What should I do about battery/alternator repairs on my Hyundai Elantra?
August 3, 2011 12:51 PM   Subscribe

I have a question about car problems and the best course of action. On Tuesday my car made a thump/shuttering noise while driving and now Firestone says I need around $600 worth of repairs. 2004 Hyundai Elantra with around 56,000 miles.

While driving yesterday, my car made a weird noise and I felt it shake while driving at a normal speed on a city street. My check engine light came on and the gauges on the dashboard started bouncing around erratically and I felt like the gas pedal wasn't being as responsiveness as it normally is. I was right down the street from my usual Firestone so I left it there for them to run the $99 computer diagnostic.

They called back this morning and said there was a problem with my battery and alternator and that they needed to be replaced, which is around $600 dollars with parts and labor. They also said there might be a problem with the speed sensor, although they wouldn't know for sure until they took care of the battery and alternator.

1. My car insurance will reimburse me if I want to get my car towed to another station to get a second opinion. I'm guessing this will cost another hundred dollars or so to get the computer check on my car done again, so I'm inclined not to do that unless people think it's necessary. I've been going to that Firestone for two years and haven't had any bad experiences with them, although their reviews on Yelp aren't great. Does getting a second opinion for a hundred dollars seem worth doing? [I'm leaning no, as there was pretty clearly something wrong with my car when I was driving it yesterday.]

2. After a previous car question, people suggested that I should be more hands on with my car. Two weeks ago when my headlight burned out I replaced it myself. This involved taking the battery out and then putting it back in. Would there have been a way to have messed up the battery or not attached it correctly that wouldn't shown up for two weeks? The battery is about 2.5 years old, so I thought that maybe it should last longer. I haven't noticed any problems with the battery or starting the car since I put it back in 2 weeks ago.

3. Although I'm feeling better about dealing with minor things like a flat tire or new engine air filter or replacing a headlight, dealing with a battery and alternator or electrical problem still seems a little daunting to me. If anyone has any additional thoughts or comments I would love to hear them. Thanks!
posted by andoatnp to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
I can't speak to your specific car issue, but I can say this: My experience with Firestone has been TERRIBLE. Find another reputable mechanic to give you a second opinion.
posted by brand-gnu at 12:59 PM on August 3, 2011 [7 favorites]

Your battery AND alternator need to be replaced?
Sounds fishy.

I have always had better luck with the mom and pop type garages than the big box places with a lot of overhead.

I would suggest getting a second opinion from a different mechanic.
posted by rancidchickn at 1:01 PM on August 3, 2011

Seconding the opinion on Firestone...swore them off years ago, but that was for the one particular to my area, there might be good ones. The one thing to watch out for with some places is excessive replacements...especially if it's parts they have on hand in stock. It's like handing a shopping cart to a stranger and telling them "get me food and charge it to my account" without knowing the specifics of what you want.

A good honest mechanic will be able to explain why parts need replacing. Try with Firestone first, and ask them what they did to determine that the battery and alternator were bad. (Also keep in mind that both of these parts may have recycle value....every alternator I've gone through I've had some kind of refund on the old part via a core charge around $60-80. When you review your quote, ask them about core charges especially if they are charging you the full retail cost for a used alternator...batteries also have core charges, but are fairly low in the $10 range...most places honor these refunds. If not, those broken parts should be yours for taking to another shop)
posted by samsara at 1:21 PM on August 3, 2011

Find someone who will lend you their Scangauge and read the check engine code yourself. It'll probably be a numeric code, which you can then look up on the Internet. That might tell you if Firestone is on the right track.

