Tune Up Cost Guide

Author: Marc Stern

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When was the last time you priced out a tune-up for your family buggy? Was it last year; two years ago; five years ago, or longer? If you have priced them within the previous five years, you know two things:

  1. Tune-ups are more expensive
  2. Tune-up parts lists are much shorter.

There’s a reason for this: today’s car is not meant to be tuned-up nearly as often as cars made as recently as 10 to 15 years ago due to several reasons:

  1. Tighter emissions regulations
  2. Tighter mileage standards
  3. Increasing gas mileage requirements
  4. Dependence on computers

To manufacturers, these are real marks. They must battle with them every time a car, truck, or SUV makes its debut. Thankfully, computers and electronics technology has kept up with tightened requirements. For the consumer, the results are:

  • Higher prices
  • Almost no access to the engine or components

What Makes This Tune-Up More Expensive?

Why is tune-up more expensive? 

The answer is as complicated as it is simple. In a couple of words, tune-ups are more costly due to the complications brought by added technology and because of the added issues brought by that technology. For example, engines are closed systems. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Consumer-access to engines is actively discouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because without the proper tools, or training consumers could harm the balance needed for proper engine operation today.
  2. To function correctly, engines have to have a “hands-off” sign on them. Just one example will suffice – the word is stoichiometry. This is the point where an engine operates on the edge, balanced between mileage and performance. If a consumer were to have access, then the engine’s balance would be upset.

Today, there are roughly 18 major engine subsystems that “talk” a vehicle’s master computer system, also known as the engine control module (ECM). The ECM polls each subsystem which reports back while awaiting its marching orders so that the powerplant delivers maximum performance, while, at the same time, providing a record of every error that occurs.

This computerized record of performance is crucial because it allows a diagnostic scanner to access and find out any problems that may have occurred. It is vital to the state of your vehicle’s tune.

unrecognizable mechanic doing car service and maintenance

Basic Tune-Up Hasn’t Change Much, But …

Yes, it is true that at their very basis engine tune-ups today are very little different than they were 50 years ago if you look at them closely. 

Your vehicle still needs its spark plugs checked. It required the air filter monitored and replaced if necessary. And, it means the fuel filter needs checking, as well. Today, the critical difference is that instead of having a technician stand under the hood for three-quarters-of-an-hour gathering information, manually, one system at a time, OBD-II scanner polls the ECM for the info. The beauty of the OBD-II scanner is that it is:

  • Faster
  • Accurate
  • Provides a hard-copy print of the problems
  • It often narrows down issues to the subsystem level

Indeed, it is a more expensive process – quite often as much as 50 to 60 percent more costly than tune-ups ran in the 1980s when much of the engine was still available to consumers. Consumers could then do the tune-ups that they can no longer do today.

Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for a shade-tree mechanic to reset the spark plugs, re-gapping them for better performance, as well as resetting the timing for optimum performance. There were some computerized systems available, but, they were relatively rudimentary (PVC and the like). Indeed, the consumer could get into just about every primary system and do the work. Today, as we have seen, it is no longer true.

If you were to run an analysis of this, you would realize that there are a host of items and information flashing back and forth between the master engine module and the OBD-II scanner. 

For example, look at the emissions system because it is critical that the vehicle maintains an exact balance of fuel to air (that word again, stoichiometry or 14.7:1 fuel to air that has to be precise for lowest emissions and best mileage): the fuel system, the manifold, and the like. The emissions and fuel systems work in concert with the sensors on the manifold to maintain the balance of fuel-to-air. If, for example, your car is running a long uphill stretch, it is likely that the fuel system has increased the flow to the engine to keep from stalling. In this case, the MAF (Mass AirFlow, Baro(metric) system, and others all working together keep the engine at peak efficiency. The same is of slowing down, passing, and the like.

It is true that you can purchase your diagnostic scanner and poll the system yourself, but, the software within the scanner is very generic and only points generally at any potential problems. A dealer, on the other hand, has access to the latest in factory-backed software so that any diagnostic readout is more accurate and detailed. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The factory has gone to the trouble of developing the software so that it tends to make the information proprietary.
  2. The documented information is quite detailed and points to areas of the vehicle that are inaccessible to the consumer to due to the closed nature of the system.
auto mechanic wearing gloves holding air filter over a car engine

What is the OBD-II Scanner and What Does It Do?

The OBD-II scanner, as noted, which plugs into the diagnostic port that is near the left-hand kick panel of the driver’s seat area, mates with the master computer system and it provides a detailed reading of what is going on where. It is true that the readouts are essentially codes, like P072 or P0703, which have meanings to the OBD-II scanner. The scanner is only half the setup. The other half is a microcomputer-based reading system that decodes, prints, and recommends areas where the technician will find the problem or problems.

