“[My Jeep] has started smelling like gas after I drive it for a bit. And it shakes a lot when it’s idling,” my friend Hannah recently messaged me. Her 1997 Jeep Cherokee, which seemed to be in decent condition overall, needed maintenance. Neither she nor I could have guessed that it needed $5,112.90 worth of maintenance, as quoted by a nearby mechanic. Here’s a look at the shop’s estimate, and how little it would cost me, a shadetree mechanic, to do the same job.
My heart always sinks when friends tell me about their broken cars. I wish I could be there and just fix the vehicles for them, but that’s not always possible. “Where do I go? How will I know what absolutely needs to be replaced right now? Am I getting ripped off?” These are some of the thoughts that race through car owners’ minds when they see a Check Engine light pop up on their dash or when they hear the engine stumble.
I totally understand the stress. There’s potentially a lot of money in play, and there’s an unbalanced power dynamic between experienced mechanics who know how cars work and customers who don’t. It’s often not the fault of the mechanic; they have to make a living, after all. But it’s a dynamic that causes many people to resent car ownership, as I’ve written before.
To help my Jeep Cherokee-owning friend handle the enormous repair quote shown above, I called a buddy in California to ask if he could recommend a good shop. He got me in touch with an outfit near Oakland, which didn’t have availability, but sent me in the direction of another mechanic that, per Google reviews, seems highly regarded in the Berkeley area.
I called the shop, got the lay of the land, and talked it over with Hannah (who also goes by “Puh”). She booked an appointment. Later, she sent me the shop’s findings, and oh boy. The list of suggested repairs is enormous. Luckily, this excellent shop takes photos to document each ailment, so I can show you what’s up.
The technician even breaks things out by color: Orange means maintenance that needs to happen soon, red means repairs that need to happen soon, yellow means repairs that can be postponed a bit, and green means it’s all good. Let’s go through the non-green items. We’ll start with orange.
Brake Fluid Needs To Be Changed: $117.36
Per the shop, Puh’s Jeep has water in the brake fluid. This tends to happen over time, since brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from ambient air.
This is a problem because water contamination can cause corrosion in the braking system, and it can lead to degraded braking performance.
To better understand the latter, you should know that brake fluid’s primary job is to transmit force from the pedal under the driver’s foot to calipers near the vehicle’s wheels. Those calipers squeeze brake pads against rotating discs, reducing the angular velocity of those discs, ultimately slowing the vehicle down. (The Jeep has rear drum brakes, which act a bit differently, but the principles are the same.)
Brake fluid’s key quality making it well-suited to transmit force from one location (the master cylinder, which is hooked to the brake pedal via a rod) to another (the brake caliper) is incompressibility. However, that quality is compromised if the fluid boils, since boiling introduces gas into the system, and gas very much is compressible. Gas in a braking system means the driver would press the pedal, and instead of pushing a column of incompressible liquid to force the calipers to clamp, she or he would be wasting energy squeezing gas bubbles.
This is a key reason why H2O in brake fluid is such a big deal. Water has a lower boiling point than brake fluid, so if things get really hot while towing or while at the track, that water could introduce gas into the system, potentially harming braking performance.
The shop’s price for flushing the brake system is $117.
This Air Filter Has Got To Go: $43.13
Just look at this dirty air filter. It needs a change! A dirty air filter can restrict airflow and that can rob an engine of power. It also increases the risk of dirt entering the engine, which can cause premature bearing and piston ring wear.
I made a quick video to show Hannah how she can change her Jeep’s filter on her own, as it really is just a two-minute job. There’s no reason to drop over $40 when a filter from the store only costs about $10. We’ll get to the Do-It-Yourself part of this article in a moment.
Transmission Fluid Drain & Fill, Filter Needs To Be Swapped: ~$430
Dexron/Mercon III automatic transmission fluid should look bright red, so this brownish fluid in my friend’s Aisin-Warner AW4 four-speed automatic is going to need to go.
I looked at the estimate, and found the quoted price of $322 for 20 liters of ATF, which is madness. The whole system takes only about eight liters, each of which would cost between $5 and $10 at a typical car parts store. A price of $20 per liter (well, quart, but close enough) would be high even at a dealership; but that’s about what the shop ended up charging for each of the four bottles they’d need, after I challenged the $322 price. That dropped the total price of the transmission fluid job from $671 to about $430.
Also, ATF+4 is the wrong fluid to put into this transmission. Like me, the Jeep Cherokee drinks only the finest, top-shelf Dexron/Mercon III, so even the $430 price is probably not quite right, though it’s probably close enough for an estimate.
