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Alex Rudloff with his 2008 Volkswagen Passat.

How much do you suppose it would cost to replace that set of car keys in your pocket? A few bucks? Dream on.

If it’s a “smart” key, it could easily cost you $200 to $300 -- or more.

Many vehicles today have immobilizers that lock up a car’s ignition, fuel and steering systems unless a transponder in the smart key transmits the correct electronic code. Thus, thieves are deterred from stealing your car by using a makeshift key, but the downside it that smart keys aren’t cheap.

The $600 Blunder

Alex Rudloff found out the hard way. A couple of months ago, Rudloff -- an AOL executive who lives just south of Cocoa Beach, Fla. -- lost both sets of keys for his 2008 Volkswagen Passat sedan.

The VW dealership in neighboring Melbourne told Rudloff that he’d have to transport the car to the store, where a technician could program a replacement key to work with the car’s onboard computer. That proved to be a difficult task. Alex purchased an un-programmed spare key that was supposed to let him shift the transmission into neutral. It didn’t work.

Then he tried to slide a dolly under the wheels, so that a tow truck could take it to the dealership. But the car was parked too close to the garage’s right wall, and he couldn’t get the dolly into position.

Finally, the tow truck operator located the Passat’s shift override, a yellow button under the shifter. He put it in neutral, dragged it onto the flatbed and took it to the dealership.

Adding up the cost of the key, the programming and the tow truck, “it was a $600 mistake,” Rudloff says ruefully.

Legal Challenge

Three years ago, the high cost of replacement keys attracted the attention of Weiss & Lurie, a Los Angeles law firm that filed a class-action lawsuit against VW. In 2008, VW settled the suit after it authorized independent repair shops to sell replacements. However, the settlement hasn’t had much impact on the cost of keys sold by VW or any other carmaker.

Prestige Volkswagen in Melbourne tells me that it charges $156 for a replacement key and $105 to program it.

We did some comparison-shopping, phoning German Concepts, a used-car dealership in Osceola, Ind., that is one of 37 independent stores authorized by Volkswagen to replace keys. We were told that they charge $260 for the key and programming -- virtually identical to the price charged by Rudloff’s Florida dealership.

It’s not just Volkswagen that charges an arm and a leg for its smart keys. Porsche dealers charge $380 to replace and reprogram a key for the Cayman, and even a mass-market brand like Ford will charge $85 for a Fiesta key plus $85 for the programming.

“It’s a monopoly, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Jesse Toprak, an industry analyst with the consumer Web site TrueCar.com, who once coughed up $380 to get a replacement key for his 2007 Mercedes SLK.

Some automakers do allow independent repair shops to issue replacement keys. For example, independent locksmiths can replace Toyota keys if they purchase key coding equipment and pay a monthly fee. But there aren’t enough locksmiths in the car key replacement business to create competition, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.

In 2006, the center surveyed 50 models and found that the average dealer price of a smart key was more than $150. The center unsuccessfully petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to probe the auto industry’s key replacement policies.

Passat’s shift override, a yellow button under the shifter.

Passat’s shift override, a yellow button under the shifter.

Security Concerns

For security reasons, automakers don’t want to turn over their key code software to any locksmith that asks. “You could be giving it to a thief,” Ditlow acknowledges.

But he says automakers could create a secure nationwide key code storage system that would allow authorized locksmiths to use VIN numbers to look up key codes.

“You don’t have to license every shop. You would license just enough locksmiths and shops to create competition to lower prices,” Ditlow says.

Maybe so, but today there doesn’t appear to be a reliable source of cheap smart keys. To be sure, you can find a motley assortment of keys on eBay, that paragon of online capitalism. Recently, someone in Arizona was auctioning a Toyota Prius smart key, which (if new) would cost $195.

So let’s assume you got a nice discount on that eBay key. The folks at Dunning Toyota in Ann Arbor, Mich., told me they were willing to reprogram it for $100. But they warned me that it was a crapshoot -- sometimes those used keys can’t be reprogrammed.

In its 2006 testimony to the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Auto Safety issued a similar warning. Caveat emptor.

Right now, the best consumer advice is this: Don’t lose your keys. Rudloff says he’s learned his lesson. “We bought three new keys, and we put one in a safe,” he said. “Keys are getting too fancy. Let’s leave it at that.”


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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 15 Comments
      Lita
      • 6 Months Ago
      When I purchased my car, the dealer talked me out of getting a smart key. He said that if I lost the key and needed a replacement, It would cost $200-$300 for the first replacement, and might go higher for a second-time loss. He suggested an alarm--and not the alarm that was offered as an option on the car (Camry). He said it's best to confuse any potential crooks; they may get/have some kind of work-around for Toyota alarms. If I have a different brand, it gives me a bit of an edge--and he suggested I put a general "equipped with an alarm" sticker on the window if I put any sticker on the window at all. Why tell them what kind of alarm you have? I appreciate that guy very much, especially since my last car was stolen (another Camry).
        Automobile Locksmith
        • 5 Months Ago
        @Lita

        Sorry you were talked out of getting a smart key. Smart key is overall safer than a standard physical key. With a Smart key system on a toyota, the system is more secure, resulting in a 16min wait when programming the key. On the alternative key'd version, there is a bypass where the key is immediately programmed.

