Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficiionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

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How much for that alternator?

How much to put an alternator on my car?

I hear questions like that all the time. Rather than pick a number out of the air, I counter with a question of my own. “Why do you think you need an alternator?

There are two common reasons a motorist would ask that sort of question. The first is that someone said their car needed an alternator, and quoted a price that was shockingly high. The second possibility is that the car has a problem like a dead battery, and the owner has decided an alternator will fix it.

In the first case, there could be several reasons for the high price. The motorist may simply be out of touch with the true cost of car repair. The repair may have been quoted with a top quality alternator, when the motorist can only afford something cheap. Finally, there may be a complication to doing the job, and the garage quoted additional time and material to cover that.

All of those situations are best resolved by a customer and repair shop that collaborate to reach a solution. A price shopping motorist is not likely to obtain a good result, because there’s more to a good repair than the lowest bid.

I’m always happy to explain the reasons behind the probable cost of a repair. Do we have to take parts off for access? If so, it makes sense to service them, too, but that costs money. Do we have choices when it comes to replacement parts? Much of the time you get what you pay for, but there are times when aftermarket parts can service the purpose at lower cost.

Motorists will do much better working through those questions with one shop, where they know the person and the vehicle. Taking a quote and simply price-shopping by phone is very unlikely to get a good result because the questions that need to be answered are not strictly those of cost.

What about the motorist who just decided he needs an alternator? Some shop owners would say, the guy asked for an alternator. Sell him one! Who cares if he needs it? I’ve never really subscribed to that school of thought. If someone thinks they know what the car needs, I say, If I put the alternator on, and the car still has the same problem, how are you going to feel?

Few motorists consider that possibility, but in my experience, it’s very real. It’s amazing how many people will think it’s my fault if the car still has a problem, even though they made the diagnosis.

Once again, the best answer is to find a mechanic you can trust and discuss the problem with him rather than make an impulsive decision on your own.

So that leads to the biggest question of all: How do you find a mechanic who is capable, trustworthy, affordable, and all the other things you want? That is the subject of another post . . .

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