• 194
Beware of cheap parts, they could end up costing you in... Beware of cheap parts, they could end up costing you in the long run (ChicagoGeek, Flickr).

The world of auto parts is a murky one. There are so many manufacturers and quite a range of costs that one can easily be misled, and it is a situation that is only getting worse.

Back in 2008 attendance by traditional vendors at the SEMA show, the big aftermarket parts trade show, was down over 30 percent, a result of the economic downturn. This made me especially surprised by the number of newcomers, specifically Asian manufacturers. In particular, I was struck by the range of parts they offered: water pumps, alternators, starters, oil filters, brakes, batteries, ignition components, sparkplugs, and everything else that gets replaced during regular maintenance and repair. And these were parts for the full range of imports and domestic models, parts for all the popular models.

The resounding theme of these suppliers was “Lower Prices!” Like a carnival atmosphere, these guys were barking pitch after pitch, each booth claiming their wares were the cheapest ones in town.

A Bad Flashback

For an instant, I was brought back to an earlier time in my life, to 1974 when I was the head technician at a repair facility in New Jersey. A new “mobile” parts supplier (a guy selling parts out of his van) had come by touting his new line of low-priced ignition parts. A new set of GM points caught my eye, and they were $4 cheaper than the OEM part and, as I was told, “worked just as well.” I was skeptical, because the design was different, but the shop did a high volume of tune-up work, so my boss saw this as an opportunity to increase his profits. So despite my warning, he bought 30 of them, which we went through in short order.

We restocked a week later and my boss was all smiles at the money he had saved. But about three weeks later we started getting calls from upset customers, all with the same complaint: Their cars would stall and not restart. We tracked the problem to the bargain ignition point sets and we ended up having to tow the cars back to the shop and replace the points again. Not only did my boss have to pay for the tow jobs (a few were over 100 miles away), but he also had to buy new point sets and pay the labor to install them. In short, the whole debacle cost him a few thousand dollars. He banned the guy in the van from our premises and determined from that point forward to offer only the highest quality parts in all auto repairs. A costly lesson, indeed.

You Get What You Pay For

Not all parts are created equal, and that’s why “the same parts” vary so much in price. But after shopping parts you can get a feel for what the average price should be for a particular part. Be wary of drastic differences: Higher isn’t always better but cheaper almost always means inferior quality.

Let’s take a look at some of the common replacement parts and what the effects of “fixing it on the cheap” can be.

1. Brakes - Brakes are one of the most common repairs people have done on their cars, and one of the common areas in which corners can be cut. Brake shoes and pads are friction materials that rub against brake drums or rotors, slowing the rotation of the wheels. The friction material is usually made of a semi-metallic mixture (ground up metal mixed with other stuff). The friction materials of cheaper pads or shoes tend to contain more metal and thus are of a harder composition. Pads and shoes are bonded to a steel backing and in cheaper pads the bonding material is often inferior, unlike the more expensive pads that are riveted or bonded with a high quality bonding.

Poorly bonded brake pads and shoes wear out faster and can possibly fail to stop your vehicle for several reasons. The harder composition of the cheaper pads and shoes generates more heat when the brakes are applied and doesn’t dissipate the heat as well. This heat crystallizes the glue, which causes the pad or shoe to separate from its backing. The use of inferior glue speeds up this process in a vicious circle. In addition, the hard composition of the cheaper friction material tends to crack when heat is applied. To top it all off, the contact of the harder friction material on the drums or rotors wears out these parts more quickly.

In choosing drums and rotors, you should always buy the best products available. Cheap drums and rotors are made of sub-standard steel and therefore wear out prematurely, especially when they come in contact with sub-standard friction materials, as mentioned above. Rotor and drum warpage and premature wear are common when cheap parts are used in a brake job and warped rotors result in decreased braking performance, which is a safety hazard.

2. Batteries - In a cheaper battery, the case is less sturdy, the quality of the posts is compromised, there are fewer internal plates and poor plate connection can cause the battery to fail when it is subjected to vibration. Just because it “looks the same” as your old battery doesn’t mean that it matches the performance of your OEM unit. Furthermore, installing a battery that is rated at fewer cold-cranking amps than what is required by the manufacturer is just asking for trouble.

