Point of diminishing returns, or not? [Car filter]
February 5, 2021 5:03 PM   Subscribe

I have a lovely 2011 Hyundai Accent that I believe the alternator went out on yesterday (we did the voltage test after the battery light came on). A friend was going to fix it, no big deal he said, but now we are under a Winter Storm Warning. So I might have to take it into my regular mechanic Monday, who is a great guy, but you know, more money. The friend also recommended getting the electrical system checked.

The only thing I know about alternators is what's on the net, and I can't figure out why the part can range from $65-$500. This car does have 184,000 miles on it -- but one of my friends owns a Honda (apples and oranges? I don't know) with 200,000 and she expects it to go to 500,000. I am told cars last longer these days. I have meticulously, obsessively maintained it since I bought it new. It is paid off, runs like a dream, and has a new timing belt and a more recent clutch, batteries, brakes and tires.

My other alternative is to get another car on credit. I've already been run through the system and I am set to go (although that is not a big surprise--I know the dealerships have a different system). I hate the idea of buying another car, though, to get into debt again in such a precarious time. I don't mind payments -- I am paying for that car to be there every day, and no drama, not like some junkers I've had in the past--but now is maybe not the best time.

I'm old enough to semi-drain my IRA (it is very small) if I had a line on a good car but that doesn't seem very wise either. I have one person who gave me a reference (see above, apples and oranges). She went on and on about what an expert he was.

The public transportation system here is abysmal. Ride-sharing is practically non-existent despite the city's best efforts. I have a bicycle but have stuck to dedicated trails as the drivers here seem intent on bodily harm.

I am trying to boil this down to a question, which is, am I really at the point of diminishing returns with this car? (Second question, how much should the alternator and the job cost?)
posted by intrepid_simpleton to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
A few hundred isn’t too bad; I’d just get the alternator fixed.

Now, if the transmission goes, or something where it’s a few thousand... Then you’d be in New To You Car Territory.

The price differential is probably official Hyundai alternator vs. generic. Generic is probably fine for your purposes. You can have your mechanic give you a quote for parts plus labor; it’s probably a couple of hours, maybe less.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:18 PM on February 5, 2021 [2 favorites]

What is the overall condition of the car? Rusty? Body damage? Does it burn or leak oil? Any major repairs on the horizon? I certainly wouldn't replace an otherwise decently functioning car just because it needs an alternator, which is a pretty routine repair. As for price, a cheap rebuilt alternator can be $65, a new OEM one from Hyundai could be $500, although that seems high. Labor costs can vary on the location of the alternator, on something like a Subaru it's a 20 minute job tops, on some other cars it can require a fair bit of disassembly to get to it. I don't know about your car, perhaps someone with access to a Mitchell "book time" manual can look up the allotted time for the job for your year/model.
I don't think 500,000 miles is a realistic goal for most cars and drivers, but there are exceptions. Having said that, why wouldn't you spend $500 or whatever to get another couple of years out of your car? There's a middle ground between giving up an otherwise fine car over a pretty small potatoes repair vs striving for 500K miles.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 5:19 PM on February 5, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: There's a middle ground between giving up an otherwise fine car over a pretty small potatoes repair vs striving for 500K miles.

Larry David Syndrome: I'm sorry if it sounded so black and white to you, I didn't intend it to.
Oh, and the car's in great shape, except for a chance meeting with a box on the interstate (a truck ahead of me with no lights and loaded to the gills whose cargo became airborne and I hit but amazingly scant damage). No rust, no bangs, no oil leaks.
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 5:34 PM on February 5, 2021

I can't figure out why the part can range from $65-$500.

Part itself or part + labor? Alternators can sometimes be in hard-to-reach places that require more dismantling than you might think; OTOH it's not uncommon for replacing an alternator to be a DIY project for folks moderately handy with a wrench. Really depends on the car.

but one of my friends owns a Honda (apples and oranges? I don't know)

Kinda, yeah - Hondas are sort of legendary for running forever. Hyundais I don't think have been around widely enough for long enough in North America to get that sort of reputation. Doesn't mean you won't get another 20k+ miles on yours, just that it's not really a useful comparison.

has a new timing belt and a more recent clutch, batteries, brakes and tires.

