Here’s Why Free Maintenance Is Just a Marketing Gimmick

Illustration for article titled Here’s Why Free Maintenance Is Just a Marketing Gimmick

A friend of mine recently purchased a Toyota Corolla. Here's how it happened: my friend came up to me one day and said "I'm going to purchase a Toyota Corolla!" And I replied: "OH GOD NO!! WHY??!? HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF?? TO SOCIETY?? TO HUMANITY!?? YOU ARE RUINING EVERYTHING THAT'S RIGHT WITH THE WORLD!!"


But my friend ignored my tirade, largely because he knows my current profession involves sitting around the house without any pants on and eating animal crackers. Plus, he wasn't getting just any Corolla. He was getting a Corolla with free maintenance.

Yes, that's right: my friend made his car-buying decision based on something called Toyota Care, which is a two-year or 25,000-mile program that touts the amazing benefit of no-cost automotive maintenance. Only, there's a problem: this program, and all free maintenance programs, are just a huge marketing gimmick, primarily designed to appeal to the kind of person who hears the word "free" and gets excited like a Price is Right contestant who just won a sleeper sofa.

In order to explain what I mean, I'm going to shift gears from Toyota (Automotive Metaphor - 100 points) and instead shame Volkswagen, which I try to do as often as possible. You see, several years ago, Volkswagen instituted a free maintenance program entitled "Carefree Maintenance," which was presumably designed to address the perception we all have of Volkswagen products: that someday, when you're driving along, you may go to reach for the volume knob and discover that your passenger door has fallen off.

So I recently took a closer look at this highly touted Carefree Maintenance program, and I realized something: it really doesn't offer all that much.

To help you understand why I say this, I present to you a hypothetical situation. Say you just purchased a brand-new 2014 Jetta. I don't know why you did this. You don't know why you did this. Maybe you have a family member who works at the Volkswagen dealership, and they're doing a special this month where the guy who sells the most cars gets a free floor lamp, and the guy who sells the least cars gets his ears chopped off.

But anyway, you purchased a new Jetta, and you're all excited because Volkswagen is going to take care of the maintenance, free of charge, for the next two years or 24,000 miles. Two years! 24,000 miles! THINK OF THE POSSIBILITIES! YOU COULD DRIVE AROUND THE WORLD! TWICE! OR TO THE GROCERY STORE A BUNCH OF TIMES!


But then you check the fine print and discover exactly what's covered: oil changes, tire rotations, and "vehicle inspections," which probably consist of cursory glances from the guy who Windexes the Volkswagen logo in front of the dealership. ("Uh, sir? Your passenger door has fallen off.")

And then you realize something else: in your new Jetta, the recommended interval for your oil changes and tire rotations is — get ready for it — ten thousand miles. So it turns out that your two years of free maintenance actually amounts to two oil changes and two tire rotations, and nothing further.


In other words: that free maintenance program you were so excited about will save you $150. Maybe it'll save you $200, because Volkswagen probably charges a premium for their oil changes just so you don't feel like you're missing out on the true German car experience.

I know there are people out there who will say: "HEY MAN! ONE FIFTY IS ONE FIFTY! BETTER THAN ZERO!!!" But the simple truth is, that's not the case when it comes to buying a car. As an example, say you walk into a Chrysler dealership and you have a pulse. BOOM! You just got yourself $150 off, right there, regardless of whether you're man, woman, child, or adult raccoon. And even if you didn't have a pulse, Chrysler would probably still get you a good interest rate on a Dodge Journey.


Now, I suspect a few people will reply here and agree that normal car free maintenance programs are pretty stupid, but luxury brands go above and beyond to make them worth it. BMW, for instance, is famous for offering the best program in the business: 4 years or 50,000 miles — and they cover brakes, which can be a bit on the pricey side when you're talking about a European luxury car.

But here's the thing: nobody keeps a BMW for that long. Yes, I realize I'm generalizing here, but I do that a lot. I mean, you don't actually think a Chrysler dealer would give an adult raccoon $150 off, do you? Of course not! They'd give it some pine nuts, and then try to sell it a Grand Caravan.


Really, though: just over half of BMW drivers lease their cars – a number that climbs to 60 percent if we're talking about the volume-selling 3-Series. And BMW has a nice little clause in its new car paperwork that says its free maintenance contract applies only to the first owner or lessor. As a result, the majority of drivers will never see those free brakes. Among the ones who buy, rather than lease, a huge portion won't keep the car four years anyway — and of those who do, not all will wear down the brakes far enough to qualify for free ones.

And this brings me to another beef I have with free maintenance. Yes, they're paying for your oil changes and your tire rotations. But they're also getting you in the service bay, where they undoubtedly try to sell you a wide variety of other items, all of which help to pay for that free stuff they're giving away. In fact, this is how I imagine most free maintenance-related phone calls go:

Service writer: Hello, Sir. We got your free tire rotation taken care of.
Owner: Great!
Service writer: Unfortunately, we also have to replace the entire radio because we chopped off our worst salesman's ears and one of them got stuck in the CD player.
Owner: Oh no!
Service writer: Also, your passenger door has fallen off.


@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.


Chairman Kaga

Here's another point to consider. My wife got the free maintenance deal with her 2014 Highlander. This was exciting for her. She seemingly negotiated something for free from the dealer.

The first oil change and tire rotation came at 5,000 miles - the "break-in" service. To have this service performed, she went to the Toyota dealership on her lunch break. Because it was free maintenance, they did not offer a loaner car.

She called me at 5:15 because I was going to have to pick up the kids and get dinner started. She was still in the waiting room.

So, she missed half a day of work for an oil change, a tire rotation, and a nav system update. No charge, but if she'd had a less magnanimous boss it would have cost her $240-ish in lost earnings.