For example, let’s say that there is a problem with the heater or heater core.  The performance of your car’s heater/cooling system is one of those routinely polled during a tune-up. It is also one of those systems that are seldom looked at by a technician. If nothing is wrong, the information remains with the ECM, awaiting problems that may crop up.

When Should You Have A Tune-up Performed?

This is a topic where there are as many thoughts as there are technicians. Indeed, the enthusiasm with which some technicians hold their positions on this topic is impressive. So, rather than jumping into this particular almost-religious dogfight, we will say that on average, if your car goes longer than a year, it’s a good idea to have a diagnostic routine performed, so that you can be sure that you can go through the next 12 months in peace.

If you do opt for a yearly tune – many folks do – two considerations are:

  1. What needs checking?
  2. How much will it cost?

Let’s put this on a mileage basis.

5,000-7,500 Miles

Today it is the industry’s universal recommendation to replace the oil and filter, plus adding a chassis lube. In general, you will find that this service will cost you roughly $49.95. 

At this point, it’s also an excellent idea to change the air filter, as well, because a clogged air filter is the crucial part of the recipe for poor service. You may also want to have the gas-line filters swapped out. Generally, these two services will add about another $29.95 to the bill so that the total will be roughly $80. 

Don’t forget that you will also pay a per quart fee for oil recycling. However, it is part of the service so that the cost will remain the same.

Here are some of the other systems that should be checked at this point – to be on the safe side:

  • Tires: Although tires today will last on an average 40,000 to 60,000 miles or more, they do need regular checks to make sure they last this long. At this service, the technician should look the tires over carefully for any cracks or cuts. The rubber should be supple and free of signs of dry rot. At this time, the technician should also make sure that there are no objects such as tacks or nails in the tire. If there are, they should be pulled out. Hopefully, they have not penetrated the tire carcass. If they haven’t everything is in good shape. If there is tire penetration, the tire will have to be dismounted patched properly (another article), remounted, and refilled. This will likely add another $25 to $40 for this service. If everything is okay, make sure the technician reinflates the tire with cold air to roughly 30 psi – or the amount your car’s tire monitoring system recognizes – so everything remains in good shape.
  • Fluids: Your technician should check all of your car’s fluids while it is undergoing the 5,500-mile check, though you can wait until 7,500 miles if that is your manufacturer’s recommendation. The fluids that may need a look now – we are assuming your oil is okay – include the anti-freeze/coolant; the power steering, and brakes. There is a convenient reservoir that will let your technician look at the anti-freeze/coolant. There’s a see-through plastic reservoir that allows you to check the anti-freeze/coolant easily. If the fluid seems a bit low, refill with a 50-50 mix of water and anti-freeze/coolant. This will give you coverage to about 20-below in the winter and 100 or more in the summer – typical temperature range.  It should cost no more than $10 to do this.
  • Change the brake fluid if you pop the cover and see bubbles swirling around. Since brake fluid is air-attractive, bubbles mean there has been a breach somewhere in the system (most likely in one of the calipers). You should have the system worked on, at this point, because the brakes are one of the critical safety systems. Brakes are expensive and can easily cost you up between $400 and $600  per wheel, depending on the make and model of your vehicle and the complexity of the work. Simply replacing calipers and refacing the disc will cost about $395, while a new disc is about $225 and new calipers will be about $300, with labor. You should have your tech replace the power steering fluid if it also seems to have bubbles in it. This fluid is water-attractive, in other words, if there is water vapor around, it will attract and be spoiled by it. For the most part, the power steering fluid requires a quick check and then a fast reservoir closing. It is good for the life of your vehicle. That said, though, if you do have problems, the entire supply should be replaced. This service can be quite expensive. Depending on the problem encountered, servicing your vehicle’s power steering can run from a low of about $250 up to $1,250.
  • Belts/Hoses: The belts and hoses generally will last longer than 50,000 miles, in regular use. However, it is a pretty good idea to changed them after two years or about 30,000 miles of use. The reason is simple: over time, the belt can become worn – glazing occurs – or repeated attempts to re-dress the belt with rubberizing,  then it is time to replace the belt. It is a critical belt to be fixed because it is a serpentine – one belt winds around several pullies and runs several systems. Because it is essential, you have to pay close attention to the belt for signs of wear. The serpentine replacement can be a bit on the pricey side, about $450 or so because it is a rather complicated repair to do. By the way, to tell if the serpentine needs replacement, press it with your thumb. If there’s more than an inch of play and if there is apparent glazing caused by pullies that are slipping, it is time for a change. Replace the hoses when they become worn or mushy. You can tell if a hose is worn by looking at it. If there are signs of obvious mushrooming, then it is gone. It is a good candidate for replacement. Also, if there is visible fraying or leakage around a hose clamp or more than one, it is time for a replacement. Finally,  sometimes it doesn’t look as if the hose is wearing, yet it is. The way you can tell it is gone is if, for instance,  the thermostat hits the roof and warning bells sound. In today’s cars with their specific engine geometries which belts have to meet, belt replacement can be expensive. For example, the heater hose on a Ford Fusion can run to $570,  while even simple straight hoses can become worn and mushy and need changing. To determine if your belts need replacement, merely press on them with your thumb. If there is more than an inch play and if they cannot be adjusted further with standard tools, then it’s time to replace the belt.
  • Brakes: While we have already mentioned the brakes, it is also a standalone element in a tune-up. Generally, if you can feel the brakes heading toward the floor when you hit them or if there is uneven pressure in the pedal, it’s time to replace them. When the brakes head toward the floor, it indicates that either the caliper itself or a part of the brake system is leaking. If this is the case, you will have to have the brakes inspected and worked on. This is generally an expensive proposition with a full brake job (calipers and rotors on one wheel) costing more than $400. This means that a complete brake job (four wheels and rotors) will cost the better part of $1,600. Some places can offer you a discount – about 10 to 15 percent – if you pay quickly. If this is the case, save the money and pay quickly. Here’s a way to indicate whether the repair belongs to a wheel or the brake lines. Set the parking brake and turn on the vehicle. Then, press hard on the brake pedal. If it sinks to the floor quickly, then it is probably a leak in one of the brake lines. If there is some firmness in the brake pedal as you press, then you can be fairly certain it is a brake part, not the brake line.