The Engine Coolant Could Be Cleaner: $206.71
In California, it’s especially important for a car to have a healthy cooling system, lest the engine overheat on the 101 and blow a head gasket or crack a cylinder head. That would be bad, especially since I’ve already replaced this Jeep’s head once before.
The shop apparently found some filth in the recovery bottle, and decided that was grounds for replacing the coolant/antifreeze. At $26.37 per gallon for a three-gallon cooling system, and $127.60 for labor, the estimate adds up to $206.71 for the coolant flush.
The Serpentine Belt Could Use A Change: $192.02
Per the shop, the serpentine belt is “dry rotting.”
The shop charges $83.27 for the belt and $108.75 for labor for a total of $192.02 for the job.
Leaky Valve Cover Gasket: $248.31
The Jeep leaks oil, apparently from the valve cover gasket, and also the oil pan and transmission pan.
Just the valve cover gasket costs $145 in labor and the part goes for $103.31, bringing the total for the job to $248.31.
Diagnosing An Airbag Light: $181.25
For some reason, Puh’s airbag light is on, signaling that there’s something wrong with the vehicle’s passive restraint system.
The shop charges $181.25 just to diagnose the fault.
Control Arm Bushings: $695.11
The shop pointed out cracked rubber bushings in the control arms of the Quadra Link solid-front-axle suspension. Labor to replace the arms is $507.50. The lower control arms are $91.64, and the uppers are $95.97. Oddly, the shop’s estimate includes only one upper and one lower, so the total winds up at “only” $695.11.
Shock Absorbers: $565.20
The shocks are leaking, and their bushings are cracked. Labor to replace the four corners is $290, while each shock costs roughly $69. This brings the total shock replacement cost to a whopping $565.
Sway Bar Bushings Are Shot: $385.16
You can see in the image above that the thin, vertically oriented sway bar link that is connected to the sway bar on one end and to the axle on the other end has cracked rubber bushings.
The sway bar helps the vehicle remain flat while cornering. When a tire on one side of the vehicle lifts, the axle pushes a link up against the sway bar, which rotates and pulls on another link that attaches to the other side of the axle, lifting the other wheel and reducing the tipping that we call body roll. To mend the bushings, the shop recommends buying a new sway bar links (which come with bushings) for each side. The two bushings that hold the bar itself in the bracket that connects it to the Jeep’s body are also toast. With labor billed at $181.25, sway bar links costing $76.26 each, and the bar bushing kit costing $51.39, the job to clean up the bad rubber on the anti-roll bar is estimated to cost $385.16.
Replace Power Steering Box: $644.62.
To fix a leak, the shop recommended replacing the entire power steering gearbox, which costs $337.44. Add labor and two quarts of power steering fluid at $8.59 each, and we’re looking at $644.62 all-in.
Brake Lights/Horn/Rear Bulb Not working: $372.50 total
Other things worth mentioning are the horn, rear wiper and brake lights — none of which work. Diagnostic fees to figure out why the first two don’t function add up to: $362.50. Add a $10 rear light bulb, and we’re looking at $372.50 for a bulb and some troubleshooting.
Diagnose And Replace O2 Sensor: $428
And now for the reason why Hannah messaged me in the first place: The Jeep’s 220,000 mile 4.0-liter has been running rough (look below at that soot that came out of the tailpipe). I figured the problem was an O2 sensor, and the shop agreed.
Changing the upstream O2 sensor is estimated to cost $253.12, with $108.75 of that being labor, and the remaining $144.37 being the part itself. It also looks like the estimate includes an additional $175.00 for diagnosis, bringing the total for this work to $428.
How Much Would It Cost Me To Do All Of This?
Before I get into how cheaply I could fix this XJ, I want to be clear that the only points I’m trying to make are, 1) It can be extremely stressful and expensive to maintain an older vehicle if you don’t know how to fix cars or you’re not rich, and 2) If you do know how to wrench, you’ll be amazed how low your vehicle’s cost of ownership can be, especially if that vehicle is a Jeep Cherokee XJ, for which aftermarket parts are dirt cheap.
So let’s jump into it:
Shocks: $84 and One Hour Of Work—Savings: $481.20
Having owned five Jeep Cherokees in my lifetime, I can tell you that swapping shocks on the venerable XJ is incredibly easy. There are two upper shock mounting bolts holding each of the two rear shocks’ bar pins (that’s the metal bar with a C-shaped cutout on each end — see image above) to the Jeep’s underbody, and there’s a nut holding each rear shock’s lower mount onto a stud that’s welded to the axle. That makes just two bolts and one nut needed to be removed to take off each rear shock.