3. Oil Filters - The oil filter keeps dirt out of your engine, which is an important job if you want it to last. Quality oil filters have a check valve, designed so that the engine has oil pressure immediately upon cold startup, preventing wear. Many cheap filters lack this critical element, or even worse, don’t have the fine filtering media necessary to capture the smallest particles of dirt. This is not an area to try to save a few dollars.

4. Alternators/Starters/Water Pumps - Alternators, starters, and water pumps are the sorts of parts that, when they fail, can be rebuilt. When this is done right, the end result is pretty much a brand new part, although it is sold for less. Cheap rebuilt parts, however frequently lack attention to the details that result in dependable performance. The companies that produce low quality rebuilds replace only what is obviously bad and leave the rest, hoping the part will outlast its short warranty. Selling these sorts of parts as “rebuilt” is really a misnomer, as it would be more accurate to describe them as “repaired.”

5. Spark Plugs and Ignition Components - Spark plugs and ignition system components power the engine, and low quality products usually result in poor performance or a car that doesn’t run. Years ago I did an investigative report for a local TV station. It involved taking two GM ignition modules, one an OEM part, the other, a knockoff. Both units looked the same and had the same electrical connections and mounting configuration. Even the cases looked the same. But once I opened them up, the similarities came to a screeching halt. The OEM part was stuffed full of electronics, whereas the knockoff had a mostly empty case. You only had to look inside these units to understand the significant price difference.

As for sparkplugs, always go with an OEM-specified plug, especially true in today’s age of computer-controlled engines. Automotive computers are designed with a certain set of parameters from the factory to achieve maximum efficiency, power, and tailpipe emissions. Put a cheap sparkplug in the engine and you throw the computer into a fit trying to compensate for the lack of spark.