15,000 to 50,000

  • Manifold: Though this check usually doesn’t occur until there is much more mileage on your car, it is also a good idea to take a quick look after a year’s worth of driving, which is where we are. The manifold is key because it sets the conditions for the engine to work correctly. If the balance is upset here, then the engine will run roughly and use excessive gas. If you have to have the manifold worked on you can expect to pay somewhere between $1,800 and $3,000, depending on the repair, make and model which is the reason for the disparity. Manifold problems are quite uncommon, but when they occur, the problems are usually major and need addressing. As noted, the manifold sets up the pressure and forces the exhaust to work correctly. It is also the head of the exhaust system.
  • Exhaust: If you find that when you shake the tailpipe, there is rattling coming from under your car, then you can be sure there is an exhaust problem. The exhaust system includes items such as the catalytic converter — $3,000 or a little more; manifold pipes at the head of the exhaust system; exhaust pipe; resonators and tailpipe and tips. Generally, the exhaust system replacement cost is about $1,800. If you hear rattling from under your car, you can be sure that it is little more than a hanger that needs replacement. Depending on how many hooks need replacement, the job will be between $55 and $250 to replace several hooks. Here’s a way to tell if you need to replace the exhaust pipe. Start your car and let it run for a couple of minutes, then take a rag and place it over the tailpipe. You should be able to feel nice steady pulses from the engine, if the vibrations aren’t regular, a piece of the exhaust system is likely broken and needs replacement.
  • Catalyst: This is one of those systems that require an OBD-II diagnostic and the expertise to replace the device. This is an expensive repair because the cat is a costly piece of equipment. As noted, it will cost roughly $3,000, plus labor to replace this device.
  • Transmission: The transmission is one of those systems that need the OBD-II scanner to diagnose. There are so many pieces to the transmission that repairs can range from a low of $150 for a valve body/valve spring repair to upward of $3,500 to $4,000 to replace the transmission with a rebuilt device.
  • Driveshaft/Differential: The driveshaft is the device that takes the power from the transmission to the wheels. In many cases, instead of continuous driveshaft and bearings, there are two half-shafts that do the same work. Generally, this repair will cost somewhere around $2,000. The differential is the device that takes the straight-line motion and turns it into forwarding motion to move the vehicle. The cost is roughly $1,850 to repair.

These services are what would generically be called a tune-up. A complete job would take thousands of dollars to complete. You will find more information on when a specific service should be performed in the owner’s manual of your car. Please note that in the rear of the manual, you will find the intervals for the work. If you follow the recommendations in the manual closely, you will find that your car will last for years and give you a reliable service.

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