Negotiating Today's Car Parts Mine Field

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang

Last year, I scored over $400 worth of auto supplies. All it cost me was sales tax, a few stamps and about thirty minutes of my time. It was a lot of good stuff too: 24 quarts of synthetic motor oil, six gallons of coolant and a seemingly endless amount of top quality car waxes and detail products. Heck, I was even able to get three different tool sets and free wipes once all my maintenance work was done! Unfortunately, for a frugal enthusiast like me, that was then and this is now.

The auto parts market has changed dramatically in the last year. As I reported previously, soaring commodity prices have increased demand for recycling (rather than resale). At the same time, the economic downturn has millions of American motorists hanging onto their cars longer, and buying used instead of new. Rising raw costs and increased demand has made it a seller’s market.

Thus far this year, I’ve scored nothing free. Zero, nilch, nada. Every once in a while I see a complete oil change for $6.99, a free brake ‘inspection’ (with the obligatory small print shop fee) and parts store tools that are still thankfully available for free rental. It’s not the end of the world, but inflation is becoming a real bastard on the finances! Everything costs money now. As enthusiasts we have to watch for the deals whenever they arise.

In my neck of the woods, six auto parts stores serve local pistonheads and repair shops: Advance Auto Parts, NAPA, Autozone, O’Reillys, Pep Boys, and arguably (cough! cough!) Wal-Mart. Each one has their own strengths and weaknesses that I try to play off each other during the year.

For example, Advance often has the cheapest parts available. This makes it a favorite among auto repair facilities and cheapskates in my neck of the woods. For the ‘trader’ who likes to tinker during weekends, Advance is often a good source. However, the ‘keeper’ should only get those parts that have lifetime warranties. From my perspective, that means they should focus instead on the quality side of the equation. Which calls for some serious online cross-shopping.

NAPA offers higher quality parts at a price. From my experience, NAPA’s the ‘Target’ equivalent. If you’re the type who doesn’t want to pay a premium for dealer parts but still wants quality, NAPA may have the best offerings. Rarely will NAPA ever have a good deal on motor oil or detail products. They do however have great deals for those folks looking to keep their car driving like a premium product.

Autozone is good for oils and accessories. It’s the perfect cross-shopping alternative to NAPA and Advance. In my experience, they have the widest selection, and it’s not too difficult to find parts that are similar to the other two retailers. As with all big box retailer these days, many products are virtually identical. Even though the parts manufacturer’s name may be different, it may have indeed come from the very same [Chinese] factory. An online visit to all three of these retailers is always worth the while for TTACers on a budget.

O’Reilly’s offers the most free and cheap repair tools. When they’re overstocked, they also have the best sales. However, you have to visit their stores to find the deals. Last year I bought over $300 worth of auto parts for virtually nothing because I went through the trouble of looking through the coupon rack right by the entrance. A list of 40 products were given in one little note card. An hour later, I was stocked for virtually the entire year. O’Reilly’s also have one of the most diverse additive product offerings I’ve seen.

Pep Boys and Wal-Mart are usually the cheap tire / cheap oil places. Pep Boys will have the $6.99 oil change deals and Wal-Mart offers oil changes for less than $20. Wal-Mart offers every day low prices while you have to search the Pep Boys Sunday circulars to get the right deals.

Watch out for hidden charges and miscellaneous fees. If you’re one of those that prefer to have someone else do the wrenching, make sure you know the total cost before you visit. Wal-Mart installs tires and changes your oil. Pep Boys will do that and install parts as well. In both instances, I would still prefer the services of a reputable independent mechanic. is another excellent source for factory parts. I suggest you visit the site before going the used/recycled route. Craigslist can be a Shangri-la for cheap parts, and EBay still offers plenty of good deals for those who are willing to wait a week.

In the today’s world of car parts, there's no such thing as a free quart of synthetic oil. It pays to look around and shop smart.

Steven Lang
Steven Lang

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  • Jthorner Jthorner on May 02, 2008

    We are lucky to have two good traditional auto parts store in our town, one a NAPA franchise and one part of a small regional mini-chain of 5-10 stores. The people there mostly know cars, like cars and treat the customer well. I was in both of them today whilst struggling with the PITA job of changing the oil pan gasket on on older F-150 with the straight 6. Great engine, but a real )*(&)(& to get the oil pan out of. Remove radiator, remove starter, remove intake manifold, hold engine with cherry-picker, remove motor mounts, pull engine up, swear scratch .... oh well, enough of my whinging :). Kragen, AutoZone and the rest are for buying oil on sale, and not much else.

  • Golden2husky Golden2husky on May 05, 2008

    I have found RockAuto to be really good in terms of price, delivery, and return policy. They sell multiple brands of almost any part, including manufacturer brand parts, too. Their online catalogue is easy to use. As for the mailing list thing, you can easily opt out of the mailing list. I agree that mail in rebates SUCK!! I hate wasteful junk mail. One other thing that is good is that they offer a 5% discount code with your order. Some brand enthusiast websites (You guys call them cheerleader sites) post current codes for you to use. (Taurusclub would be one such site that does this) Obviously web based stores are not helpful for unscheduled repairs, but for all scheduled maintenance and general repair work they are great. It is nice to be able to cut out the dope in the store that keeps going by the part that you know is the correct one.

  • ToolGuy First picture: I realize that opinions vary on the height of modern trucks, but that entry door on the building is 80 inches tall and hits just below the headlights. Does anyone really believe this is reasonable?Second picture: I do not believe that is a good parking spot to be able to access the bed storage. More specifically, how do you plan to unload topsoil with the truck parked like that? Maybe you kids are taller than me.
  • ToolGuy The other day I attempted to check the engine oil in one of my old embarrassing vehicles and I guess the red shop towel I used wasn't genuine Snap-on (lots of counterfeits floating around) plus my driveway isn't completely level and long story short, the engine seized 3 minutes later.No more used cars for me, and nothing but dealer service from here on in (the journalists were right).
  • Doughboy Wow, Merc knocks it out of the park with their naming convention… again. /s
  • Doughboy I’ve seen car bras before, but never car beards. ZZ Top would be proud.
  • Bkojote Allright, actual person who knows trucks here, the article gets it a bit wrong.First off, the Maverick is not at all comparable to a Tacoma just because they're both Hybrids. Or lemme be blunt, the butch-est non-hybrid Maverick Tremor is suitable for 2/10 difficulty trails, a Trailhunter is for about 5/10 or maybe 6/10, just about the upper end of any stock vehicle you're buying from the factory. Aside from a Sasquatch Bronco or Rubicon Jeep Wrangler you're looking at something you're towing back if you want more capability (or perhaps something you /wish/ you were towing back.)Now, where the real world difference should play out is on the trail, where a lot of low speed crawling usually saps efficiency, especially when loaded to the gills. Real world MPG from a 4Runner is about 12-13mpg, So if this loaded-with-overlander-catalog Trailhunter is still pulling in the 20's - or even 18-19, that's a massive improvement.