The $1K Headlight Job

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 28, 2014

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 2004 Acura RL that had developed an intermittent headlight problem where one of the headlights would go off unexpectedly. The quick solution was to turn the lights off and then immediately back on, and the faulty headlight also would come back on. My local Acura dealer's service department indicated that any one of three separate headlight components could be the culprit, and that it is not possible to test them separately. They advised replacing all three, since the labor to replace any one of them individually would be the same.

They gave a pre-repair estimate of about $1,100! I finally agreed, because it is not really safe to go around with a headlight that might fail at an inappropriate moment. The total bill was as follows: Inverter -- $364, igniter -- $180, bulb -- $178, labor (including removing and replacing the front bumper to access the headlight unit) -- $318. With 7 percent sales tax, the total repair came to $1,113. Have I just been given a good hosing, or are these reasonable chargesĀ for this type of repair for this vehicle?

-- Kyle

RAY: Yes, and yes.

TOM: First, I want to say that I'm impressed with their estimate -- off by only 13 bucks on a thousand-dollar-plus job. That makes me think they've already done this repair a few times.

RAY: And that's why they suggested replacing all three components, Kyle. I'm sure at some point in history, they replaced just the bulb for some customer, charged him $500, and then had to go back in and replace the inverter and igniter, and charge him another $900.

TOM: That's not a phone call you want to make twice if you're a service manager.

RAY: So yes, these are reasonable "dealership rate" charges for the work you had done. And yes, you also got hosed, because Acura designed a car that requires you to remove the front bumper in order to change a headlight bulb.

TOM: This is a classic hidden cost of owning a high-end car. When you bought the RL back in 2004, you probably paid dearly for the HID (high-intensity-discharge) headlights. What you didn't know is that you'd have to pay dearly again when the bulb blew out.

RAY: The salesman probably told you (if you even thought to ask) that the HID bulbs are designed to last the life of the car, so you wouldn't have to worry about it. But of course, "life of the car" parts don't always last the life of the car.

TOM: And by the way, keep in mind that you may have to replace the bulb on the other side at some point, too. So start saving.

RAY: When buying a car, if you're planning to keep it for the long haul, it's worth thinking about the features you want to opt for.

TOM: Those motorized sliding doors on that minivan are convenient for letting your kids in and out. They're supposed to last the life of the car, too. But how do you feel about shelling out $1,000 when the door motor goes?

RAY: The air suspension is a comfy touch. It should last the life of the car. But how many thousands will it cost when it breaks, compared with a set of shocks?

TOM: And those 22-inch alloy wheels look sharp. But when you dent one on a pothole, how long are you going to cry when they tell you a replacement wheel costs $800?

RAY: So, we're sorry you had to pay so dearly to get your headlight back, Kyle. But I don't think it's the dealer's fault. It's a bit of shortsighted engineering by Acura, combined with the price of advanced technology.

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