Every automobile engine generates a great deal of heat, which is carried by the coolant system to the radiator, where it is drawn off. The radiator sits in a position where it receives good airflow, usually in the front of the engine compartment.
In order to transfer heat efficiently, a radiator has a core made from many fine passages of thin metals, which are themselves made more effective by having thin metal cooling fins mechanically attached. Most modern radiators are made with an aluminum core and plastic side tanks. The cooling system is pressurized to increase its boiling point, which means the radiator also has to hold pressure.
To replace the radiator, removal can be simple: two hoses, the fan shroud or electric fan assembly, and a couple of mounting bolts. There are many things that can make that more complicated, though, especially in newer vehicles. Sometimes a radiator core support might need to be removed, and sometimes other things like a transmission cooler or AC condenser might need to be removed to gain access. In a few newer vehicles, the whole front bumper and sub-assembly have to be removed; this is the consequence of an integrated assembly.
What’s the Price of a New Radiator?
The average cost of a radiator replacement is about $500. The cost to replace a radiator can vary widely as labor rates can be charged differently across different shops, and they aren’t always billed out at book time. Parts prices can also vary considerably depending on the specific vehicle, the brands available, and the mark-up practices of any individual shop.
Some radiator replacement costs on some common vehicles using a $150 per hour labor rate are presented below:
- 2006 Toyota Tacoma 4.0-liter engine – A factory radiator costs around $297 and a TYC replacement part is around $240. The labor time for radiator replacement is estimated at 0.9 hours. With about 2 gallons of factory coolant, the total job cost would be about $470 using OE parts and about $420 using aftermarket parts.
- 2005 Chrysler 300 5.7-liter engine – A factory radiator price is around $360, and a Spectra replacement part is about $160. The labor time for a radiator replacement is approximately 1.8 hours. With about 2 gallons of coolant, the total cost to complete the job would be about $660 using OE parts and about $470 using aftermarket parts.
- 2007 Subaru Tribeca 3.0-liter engine – A factory radiator costs about $330, and a Denso replacement part is about $300. The labor time for a radiator replacement is around 1.4 hours. With about 2 gallons of coolant, the total job cost would be around $560 using OE parts and about $525 using aftermarket parts.
- 2012 GMC Acadia – A factory radiator costs around $360 and a CSF replacement part is about $230. The labor time for radiator replacement is estimated at 7.7 hours (involving front bumper and core-support removal). With about 2 gallons of coolant, the total job cost would be about $1550 using OE parts and about $1420 using aftermarket parts.
Ways to Save Money on Radiator Replacement
As with many repair jobs, sometimes money can be saved on a radiator replacement if time isn’t urgent. The most readily available part is not always the most economical or even the best choice, and if time isn’t pressing, other options may be available. One way is to ask the shop doing the work if there is a cheaper way, and often they will look into it for you.
One other possible way to save money on radiator repairs, depending on the problem, is to have the old radiator repaired. Radiator-specific shops often have equipment to flow-test radiators, to clean radiators internally, and to repair leaking seams or seal up core leaks. If time allows, it’s usually possible to have a radiator sent out for a repair estimate, which can then be compared with an estimate for replacement.
If one shop or dealership has no cheaper options available, another one might. Calling around for estimates is still a good way to price-shop. Another option, if you have extra time and the tools to do the work, is to replace the radiator yourself. If you have an estimate, you can look at the labor cost to roughly gauge the difficulty.
How Radiators Fail
Radiators can leak. Most often, they are made of an aluminum core joined to plastic side tanks that have the inlets and outlets built-in. The seam between the core and the side tanks can sometimes leak and is generally not repairable without specialized equipment.
The core itself, which is often made of very thin and relatively fragile aluminum, can also develop leaks. Internal or external corrosion can weaken the metal, and sometimes, gravel or road debris can strike a radiator hard enough while driving to puncture a coolant passage.
Radiators can also become blocked; leaves and other obstructions can build up in front of the radiator and block airflow. Usually, these can be cleaned off with more or less effort.
The coolant that flows through a radiator usually has good corrosion inhibitors. However, if the coolant isn’t serviced on an adequate schedule or if the coolant isn’t correct for the vehicle, internal corrosion can build up and prevent coolant flow through the radiator. Mixing incompatible coolants can also clog a radiator.
Related Article: Coolant Flush Costs
Other Things That Might Be Needed
If a leaking radiator caused or occurred in conjunction with an engine overheating event, it is common to have a thermostat replacement recommended at the same time. The thermostat is the mechanical valve that regulates engine temperature and coolant flow, and it can be damaged by overheating. It’s also usually fairly easy to replace and is sometimes considered a maintenance item during other repairs.
Related Article: Thermostat Replacement Cost
Most radiators have a cap with a spring-loaded seal built-in which regulates the system pressure and protects it from over-pressure. It’s fairly normal to replace the cap along with the radiator as inexpensive insurance.
Sometimes radiator replacements require the removal of the AC condenser, which usually sits in front of the radiator. In that case, evacuation and recharge of the system aren’t always considered in the labor times and may be additional, along with freon costs if those are involved.
Sometimes, it’s necessary to remove a transmission cooler as well, and reassembly will involve topping up the transmission fluid, which might be billed as an additional parts charge.
Coolant puddles under the vehicle, steam rising from under the hood, a heater not working well, gurgling noises in the dash from low coolant in the heater core, overheating.
Most mechanics recommend against it, as it fixes nothing, but can clog coolant passages and lead to more expensive damage.
The main problem would be overheating due to low coolant, and boiling off coolant if the radiator couldn’t hold the pressure necessary to prevent boiling. An overheating problem can easily lead to serious engine damage, so it’s pretty important for the radiator to be in good shape.
If maintained well, a radiator can last the life of a vehicle. The best approach is to read the owner’s manual and follow the recommended maintenance.