conducted the survey, pointed out that a locum doctor charging between £350 and £500 a day is cheaper. Even a criminal law junior barrister will charge as little as £30 an hour, he says.

The report reveals that replacing a main-beam bulb on an Audi A2 can cost up to £66, with the bulb costing just £3.96. A full service on an Audi A4 can cost as much as £440 in London and as little as £220 in Scotland. For a BMW 318 a similar service costs £165 in Bristol, but £370 in London.

The cheapest car to service was the Ford Focus 1.6 - £110 in Scotland but £195 in London.

Mr Fowler said motorists could save hundreds of pounds if they shopped around and did their research. "Quite simply, dealership labour rates and repair rates are just way too high."

Researchers found advances in technology had made previously simple jobs "fiddly and time consuming".

The study highlighted huge price differences across the country, and suggested consumers needed to consider a range of options: whether to go to a franchised or non-franchised dealer, whether to use the local garage or elsewhere. "One option I will be considering is to book my car at the cheapest garage, even if I have to travel to it - the savings I can make will pay for a night in a hotel and a decent meal," Mr Fowler said.

He pointed out that motorists should be aware they could use non-franchised dealers and still keep their manufacturer's warranty. Consumers should ensure the service provider is VAT-registered and uses manufacturers' parts, using the recommended schedule of work. The survey used a random sample of cars: Audi A2, Alfa Romeo 147, the old-shaped Ford Focus and a Volkswagen Golf Mk4. Each car was presented to dealers with a blown main-beam bulb to repair.

A spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said the survey would be useful for consumers because it showed how prices varied in what was a free marketplace.

"Obviously there are going to be different rates. The price of work undertaken at BMW at Park Lane [London] is going to be a lot higher than a Vauxhall garage outside Aberdeen," he said. "Servicing is an important part of a car's life cycle. It's important as far as peace of mind is concerned, but it is also important for safety reasons."

The spokesman said the recommended service intervals for most cars were growing longer. Peugeot had extended the interval on its latest models from 12,000 to 20,000 miles. "You've got to look at the bigger picture. If a vehicle is serviced to manufacturers' guidelines, it has been estimated that engines are 10 per cent more efficient which means they use less fuel," he said.