Is the "free tires for life" program at Shelley's Honda dealer all it's really cracked up to be? Find out.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Feb 01, 2007

Dear Tom and Ray:

Am I being taken for a ride? I bought a brand-new Honda CR-V and was enrolled in a "free tires for life" program with my dealership. The catch (isn't there always?) is that I have to have my tires balanced every 7,500 miles and an alignment every year, plus routine oil changes and an annual inspection at the dealership in order to qualify for the free tires. Is it necessary to have my tires balanced every 7,500 miles and get an alignment every year if I don't get into any accidents or drive over curbs? When do I need an alignment? Are they essentially getting me to "pay" for the tires through unnecessary services? Would I be better off finding a reliable mechanic and getting my oil changes and routine checkups (including rotating the tires) with him and buying my own tires as the need arises? If they are taking me for a ride, should I call them on it? -- Shellee

RAY: Well, this is a very clever little program, Shellee. I'm embarrassed that I didn't think of it first!

TOM: The key part of your question is, "Are they essentially getting me to 'pay' for the tires through unnecessary services?" The answer is, yes, of course they are! Dealerships are not nonprofit, public institutions. They're businesses.

RAY: Let's do the math. Let's say the new tires are worth $75 each, or $300 a set. And let's say you drive 15,000 miles a year. So, if you have cheap tires, you'll need new tires after two years.

TOM: To get your free tires, the first thing you have to do is come in every 7,500 miles and have your tires balanced.

RAY: Do you need to have your tires balanced every 7,500 miles? No. Once tires are mounted and balanced, they almost never need rebalancing, unless a customer complains about a high-speed vibration. So at 10 bucks a wheel, that's $40 each time you come in, and at twice a year, that's $80 a year.

TOM: Then you have to get a wheel alignment once a year, which you also don't need. An alignment is $99. Let's call it $100. So you're in for $180 a year, times two years is $360 worth of service that is most likely unnecessary -- or $60 more than the new tires would cost you.

RAY: But the dealership actually gets even more out of it. Because when you come in at 7,500 miles, that -- conveniently -- happens to be the exact mileage at which Honda calls for your car to be serviced. So they get to sell you the 7,500-mile service, the 15,000-mile service, the 22,500-mile service and the granddaddy of boat-payment services, the 30,000-mile. They make a nice profit on those.

TOM: Plus, they get you to come in for your required "inspection" once a year, where they have the opportunity to sell you other services. So it's a great way for the dealership to keep you coming in. They figure that if they can get you in the door regularly, they'll probably get all of your automotive business.

RAY: There's nothing inherently evil about the free-tire program, Shellee. So you don't need to "call them on it." They're just trying to build a relationship with you. But it might not be a relationship you want, since it requires you to buy services you don't need and limits your choice of service locations.

TOM: Right. So just plan to buy your own tires when the time comes. That leaves you free to have your car serviced wherever you want. You can do it at the dealership, or use an independent mechanic to save some money. And every 7,500 miles when you have your car serviced and your oil changed, tell your mechanic to rotate your tires, too.

RAY: Now, if you'll excuse us, we have to go set up a free-tire program at our garage!

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