When replacing the rear shocks, it’s fairly common to break the rear upper shock bolts that hold the shock to the car. Fixing this involves hammering out the weld nuts that normally hold the now-broken shock bolts, and then fishing a bolt in from behind the sheetmetal shock-mounting spot using safety wire. But Hannah’s Jeep has spent most of its time in Colorado and California; I bet I could get the rear shocks out and a new pair in within 10 minutes.
On the shocks up front, there are two bolts (with nuts on the other side) holding the bottom of each shock to the axle via a bar pin. Up top, there’s one big stud that goes into the shock tower. The single nut that holds it there is accessed from under the hood. The lower bolts are usually corroded due to their proximity to road dirt and grime. They can be a bit tricky to access, as can that upper stud.
I’d guess it would take me an hour to replace all four shocks, costing about $84.02 plus tax if I bought the Monroes shown above from Amazon. These dampers work well in my experience, though if I wanted to use KYBs like the ones the shop included in its quote, I could snag a complete set of those for roughly $130:
Suspension Control Arms: $125 and Three Hours Of Work—Savings: $570
Almost $700 to have the shop do the control arms is a tough pill to swallow. If I were to do this myself, I’d use these Detroit Axle aftermarket parts. These control arms are basic stamped steel so they’re hard to screw up from a manufacturing standpoint, and I’ve had good luck with Detroit Axle. I’d probably spend about three hours on the repair.
Replacing the arms isn’t the hard part, it’s getting the upper control arm bushings out of the front axle. You’ll notice the upper control arms in the image above have one open end; that’s because that side bolts up to bushings like this one below, which are pressed into the housing on the axle:
Getting those bushings out of the housing on the axle requires a ball joint press and/or a big hammer, and there’s really not a lot of space under the Jeep for either. This job will be a pain in the arse, but since Hannah’s Jeep is rust free, I bet I could manage it in three hours, saving her an absurd $570 (probably more, since the original quote accounted for only two of the control arms).
Again, it comes down to the much lower parts price (all four arms for what the shop charges for just one, though admittedly I’m using a budget brand here), and the avoidance of $507.50 worth of labor.
Leaky Valve Cover Gasket: $20 and 1.5 Hours Of Work—Savings: $228
The leaky valve cover gasket is a classic Jeep inline-six ailment. Fixing it requires removal of a bunch of small bolts that hold the valve cover to the cylinder head. Some of these bolts can be tricky to get to, and even when they’re out, removing the valve cover requires some finesse. There are some throttle and cruise control cables in the way, an injector harness and some crankcase ventilation hoses to avoid, and there’s the thermostat housing at the very front of the engine that tends to want to trap the cover.
Still, I can do the job in about an hour to 90 minutes if I’m taking my time cleaning the mating surfaces perfectly after really struggling to get that valve cover off. (I often have a heck of a time with it.) As you can see above, the gasket itself is only $20, so I’d be saving roughly $228.
Sway Bar Bushings: $26 And One Hour Of Work—Savings: $359
Swapping the sway bar bushings isn’t difficult, unless you’re trying to press new bushings into the old links, which nobody does. Instead, I’d just snag that $17 set of AC Delco links shown above and the two Moog bushings to hold the sway bar itself to the Jeep’s body. I’d be done with this repair job after only an hour of work and $26 (plus tax) in expenses. I’d save $359.
Replace Upstream O2 Sensor: $38 And One Hour Of Work—Savings: $215
Replacing O2 sensors can be tricky, but with an O2 sensor socket, enough penetrating fluid, and possibly some heat (you can just run the vehicle to warm up the sensor’s threads), the old one should spin out rather easily.
The O2 sensor that the Oakland shop suggested for Puh’s Jeep carried the same part number as the one shown above. But, instead of $144, Amazon sells the sensor for under $38. Trade an hour of work for the $108.75 labor charge, and I’d save $215 on this repair by doing it myself.
Serpentine Belt: $20 And One Hour Of Work—Savings: $172
I’ve had to replace Jeep Cherokee serpentine belts in five minutes on the side of a busy highway. It isn’t a hard job. Buying the belt shown above from Amazon for $20, would save $172 and cost half an hour with a wrench in my hand. An hour, tops. (The shop charges $108.75 for labor and $83.27 for the belt.)
