What You Didn't Know About Free Car Maintenance Programs

(Everything and more)

Two mechanics tuning up a car.

When you're out shopping for new cars, you might find yourself faced with a lot of apples-to-oranges comparisons. A free car maintenance program is one of the more popular incentives car companies use to try to sway you to their side of the street. 

Automakers like to advertise their maintenance programs like a carrot in front of potential buyers, promising worry-free driving, easy upkeep and sometimes even valet pick-up and drop-off. But is it enough to tempt you? When is free car maintenance worth it? Read on for some tips on weighing free maintenance programs against price and other incentives.

But first, make sure you're covered with an affordable car insurance policy.

Why Do Carmakers Offer Free Maintenance on Their Cars?

For most brands, the free car maintenance program extends only to the first few oil changes and probably won't factor highly into your decision on which car to purchase. The truly valuable car maintenance programs apply mostly to luxury brands.

Erik Sofge of MSN Autos theorizes that this is because they provide high-end automakers with a way to offer value to the buyer, without undercutting price. Luxury carmakers have a reputation for being "above" the rebate games and discount promotions that high-volume carmakers play. 

Therefore, they have to get a bit more creative when they want to get the edge on the competition. Big car maintenance programs, like BMW's offer for 50,000 miles of comprehensive coverage, may just be enough to entice the luxury car buyer away from Jaguar's less extensive program, for example.

Does the Maintenance Program Add Enough Value to the Deal?

This is the question to ask yourself at every dealership. A study conducted by Edmunds found that the words "Free Car Maintenance" on the brochure could mean anything from a single oil change to a bumper-to-bumper quality care program. For instance, look at these programs:

  • Audi's idea of free car maintenance only covers oil changes and other service for 5,000 miles.
  • Cadillac, on the other hand, covers 50,000 miles and includes tire rotations, oil changes, air filters and inspections.
  • Chevrolet offers up to four service visits during the first two years or 24,000 miles and allows this guarantee to transfer to a new owner during that time.
  • The free maintenance program with the highest potential value is BMW's, with more than $2,700 in services offered.

Knowing the estimated dollar amount of the services offered can help you decide which car is the better deal. Let's say you're comparing an Audi with a BMW of similar size and features. The Audi sells for $1,000 less than the BMW. However, the BMW offers $2,700 in potential maintenance services. 

You may or may not end up using all of the services offered to you in the maintenance program. If you do use them, the BMW is the better deal. But if you tend to use your own mechanic and your own tire service expert, you might prefer the Audi.

You'll have to do some digging to find out exactly what the program covers and how long the coverage lasts. Also, beware the list of exclusions. Many of the incidents and items you might expect to fall under "comprehensive" maintenance coverage could be red-listed.

Even if the maintenance program seems enticing, take a look at other automakers. They may offer cash incentives. Jessica Anderson writes for Kiplinger, "The promise of free serv­ice on a Toyota, Volkswagen or Chevrolet might tempt you away from a Honda or Ford, which don’t offer maintenance programs. But a rebate or bigger discount on a competing brand that doesn’t offer free service might more than make up for your maintenance 'savings.'" 

New cars often need very little in the way of repairs, so the biggest value of most of these programs is simple upkeep. Add up the costs of taking care of this expense yourself, and see how it stacks up against the lower prices and rebate offers of other brands.

Is That Free Maintenance Program Really Free?

Almost any dealer you speak with will offer you some kind of maintenance program, but that doesn't mean it comes without cost. You may end up paying for it in your monthly payments without even noticing. Autos notes, "Whenever acquiring car maintenance programs, it is best to read the fine print and understand what you are getting. 

'Free' does not necessarily mean free." The sticker price or lease agreement might include the cost of the free maintenance, or the limitations might not make the plan worth the paper on which it is printed.

The Best Free Car Maintenance Programs Are a Bonus

In many cases, the maintenance program will not be the deciding factor in your decision. It could factor heavily if you are deciding between two luxury cars of roughly the same price, one of which offers a great maintenance bundle. But most likely, you will decide based on other criteria, like purchase price, fuel economy, resale value and reliability. 

Don't forget to consider other monthly expenses in your decision, such as the price of insurance for each car on your list. Independent agents can help you get a good value for auto coverage, as they're independent and can shop around to several insurers instead of just being tied to one company.

If it comes down to two great options with similar prices, consider the maintenance program. One credit union sums it up with this advice to members: "Should free maintenance sway your opinion? Only if it's a car, SUV, or van that you like anyway."

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