        -Jo

        www.AutomobileLocksmithHouston.com

      Automobile Locksmith
      • 5 Months Ago *Edited*

      The problem is, that consumers do not know that a Locksmith can service vehicles with smart keys. As a professional Locksmith, the only cars we cannot originate keys for are Mercedes Benz, Porsche, and Audi. Don't believe the dealer. We can make smart keys and transponder keys. Locksmiths offer a wide variety of services, visit our website to learn more.

      Services Locksmiths Perform

      -Jo

      AutomobileLocksmithHouston.com

      mtequilam957
      • 6 Months Ago
      I can't complain. Eight months ago, the Honda dealer in Greensboro, NC charged me $175 for everything(2 keys and programming the car).
      • 6 Months Ago
      The problem with losing one key fob, if it is a transponder type key fob, is that they have to reprogram the remaining key fob, the new key fob, and the car's ECU itself. I have a 2005 Volvo station wagon, and it does not really have a key, it has a key like thing that you put into the ignition, and it uses the transponder to decide if the right key is installed. The key fob also has a "blade" or regular type key that will open the car if the battery is dead. The car's ECU menu will tell you how many keys have been made for the car. Losing or breaking a new car key can be an expensive proposition, and the reason for it is many fold. Security, proprietary software and design and dealer involvement can send the cost of a new key fob into the three hundred dollar range, and easily. You can save some bucks by looking on this site http://www.replacecarkey.com and compare several locker Smits.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Ref the above article, one driver said he bought 3 keys and kept one in the safe, beware if you are using a European manufactured car as some keys need to be rotated every 6 to 9 mths as there is not a battery to replace. As your key is in the ignition it is recharged so if spare is in the safe for a couple of yrs it may not function when needed. its best to use each key for 6 mths to to be on the safe side and to keep them recharged. Martin UK.
      stewart
      • 6 Months Ago
      no, lets NOT leave it at that, the plague remains a drag on the US economy to the tune of hundreds if not thousands of dollars per episode to VW's benefit.
      Max
      • 6 Months Ago
      and what if your keys get stolen does that fall under insurance policy??
      • 6 Months Ago
      i cant complain about my car when obama is distroying this republic.thank god the republicans are taking over in november..then we can move for impeachment in february....peace
      • 6 Months Ago
      I just had an incident with a jeep cherokee where there was no spare and the key was lost. The jeep dealer told us the only way it could be done was to have the car towed to the dealer that no locksmith could do it, as the key had to be programmed and only the dealer can do that..... but to tow the car without the key was impossible, according to everyone as there is no way to put the car into neutral without the key.. we found found a locksmith that would come to the car we just needed to get the key code from jeep, which we had to fight with them to get and, also the program code, jeep told us that the car would not start if the locksmith did it and that the car would be locked up for over 4 hours and would still have to come to the dealer to be reprogrammed. the locksmith came got the car opened in 2 mins and with some sort of handheld device that plugged into the car somewhere put the program code in and I'm in the car driving away in less than 5 mins but 350 dllrs poorer.. absolutely no towing involved nor any dealer, only now no smart key unless I buy one which they can make but just didn't have with them at the time unless i wanted to wait 2 more hours while he went to get one.......The dealer out and out blantantly lied.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Cfields I broke the key case to my 03 honda accord and went to the dealer to get a replacement. They wanted to charge me about $250.00 for the key and reprogramming. Being that I always get my car serviced at the same dealer they cut me a brake on the new key. Knocked off close to100 bucks. Keep your service advisor on your Christmas list. You take care of them and they'll take care of you.
      • 6 Months Ago
      Registration with Drivers License and Mercedes has you a new working key in 24 hours or less. Less than $100. All they need is the VIN to make the key.
      • 6 Months Ago
      I recently bought a cheaper model Ford Fiesta. The purpose of the car is for myself, my two daughters, and possibly my wife to use as needed. When I bought the car, I mentioned to the salesman I needed a few more spare keys (don't get me started on the issue of keys and daughters), since it came with only two keys. I distinctly recall they were silent on this statement, when I mentioned at a minimum, I will need 5 keys (one for each driver plus a spare). In any case, getting by with just 2 keys will be impossible. Only after I bought the car did I find up what's up with the keys. Over $100 per key. I understand the security issues, but obviously they don't understand my needs. I can't be the only one in this situation where I have multiple drivers for a car. Crazy.
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