Power Steering Leak Repair: $30 and Four (?) Hours Of Work. Savings—$620
To fix the power steering fluid leak, I’d double-check the hoses on the power steering pump for holes, just to be sure, as these are typical weak points on XJ Cherokees. But if the shop is right, and it’s the box that’s leaking, the fluid is likely seeping from the Pitman arm shaft seal. To replace that, I’d have to remove the Pitman arm from the box, and extract the seals. Per the video below, it’s a messy job:
This is the only repair on this list that I’ve never done on an XJ Cherokee, so I can’t say with the utmost confidence how long it would take for me to accomplish it. If I had to guess, probably four hours in the worst case, but who knows?
What I do know is that the parts would be cheap at only $22 from O’Reilly Auto Parts for the seals and $8 for two quarts of power steering fluid. Between the $290 labor charge, the $337 for the steering box, and the $17.18 estimate for power steering fluid, I could save over $600 by just replacing the little seal.
(Note: I called the shop, and a mechanic explained that replacing the entire box is generally how they fix leaks like this one. I myself would just do the seal replacement shown in the video above. I’d likely also swap the steering hoses while I had the system drained).
Brake Fluid Replacement: $5 And One Hour Of Work—Savings: $112
Based on my experience, bleeding these brakes would require about a quart of brake fluid (the shop’s estimate accounts for two $15 quarts), plus a wrench, a hose, and a friend to push the brake pedal when you have the bleeder screw open (or you can do this alone with a $10 one-person bleeder kit). Bleeding the Jeep’s rear drums and front disks should take roughly an hour, assuming none of the bleeders break as they tend to if the car is from the Rust Belt. You’d save about $110 doing this yourself.
Transmission Fluid Drain & Fill, Filter Swapped: $50 And Two Hours Of Work. Savings—~$380
The shop quoted $181.25 to replace the old transmission filter with a new $143.18 unit. Add $24 for sealant and about $100 for four quarts of ATF, and the shop wanted around $430 for the job.
I’ve done this work myself with the $28 filter (which comes with a gasket) from Advance Auto Parts shown above and some Carquest Dexron III/Mercon ATF, which costs $22 per gallon. It’s fairly straightforward, though messy.
Total savings to drain the fluid, drop and clean the pan, replace the filter, reinstall the pan with the new gasket, and refill the system yourself? Right around $380 for the roughly two-hour job. Though without any snags (i.e., if the pan is easy to clean), I could do it in one.
It’s worth mentioning that this job will require recycling the old oil. Any decent car parts store will take it off your hands. As for brake fluid and coolant—check your county or city’s rules. My city of Troy, Michigan has a drop-off location that requires an appointment.
Replace Air Filter: $13 And Two Minutes Of Work. Savings—~$30
Instead of paying the shop $43 to replace the air filter, I could swap in a nice Purolator filter for just $12.50+tax and probably two minutes of my time. That’s $30 saved.
Coolant Drain And Fill: $22 And One Hour Of Work—Savings:~$185
The shop’s $206.71 charge includes a $127.60 flush job and $79.11 worth of Mopar coolant. If I were to do this, I wouldn’t “flush” the system, I’d just drain the radiator. There’d still be some old coolant in the block, but I’d have the vast majority of it out of the system. I’d take a garden hose and back-flush the radiator and heater core to remove any debris, then I’d pour in some dirt-cheap Walmart “Supertech” branded antifreeze ($10 per gallon — I’d snag two, along with two $1 gallon jugs of distilled water) into the radiator and recovery bottle and be done with everything for just $22.
I’d save $185 and have decent, clean antifreeze in the system.
Oil Change And Tire Rotation: $30 And One Hour Of Work—Savings:~$40
The estimate includes a “5,000 Mile Maintenance Service,” which includes an oil change, drain plug gasket and tire rotation.
Using six quarts of Walmart Supertech oil (which is generally considered decent stuff), a nice $12 Purolator oil filter from Advance Auto Parts and no new drain plug washer (I’ve never had to replace one on any of my Jeeps), I’d be in for about $30, or about $40 less than what the shop charges. The oil change and tire rotation would probably take me an hour with power tools.
Only $550 For $4,100 Worth Of Repairs
Puh’s full estimate came to $4,918 before tax, or around $5,112.90 after tax. $240 of those $4,918 were for those four quarts of accidentally overpriced automatic transmission fluid and $85 of those dollars were for an extra wheel alignment that the shop had on the estimate. So the real estimate should have been around $4,600 plus tax. Of those $4,600, diagnostic fees for the dysfunctional rear wiper, air bag light and broken horn account for $471.25. Actual parts costs for all the repairs noted on the estimate, labor for replacing those parts and an alignment comes out to around $4,100. That’s what my friend would have had to pay to fix everything that that the shop provided a repair estimate for.
