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Toyota Offers Free Maintenance: Is it a Good Deal?

Everybody likes free stuff. With that in mind, Toyota has added free maintenance to its sales pitch. All 2011 vehicles from Toyota (such as the Highlander below, right) will come with free maintenance for the first two years or 25,000 miles. That coverage also includes models from the company's youth-oriented brand Scion (like the redesigned tC, pictured below left).

Free maintenance has been a popular perk mostly for luxury brands such as BMW -- because the high cost of routine maintenance had been putting off luxury car owners. Cadillac offers free maintenance for four years or 50,000 miles on all its 2011 models, and Lincoln is promising a free maintenance program for any vehicles sold for the rest of this year. (See Free Car Maintenance from U.S. Luxury Models). But Toyota Motor's own luxury brand, Lexus, has free maintenance only for the first two scheduled visits.

Toyota becomes the first big-volume brand with a free maintenance program. After Toyota's safety recalls earlier this year, this is its latest move aimed at "previously loyal buyers who may be considering other brands," says James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. He notes that the number of new-car shoppers looking at Toyota on Kelley's web site kbb.com was down 14% in September over a year earlier while activity increased for competitors, including Honda, Ford and Hyundai.

If you are shopping for a new car, how much should a free maintenance program like Toyota's influence your decision? With a free maintenance deal from any auto company, here are the questions to ask yourself:

What exactly is covered? Toyota's program includes free oil and oil filter changes and lubrication of key chassis parts and a 19-point inspection at the dealership. It does not include brake pads or rotors. BMW and Lincoln plans include brake parts, but most do not.

How much are you saving? If you were paying for the Toyota routine maintenance for two years, analysts estimate the cost would be $300 to $400. And you may still have some costs even with the free program. Kbb.com's Bell points out that the Toyota program, like some others, does not cover parts and labor costs for items such as air filters, belts, hoses and windshield wipers that may be recommended for replacement after inspection.

Would you go to the dealership for service anyway? Like all car companies, Toyota wants to encourage you to use the dealership service department for maintenance and repairs. But if you have an independent mechanic you trust, both maintenance and repairs are likely to be cheaper there. (See Auto Repair: Save $300 a Year by Avoiding Dealers). For instance, auto repair web site AutoMD estimates that if pads and rotors do need replacing on front disc brakes, it would cost an average of $330 at a dealership vs. $265 at an independent mechanic.

If you should need a major repair covered by your new-car warranty, you will need to go to a dealership for a free repair. See What New Car Warranties Cover (and Don't). But your warranty remains in force even if you have had maintenance done at an independent shop.
The bottom line on free maintenance: It can be a nice perk but only if it goes along with a good deal on the car, truck or SUV you wanted to buy anyway.

Photos courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.

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