Car parts break and wear out, we all know that, but which unexpected repairs will hurt the most? We checked with auto website Repair Pal to get repair costs for a five year old 2.5 liter 2011 VW Golf in the Los Angeles, CA area. Costs for other makes and models will vary of course, and labor is probably cheaper in other markets, but this gives a fair idea of the parts that will leave the biggest dent in your wallet, and how much of the cost lies in the parts versus the labor – very useful information for cost-conscious home mechanics.
We’ve left out catastrophic failures like blown engines and crash damage, because those are typically freak occurrences, and impossible to foresee or estimate. We’ve stuck to those routine mechanical failures that just kind of creep up on you silently, before giving you a massive whack in the wallet.
1) Catalytic converter replacement
Estimated cost: $1776-1819 • 89% parts, 11% labor
WHAT? HOW much? Catalytic converters are designed to give us a greener planet, but you’re going to turn pretty green yourself if you have to buy a new one. The good news is that they should last the life of the car; the bad news is that running over something, like an oversized speed bump, can damage the cat, as can an engine burning oil, or running the wrong oil or fuel additives. You could save a little money by installing the replacement part yourself, but most of the cost is in the part, which contains precious metals like gold, palladium and rhodium.
2) Clutch Assembly Replacement
Estimated cost: $1030-1384 • 25% parts, 75% labor
Clutches do wear out and you usually get a good deal of warning before they need replacement. There’s not much you can do to prevent it, apart from adopting a gentler driving style (yeah, like that’s going to happen) and not ‘riding’ the clutch. There’s no real good news and bad news here – new clutch parts can be pretty pricey, and while you can save money by doing the work yourself, changing the clutch on a front-wheel drive car can be a pain without a lift.
3) Engine Control Module (ECM) Replacement
Estimated cost: $1236-1283 • 83% parts, 17% labor
Another nasty surprise. Hands up everyone who thought the car’s ECM was a just little black box with a couple of transistors and a circuit board? In fact, a new ECM will cost as much as a top of the line laptop, and you’re not going to save a whole heap of cash by fitting it yourself. But this is a solid state device with no moving parts to wear out and, in the ideal world, the ECM will last for ever. The world, of course, is not ideal, so while your ECM shouldn’t fail, you shouldn’t rule it out. Many times the computer is damaged by someone jump starting the car improperly, or shorting out something while installing a stereo.
4) Alternator Replacement
Estimated cost: $401-802 • 69% parts, 31% labor
The alternator is one of those parts that you just take for granted, but they do wear out – and when the alternator dies, so does your car’s entire electrical system. Estimates vary from 50,000 miles to 100,000 miles or more, but they won't last forever. They’re expensive little beasts too, with not much to be saved by doing the fitting work yourself (unless you go for a cheaper used or rebuilt part).
5) Fuel Injector Replacement
Estimated cost: $814-1329 • 75% parts, 25% labor
Fuel injectors are fantastic. Thank goodness for fuel injectors. Remember all the fun we (didn’t) used to have with carburetors, float bowls, needle valves and vacuum gauges? But fuel injectors stop being quite so fantastic if they go bad and you have to pay for new ones. What you might have hoped was nothing more than a glorified syringe turns out to be a little more complicated and a lot more expensive. They might last as long as the car, at the very least they might last for as long as you own it. Let’s hope so.
6) Head Gasket Replacement
Estimated cost: $1107-1396 • 19% parts, 81% labor
Head gaskets fit between the cylinder block and the head and they keep the combustion chambers, oil and cooling systems sealed and separate – until they fail. That’s when you get oil or water in the cylinders, lots of smoke from the exhaust and a marked downturn in your popularity with the neighbors. It can be worse still if water gets into the cylinders, because water doesn’t compress. Annoyingly, the head gasket itself is pretty cheap, but the labor involved in getting the head off and milling it (don’t skimp on the head resurfacing) is pretty huge. If you’re lucky, you may not get a head gasket failure for years, but it seems to happen most often with older, infrequently used cars. One way to guard against it to to kep your cooling system in tip top condition.
7) Timing Belt Replacement
Estimated cost: $652-855 • 29% parts, 71% labor
This is an exceptionally tiresome and expensive bit of routine maintenance that you should never neglect. The timing belt is what connects the crankshaft in the base of the engine with the camshaft in the top. If it fails or skips a couple of teeth on the pulleys, the valves and the pistons may collide and wreck the engine. So while it goes against the grain to replace a part that appears to be working perfectly, do it anyway. Your car’s manual or your local garage will tell you when the recommended replacement interval is, so make sure you listen.
8) Radiator Replacement
Estimated cost: $593-720 • 42% parts, 58% labor
Radiators can go on for years without problems, but they can fail easily if your car gets front-end damage or if you neglect to use a proper antifreeze mix when you fill them up. Antifreeze contains corrosion inhibitors and will also prevent frozen water expanding and damaging the radiator. If your car is losing coolant you shouldn’t immediately assume it’s the radiator, since there are lots of other hoses and joints that can leak too, and these are simpler, cheaper repairs. So make sure it’s definitely the radiator that’s bad before you buy a new one.
9) Starter Replacement
Estimated cost: $376-837 • 76% parts, 24% labor
There are few things worse than that horrible moment when you turn the ignition key and all you get is a feeble whirr, a couple of ticks or clonks from under the hood and an extended period of silence. If you’re lucky, it’s just the battery, which is a relatively cheap and simple fix. If you’re not so lucky, it might be the starter motor. Often, these will go for years without problems, but sometimes they don’t (c’mon, you just had to do ONE thing…).
10) Water Pump Replacement
Estimated cost: $567-745 • 27% parts, 73% labor
This is a small but vital part of your car’s cooling system that could last 50,000 miles, could last 100,000, and might never fail while you own the car. But, when it does fail, the coolant no longer gets pumped through the radiator and engine, which quickly becomes rather hot and angry, as will you as you push your car to the nearest repair shop. Water pump failures can happen on their own, but you can improve the odds by keeping your coolant system well maintained and topped off with proper antifreeze mix.
The Final Word
There is actually a running theme for this whole top ten list: Mechanical car parts are perfectly capable of wearing out or failing on their own, but they can also fail prematurely through bad maintenance. Yes, it’s very boring, but you do need to read the manual, use the proper oils, coolants and fluids and pay proper attention to your vehicle’s recommended service intervals.