While some cheapskates may balk at manufacturer recommendations like using expensive platinum sparkplugs, platinum plugs burn hotter and longer, hence they deliver maximum fuel efficiency and power. In addition, the platinum holds up longer to the high electrical voltages used in today’s ignition systems. Installing a cheap plug in a vehicle that requires a platinum plug results in poor fuel efficiency, poor performance, high tailpipe emissions, and other issues.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 194 Comments
      • 4 Months Ago
      it seems to me the younger the tech's in a shop and cheaper the part's that are used in that shop, translate to a lower labor rate in that shop !! ......YOU PAY !!! YOU ************ your choice!!
      raal246
      • 4 Months Ago
      I bought 'front rotors' at a major auto part store for my 99 Expedition. Being knowledgeable on auto repair, I checked the thickness of the new rotor - found it was 'thinner' than originals!!! Returned the part and sent a note with photos to their HQ! Surprise was the y sent me a set of rotor and bearings at no costs - thanking me for briningiung it to their attention!
      thelonelyone1851
      • 4 Months Ago
      "********** not Whats wrong with their word filtering?
      • 4 Months Ago
      IN THE ECONOMY WE ARE IN EVERYONE WANTS TO SAVE 1 OR 3 PENNIES BUT THEIR IS DEFINITELY QUALITY WHEN IT COMES TO AUTO PARTS. THE CHEAPER AUTO ZONE AND PEP BOYS PARTS ARE THE WORST. I OWN A REPAIR SHOP AND WHEN MY CUSTOMER COMES IN I GIVE THEM A CHOICE DO YOU WANT CHEAPER OR BETTER QUALITY? I TELL THEM YOU PAY FOR WHAT YOU GET I THINK EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW THAT BY NOW.
      chrishu11
      • 4 Months Ago
      @taxocrat, How does a platinum plug "burn hotter" Let me try and answer that question. A platinum plug does not burn "hotter" but it does last longer and is more consistent. Let me compare this to the alternative, a spark plug with steel electrodes. With the high energy capacitor discharge ignition, the spark will erode the ends of the spark plug electrodes. The platinum ones are made to take this and erode very slowly. The steel electrode spark plugs erode more quickly making the spark gap wider and the spark weaker. in essense, colder.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Aftermarket (other than the vehicle manufacturer's replacement brand) parts can work satisfactorily in some cases and cause immediate problems in other cases, especially when it involves some sort of electrical application. Sometimes the aftermarket part will be a generic "one type fits all." That can throw off electrical impulses.
      • 4 Months Ago
      The "Orange" company makes all sorts of OEM filters and has for years. Google "minimopar oilfilter study" and read all about this high OEM quality.
      • 4 Months Ago
      There are really only two major battery companies in the US. The number of plates determines the voltage, the PLATE AREA, not the number of plates determines the ability to hold charge energy, measured in coulombs. Cold Cranking Amps and such are just dumb down ways to descrbe this. Best batteries I have ever had came form Germany or Sweden, with the OEM Japanese - Panasonic- a close second. Always buy the biggest battery which will fit your holder. (Check the terminal height and location though most cables will fit anyway!) Went looking for a particular size battery for a car and had a parts droid tell me (because he didn't have one) that it had " too many AMPS for my car". I just walked away.
      • 4 Months Ago
      OK WELL HERE WE GO, I'M A STATE AND ASE CERTIFIED MECHANIC, AND I'M SURE THERE WILL BE ALOT OF FEED BACK ON THIS. I'VE BEEN DOING THIS FOR 25 YEARS AND I'VE USE FACTORY PARTS AND AFTER MARKET, WHAT I HAVE FOUND OUT AND ASKED ON ALL OF MY CUSTOMERS IS HOW LONG ARE YOU GOING TO KEEP THIS HUNK OF CRAP (IN MOST CASES) RESPONSE" NOT LONG" YA RIGHT, YOU PUT .10 CENT PART ON IT AND YOU OWN IT FOR EVER. SO WHEN IT COMES TIME FOR REPAIRS AND EVERYONE READ-UP, WHEN WE SAY WE CAN DO IT THIS WAY AND SAVE YOU $50.00 OR WE CAN DO IT THIS WAY AND DO IT RIGHT BUT IT WIL COST YOU 150.00 TO DO IT RIGHT AND MAKE YOU SAFE (IF NEED BE) I MEAN IT, AND MOST OF US DO, THERE ARE STILL THE CHUMPS OUT THERE THAT ARE TRYING TO SCREW YOU, BUT THEY DON'T SLEEP VERY WELL. BACK TO THE PARTS -- IT DEPENDS ON THE FIX, SOME AFTER MARKET ARE BETTER THEN THE FACTORY AND SOME ARE NOT WORTH THE PRINT THEY PUT ON THE BOX. IN SHORT FIND SOME ONE YOU CAN TRUST AND HAS BEEN DOING REPAIRS FOR AWHILE, IF THEY SAY I'LL TRY AND KEEP IT FOR A WEEK THERE NOT TRYING, THEY DON'T KNOW, ELECTRICAL PROBLEMS ARE A WHOLE NEW ISSUE. MY FRIENDS AND NIEGHBORS KNOW WHO TO GO TO WHEN I CAN'T DO THERE REPAIRS SO ASK A ROUND AND IF IT YOUR NOT SURE CALL SOME ONE THAT MAY KNOW. I'M SO SICK AND TIRED OF PEPOLE GETTING SCREWED BY DEALERS AND EVEN OIL CHANGE PLACES "OH YOU'R AIR FILTER HAS DIRT IN IT LOOK AND A LITTLE DIRT FALLS WHEN THEY JUST HAD IT CHANGED 7000 MILE BEFORE. I'M SORRY FOR VENTING BUT WITH THE WAY THINGS ARE NOW OWNERS OF VEHICLES NEW OR OLDS DON'T NEED TO BE GETTING SCREWED. I'VE WORK FOR IDEPENDENT SHOP AND DEALERS, AND WORKED FOR GOOD AND BAD, WHEN BAD I LEFT THAT AIN'T RIGHT, THATS WAY EVERYONE GIVE US A BAD NAME. "OH I'M SCREWED I HAD TO TAKE IT IN. IN CLOSING AND BAD SPELLING (SORRY) AND BEING PISSED HAVING FOUND THIS , PARTS ARE PARTS, DEPENDING ON WHAT THE REPAIR IS YOU CAN GO FIX IT RIGHT OR FIX "PUT A BANDAGE ON A BULLET WOUND"-- IT WOULD BE YOUR CALL UNLESS IT'S A SAFETY ISSUE, THEN WE MAKE THE CALL OR DON'T DO THE REPAIR. SORRY FOR THE LONG STORY BUT I HOPE THIS HELPS. EL
      • 4 Months Ago
      always hearing about parts and repairs and good service stations. why dont we ever hear what a fair price is on the service of our cars
      Edward
      • 4 Months Ago
      Only a liberal jack ass like beatnicksnail could blame this problem on bush.
      • 4 Months Ago
      By the time obama is done with you, you will be buying parts from midnight auto sales!
    • Load More Comments