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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.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Months Ago
      I also agree that cheap parts are a waste of money and could actually cost you more in the long run. Ignition parts (like spark plug wires, distributer caps, plugs. etc) in particular, don't scrimp and go cheap on this stuff. Often, you have several choices when you go to the auto parts store for the same part. If you have common sense you should be able to pick out what will serve your purpose best. No one said anything about buying parts from a dealer, their mark up is ridiculous. The only time you should go that route is if it is absolutely necessary and no aftermarket equivalent exists.
      • 5 Months Ago
      I bought one of those nearly worthless "warranties" after being terrorized by salesmen who made me think I couldn't afford to repair my car without a warranty. Last month my airconditioner went out and they immediately tried to foist cheap part off on our mechanic. Next they thought the compressor should be replaced but none of the rest of the AC system. That repair would have lasted till the first time I cranked the AC on and ran metal shavings through the rest of the system. Anyway, beware cheap parts. BTW they covered a whole 200 bucks of the repair. I feel like a moron but at least I had the brains to listen to the mechanic!
      • 5 Months Ago
      I have a Older Car and after buying many cheaper parts I have found that they all only do half of what they are suppose to making you think the car as other problems,Spend the Money go to the Dealer for the part or go to a parts yard in alot of cases the one from the parts yard is better then the cheap one.
      • 5 Months Ago
      "********** not Whats wrong with their word filtering?
      • 5 Months Ago
      Another cheap part trend to be aware of is discount house parts with a lifetime warranty. Generally these are from some of the same suppliers that sell inferior foreign parts only for a little more money they will replace it if it fails as long as you own the car. Sounds like a good deal, but labor is not included. In my case it is my labor, but if you don't do your own work, the labor can exceed the price of the parts. Another disturbing trend is big brand replacement parts (many are OEM suppliers) that are supplying parts made in China. Example Raybestos brake rotors. I bought a set of these (not knowing about the Chinese source until they were handed to me) and had to replace them after less than a year due to large chunks of rust flaking off the rotor and lodging in the caliper (I attribute this to poor quality steel). Beware of what you are buying, no matter whose name is on the box and make sure it is made in the USA .
      • 5 Months Ago
      Hey; I just had a rebuilt starter motor put in from an Autozone rebuilt part. Are you saying this will go bad soon? They didnt even stock a new one; they would have to order it; so I went with what they had in stock. The car is a 98 Saturn with 138K miles. If its lasts until 200K; it would be good; becuause by then Ill get another car.
      • 5 Months Ago
      • 5 Months Ago
      Never had a single problem with "cheap" parts! It is how you treat your vehicle... period!
      • 5 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.
      • 5 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.
      • 5 Months Ago
      fortiz557- yeah, about ten years ago i had my water pump go out, 87 silverado. i went down to advance or oreillies and he said you want one for $37 or $. i chose the cheaper, looked at the wrapper, the little ubiquitous gold "made in china" foil oval. well, i stuck it in, and it is still going today. it is our lawnmower or washing machine buying truck or weekend bicycle hauler, si it sits a bit. but so far china IS going. BUT. politically, i'd like to see a 1000% tarriff on chinese, philippino, honduran, malaysian, etc goods or whatever it takes to make EVERYTHING (except french cheese) in usa. we need jobs. we need factories.
      • 5 Months Ago
      After being tired of paying mechanics to do minor jobs for major money, I decided to really ************** and working alongside them. There is a reason they don't want you to be in their working area, and it damn sure ain't insurance. I have an '88 lincoln towncar that I've owned since '92. I change my own oil, do tune-ups, brakes, changed gaskets and even valve seals. Most of these jobs can be done by a competent person in possession of a repair manual (Chilton). In my experience if you shop and compare parts you will find that mid- priced after market parts work just fine. AC Delco or motorcraft plugs are great. Any MOOG suspension part, Bendix brakes, and I always....always use Pennzoil for my oil changes...after talking with a friend who worked the oil fields in Louisiana he said Pennzoil comes from deeper down in the earth, than mobil or Castrol so there for it can withstand more pressure and heat from engine friction. I have replaced the engine that the car came with some 10 years ago only because I did'nt know what kind of maintenance the prior owner did. Oh yeah it was a rebuilt engine in the box for 800.00........and it's still running. SHOP AND COMPARE. AND REMEMBER BEST ADVICE......LISTEN TO THE STORIES PEOPLE TELL YOU ABOUT GOOD CARS AND BAD CARS. THERE ARE CARS OUT THERE THAT WERE JUST PIECES OF **** RIGHT OFF THE ASSEMBLY LINE
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