These days, accessories are what make your car unique, ... These days, accessories are what make your car unique, but are they worth the extra money? (Fabrice Coffrini, AFP / Getty Images)

With the exterior designs of many vehicles mirroring one another, especially in light of the endless search for greater fuel efficiency through aerodynamics, consumers tend to define the personalization of their vehicles themselves.

As a result, accessories have turned into big business for car companies and their dealerships. According to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), nearly a quarter of new car or truck buyers who buy from a dealership will spend an extra $1,500 to $3,500 on personalization. U.S. new-vehicle dealers now sell and install $3.84 billion annually in accessories, including ten percent of all performance parts and accessories and 17 percent of appearance-related accessories.

Scion's accessories operations manager, Korey Tsuno, told us that while some manufacturers automatically equip a certain number of vehicles with certain combinations of options it guesses customers will want, Scion's system allows customers to get exactly the car they want. About 50 percent of Scion accessories and options in all are dealer-installed, while for its traditional companion brand Toyota that’s just under 20 percent. “We operate on, rather than a push system, a pull system,” he said.

From the time of its launch more than five years ago, Toyota's youth-oriented Scion small-car brand has centered its marketing as well as its dealership sales approach around dealer-installed accessories and customization. Most of the brand's models leave the factory loaded with conventional features but no official options, while customers have a long catalog of port- or dealer-installed add-ons.

According to Tsuno, Scion vehicles get an average of about $1,000 in accessories per vehicle, with some of the most popular being an Alpine HD Radio upgrade, alloy wheels, rear spoiler, fog lights, and a body kit.

Push or pull?

However analyst Jim Hossack, of the California-based market research firm AutoPacific, observes just the opposite in today’s very cost-conscious market. “I see push, I don’t see pull from consumers,” he said, with many of today's customers especially cost-conscious and looking simply to get out with a good deal.

“This isn’t a new game,” asserted Hossack, as for decades dealerships have tried to make an extra buck at the end by selling an accessory, product, or service that’s not included as a factory option. “Though Scion has gone out of its way to offer aftermarket accessories that aren’t already offered.”

“Certainly there’s a benefit of keeping complexity down, and quality up,” conceded Hossack—referring to how an emphasis on dealer-installed accessories can help reduce the number of build combinations made at the factory.

Mazda told us that its accessory program, whether through port- or dealer-installations, plays a role in helping to keep costs down. "It allows Mazda to create greater efficiency in manufacturing, which in turn provides lower costs to the customer," said Nicki Johnson, Mazda's accessory marketing manager. By offering dealer-installed accessories, "Mazda is able to ensure that individual consumers are able to get the level of customization they desire," added Johnson.

Likewise, Suzuki sells its cars with few if any factory options and is increasing the number of add-ons, projecting that up to 15 to 25 percent of its vehicles will get some type of dealer-installed accessory such as wheels, satellite radio, roof racks, or cargo nets. Nissan has also had great success—especially on its 370Z sports car—with its NISMO line of performance accessories.

Costly upgrades

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that these manufacturer-approved accessories are costly to the customer. Many of these parts price at two or three times what their discount aftermarket equivalents might cost, and they require installation fees, but automakers argue that with these you get a part that's precisely designed for your vehicle, not adapted for it from a general design.

Which leads to the most significant benefit other than customization to these accessories: they're usually covered by the full factory warranty of the vehicle, whereas another accessory might void your warranty. And in many cases, these accessories get a strong warranty even if they're installed on a car that's no longer new. For instance, Lexus extends a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty or the balance of the four-year/50,000-mile new-car warranty on its F-Sport accessories, no matter when you get them. Even Porsche extends a two-year warranty on all of its Tequipment accessories that won't in any way affect the new-vehicle warranty.

"Most of the accessories are actually added after the fact," clarified Lexus of Westminster's Oh, a few weeks or months later, deciding to opt for the official accessory rather than an aftermarket one.

To help keep customers upgrading at the dealership, through a new so-called Optomize program Scion is now offering about 300 additional accessories from different suppliers, outside of Scion's official accessories, approved much like offerings for the iPhone have been vetted through the iTunes store. These accessories, too, when properly installed by the dealership, won't void your warranty.

Along that line, SEMA has introduced a program called ProPledge that bridges negotiations between vehicle manufacturers, accessory manufacturers, and installers, assuring that accessories (everything from truck toppers and running boards to fog lamps) will be properly installed by a third-party expert shop, without voiding any aspect of the new-car warranty.

Do you pay now & later?

One big benefit of adding dealer-installed accessories at the time of purchase, rather than later on, is that you'll likely be able to wrap it into your new-car financing.

But you still should watch that bottom line. If you decide to sell your car a few years from now, you might be able to recoup some of the cost of these dealer-installed accessoriesor you might not. “It all depends on the equipment that they’re adding,” said Fernando Ubeda, a spokesman for Automotive Leasing Guide (ALG). “Some equipment does carry value to the used side, other equipment doesn’t.” And it varies depending on the model, he explained.

Ubeda said that, for instance, most of the wheel upgrades and packages typically add the most toward the resale value of the vehicle, but any customization that wouldn’t have mass appeal might not add any value when it comes time to trade in or resell. For instance, Ubeda points to the port-installed gold trim package that was offered on the Toyota Camry several years ago. “It was a ridiculous package—priced at about $2,000—and we didn’t see any difference in price on the used-car market,” Ubeda said.

The appeal for accessorization is regional, too. "The West and East Coasts tend to accessorize more heavily," said Scion's Tsuno, which he said is the case across most types of vehicles and add-ons.

So skip the gold trim or the pink pin stripes—especially if you live in the Midwest—but by all means add that feature or cosmetic upgrade. A small personal touch could go a long way.

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