It is possible for a failing alternator to perma-kill a battery but it is not likely. It is possible that a simple loose connection at your battery could cause all this drama (digital gauges are sensitive to voltage fluctuations, the same fluctuations might have triggered a check engine light and limp-home mode. I think you're better off getting a second opinion; it might save you much more than $100.
posted by workerant at 1:27 PM on August 3, 2011

I have an Elantra 2004. I had the alternator replaced (in Los Angeles, independent Korean mechanic), I paid $200. I also replace the battery myself (when I bought the car used), my cost was $60. If you are willing to take replace the battery yourself, you can take the car to a store like AutoZone, and they'll test your battery for you - that way you know if you even need to replace it in the first place (regardless, if the alternator is gone, the battery was probably completely drained, though not necessarily killed).
posted by VikingSword at 1:54 PM on August 3, 2011

Don't trust Firestone's estimate.
posted by sarahj at 2:03 PM on August 3, 2011

From your description it sounds to me like you lost the belt that drives the alternator. Since you say you are trying to be more hands on I will get a little pedantic here. If you know what I am talking about just skip the next paragraph.

The engine has several 'accessories' (such as alternators, which are a type of electrical generator that runs all the electric parts of the car and charges the battery) attached to it that need to be spun/driven for the car to operate. Usually these are driven by either a single or multiple belts. These belts are circular pieces of rubber, not unlike the outside part of tire that holds the tread. These belts go around a pulley that is attached to the accessory. The belt spinning this pulley is how the engine transfers power from the crankshaft (where the drive pulley is located) to the accessory. These accessory belts are not the same as the timing belt which turns the camshaft. And some of the latest cars are moving away from even belts to gears and/or hydraulic driven accessory. However your Huyndai is using belts. These belts can go bad from wear (everything breaks eventually) or from one of the accessories failing in such a way that the pulley can not turn and then siezes up. This burns the belt and eventually makes it come apart since it is now sliding over a stationery pulley.

Usually you just need a new belt when this happens. However the broken belt can cause some damage on its way out and might hurt the alternator. The belt is spinning pretty fast and the belts are usually pretty heavy and tough and if they fail just right they can cause a lot of damage but that is rare.. If this is the case you probably just need an alternator and new belt at the worst.

If you have had an alternator going bad that siezed up (possible but rare) or some other way that caused the alternator to put out bad voltage for a while. it might well have caused a battery failure in 2.5 years. Escpecially if the battery wasn't a high quality one to begin with. In this case you DO need a new alternator and battery. This failure mode isn't all that rare for both to go bad together. They do operate together failure closely and are definately linked in how the car operates.

And lastly Firestone (and goodyear and sears and amco and so on) repair shops tend to have a bad reputation, mostly due to the requirements of being part of a large coporate culture that demands an ever increasing growth every year so the executives get their bonuses. They don't care/understand about building a reputation. A small independant shop does, I would definately get it towed to a second shop and have them diagnose it from your description of the problem without telling them a word about even going to firestone, much less what they told you was wrong. If the two shops give you the same independant diagnoses chances are that is the real problem. If not i would be more inclined to trust the independant shop. Both car talk website (in the mechanix files) and angies list can probably help you out finding a good shop.
posted by bartonlong at 2:19 PM on August 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I never thought I'd have the opportunity to do this, but I have to say also that I will never take a vehicle to Firestone again. I caught them padding a bill once to include parts that were never used. What the guy who put the bill together didn't know is that I watched the work being done, as it was a quick fix with a zip tie in the parking lot by one of the mechanics. Although I initially thought that I should probably judge a particular shop on its own merits, I've hear enough stories about Firestone over the years that I think it's a company wide issue, really, to take advantage off customers. Does this necessarily mean that the Firestone you mention is trying to rip you off or will give you bad service? No. But if it was my car, I wouldn't risk it.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:22 PM on August 3, 2011

Avoid Firestone. You shouldn't be charged just to hook your car up to the computer. Find a good local mechanic try the car talk website mechanic files. Great resource.
posted by WickedPissah at 4:26 PM on August 3, 2011

Another vote for no Firestone. Try to find a local mechanic. Looks like you're in Atlanta...if you happen to live in St. Louis or Rochester, NY instead I can give you a recommendation for a good, honest mechanic.
posted by fyrebelley at 9:00 PM on August 3, 2011

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