To fix all of those same ailments — that is, to diagnose and replace the O2 sensor (I knew it was the problem based on the OBD code reading and engine behavior), to replace the coolant (but not flush), to fix the power steering fluid leak, to replace the bad sway bar bushings/links, to swap all four shocks, to do an oil change and tire rotation, to swap out that bad brake light bulb, to change the valve cover gasket, to replace the serpentine belt, to install a new transmission fluid filter and refill the transmission with fluid, to replace the brake fluid manually (but not flush with a machine), to swap out the air filter, and to have an alignment done would cost me a total of $550 and no more than 17.5 hours of my time. I’d be saving my friend about $3,550 on these repairs.
That’s basically a weekend of fairly simple wrenching to save quite a lot of money. Crank some George Strait, break out some beverages and enjoy a couple days of wrenching with your pals. If you’re able to save $3,550, and it somehow takes the full 17.5 hours I’ve estimated, you’d essentially be working at a rate of $200 an hour if you do it yourself. That’s good money.
To be sure, you may need to buy some tools. I’d recommend an electric impact to speed everything up. But even if you went wild and dropped $500 on tools at Lowes, you’d still save over three grand. I’ll also reiterate that the parts that I quoted in my DIY estimates above are, in some cases, considered “lower quality” than what the shop called for, so that’s why they’re cheaper (and also, shops tend to mark up their parts costs—which is fine! They’ve got to stay in business). But what I’ve suggested are still good components, and they will last.
It’s also worth pointing out that some of my repair estimates are lower because they aren’t as involved as what the shop suggested. For example, my price for the coolant job involves just draining the radiator, not flushing the system. Also, fixing the leak on the power steering box involves replacing a seal, not the entire unit as the shop advised. Though less involved, all of my repair processes are sound and will result in a finished vehicle that will almost certainly perform in exactly the same way as it would if the shop did the repairs using its procedures and parts.
So what’s my point here? Basically, this estimate shows me how much I’ve saved by doing all my own work over the years. Since I don’t take my vehicles to shops, I haven’t had occasion to learn just how critical my wrenching skills have been in even making old car ownership possible. I’ve done every single job on Hannah’s repair estimate multiple times, except for the power steering box leak, which I’m not too intimidated by. All of the other stuff is simple and costs so, so little money to fix. It’s $550 instead of $4,100 — that’s almost 90 percent savings!
If you can wrench, you can drive an old, popular car like a Jeep Cherokee for pennies (plus gas), while not having to deal with depreciation. This particular vehicle seems to actually be appreciating these days. It’s a beautiful thing. But if you’re not comfortable with wrenching, things can get tricky.
In the case of my friend Hannah, who is a genius but hasn’t had an opportunity to learn to wrench (like many people, she also doesn’t really have the space), I called up the shop and had a candid conversation with the extremely helpful mechanic about what Puh absolutely needs to have done and what she can kick down the road a bit since she’s on a tight budget.
“I realize those control arm bushings are cracked,” I told the technician. “But they’re cracked on damn near every Jeep I own, and it’s really not an issue. You can tell when it is a problem by vibration in the steering wheel,” I continued.
“You’re right. This isn’t something that needs to be done right away,” he concurred.
Because it’s a safety item, we agreed that the brake fluid absolutely does need to be changed. And of course, the O2 sensor has to be swapped since the Jeep isn’t running properly. I suggested to Hannah that she have her transmission fluid replaced, just because the potential damage that dirty fluid could cause would be prohibitively expensive to fix. She decided she’d hold off, and I think that’s a fine choice, as the fluid doesn’t look that dirty. It’ll just need to be done sometime soon. I also suggested that the airbag light be fixed, even though I wouldn’t bother if it were my car. Her safety has to be her choice.
The oil leaks and bad sway bar bushings aren’t the end of the world, especially given Hannah’s budget right now. And the coolant should still be in decent shape, since I changed it when I did the head five years ago — and the Jeep hasn’t really seen much driving since then. So while she’s not doing most of the suggested fixes, what’s important is that she has the car running well. She’ll have her oil changed at a cheap lube shop, since $70 is a bit steep. The Jeep will have good brakes (she’s got clean fluid now, and her boyfriend replaced the pads), nice tires (she got new ones), a suspension that, while clearly not perfect still makes the car feel smooth and controllable, and tight steering.
In time, the control arms, sway bar links, shocks and the rest will need to be dealt with. I plan to head to the West Coast to pick up a secret car project that I’ve been hiding from everyone for more than six months now. If the car gods grant me a miracle and I get that thing running after 20+ years of sitting (read: rotting), then I’d like to head south to California to pamper this XJ and save Puh some big money. I’ll let her buy me a big steak in return.