Are car parts from an auto parts shop as good as the ones from the dealer?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 1992

Dear Tom and Ray:

I would like to know if the parts you buy at discount auto parts stores are as good as the parts you get at dealerships. I have to replace a drag link and steering rod on my '83 Ford Ranger, and there's a difference of almost $25 per part.

RAY: This is not an easy question to answer, Sam, because there are no general rules. Several things make it confusing. First, all parts are not created equal. Some are great, some are good, and some are doo doo. People tend to assume that if one guy buys six spark plug wires for $19 bucks, and another guy buys six wires for $59 bucks, the second guy just paid too much. But the truth is, second guy's car will probably start in the rain, while the first guy is watching Flintstones re-runs while waiting for the tow truck.

TOM: But there's not always a direct correlation between quality and price. And that's what makes it so hard to make general rules. As in any sales business, there are pricing games being played. So in an extreme case, it might even be possible for one guy to pay $19 for plug wires, and another guy to pay $59 for the same plug wires! That's because there are stores that discount good quality parts, and stores that mark up poor quality parts. And unless you know what things are really worth, it's very easy to get screwed over.

RAY: We can tell you that there are certain advantages to going to the dealership. While you do pay a premium for parts, at least you know that what you're getting is original equipment quality. And you know you're probably getting the RIGHT parts for your car. So if your knowledge of auto parts is as limited as say, my brother's knowledge of table manners, the safest bet would be to go to the dealer.

TOM: On the other hand, if you know what you're doing, you can save a lot of money at auto parts stores. For example, General Motors dealers sell AC/Delco parts, and Ford dealers sell Motorcraft. But you can get some of the same AC/Delco and Motorcraft parts at auto parts stores and even plain old discount stores like "J-Mart," and pay a heck of a lot less for them.

RAY: Or, if you're familiar with parts manufacturers, and know what to ask for, auto parts stores are great. For instance, a company named AP makes very good mufflers. You've probably never heard of them because they do very little retail advertising. But if you knew who they were, you could save money and buy their exhaust products at auto parts stores.

TOM: But remember, there really is a difference in quality, so you have to be careful. If you're not auto-parts-literate, and you don't know someone who can give you a reliable recommendation, play it safe and pay a few extra bucks at the dealership. But if you have the time and the desire to educate yourself, you'll certainly do better at a discount store or a bona fide auto parts store.

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