And with 184k miles? No rust, no leaks, no weird noises? No brainer - replace the alternator. Even if you only get another year out of it that's way better than digging into your IRA.

Have your mechanic give it a general lookover while they're replacing the alternator - if they think there's bigger problems in the near future you can start saving for a newer car now.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:10 PM on February 5, 2021 [5 favorites]

I'd view replacing an alternator as a reasonably normal thing after ten years.

The friend also recommended getting the electrical system checked.
Is there any reason to think there are other problems? Getting it checked on general principle seems like a fine idea. But, if I had a car the age of yours with major electrical problems, I'd probably get rid of it rather than trying to get it repaired. It seems like it's very labor intensive to even diagnose correctly when things go bad in the wiring harnesses, etc.
posted by thelonius at 6:37 PM on February 5, 2021

Nthing the recommendations to repair it. The variance in alternator prices most likely comes down to quality - with a brand new OEM alternator being the most pricey. With 184k on the clock, a remanufactured OEM alternator is probably the way to go. Cheaper ones might be best avoided - you don't want to damage your delicate electronic bits.

As for installation, a cursory googling suggests that it's a straightforward job.

Make sure to save the old one so you get your core charge back.
posted by transitional procedures at 7:09 PM on February 5, 2021

Put in a new belt, and throw the old one in the trunk, you never know when you might need one.
posted by H21 at 7:17 PM on February 5, 2021

Alternators can be rebuilt. Basically, they take it apart, replace worn out parts, replace the coils, test it to see it makes good voltage, and consider it remanufactured. An alternator can be rebuilt almost indefinitely this way, and heavy duty alternators for big trucks are usually rebuilts.

So even for the smaller car alternators, they can still be rebuilt. It can even be rebuilt in someone's garage if it's rare enough you can't find a reman.

So the costs could vary from "just need to reclamp the cables" to "need a reman alternator" to "must replace it with genuine Hyundai alternator and batteries AND cables".

There are ways to test the alternator separately (basically put it on a bench, lock it down, put on a belt and connect it to the motor, run it up to the right rpm and test the output. If it's doing a pretty consistent voltage just above 13V, it's fine. If it's barely going over 12 it's weak, and if it won't even do that, it's bad.

Batteries can be tested too. There are battery testers that sends pulses of electricity into the battery to determine if any of the cells are bad or leaking or weak. And there are overall load testers for batteries too.

So all in all, you should have no problem getting the pieces sorted / fixed. However, a "shadetree" mechanic is unlikely to have all the testers... While a regular mechanic or even the dealership would have them. Doubt those quick-lube places would have them.
posted by kschang at 8:14 PM on February 5, 2021

2011 is on the edge of when Hyundai upped their game in long term reliability. If it were me and there weren't any indications that anything else is going wrong, I'd replace the alternator (and battery if necessary, running them dead often makes them weak), but get myself in a position to buy a new(er) car in the next year or two.

It's not that it's literally impossible to take the one you have to 200k or 250k without spending a lot of money, it's just not likely in my view. It would be a good idea to look at what scheduled maintenance is coming up and get an idea of what will be needed and what it costs. It's not at all unusual for some relatively expensive engine-related stuff to be required around 200k that skipping can set you up for catastrophic failure.
posted by wierdo at 1:59 AM on February 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Alternators are considered wear items. They eventually fail. Get it fixed and keep driving a perfectly good car.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:17 AM on February 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Soundguy99: I googled "2011 Hyundai Accent alternators" so I assumed that it meant part cost only.
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 8:31 AM on February 6, 2021

Best answer: I think replacing an alternator on this car shouldn't even be a question, but I would probably get a rebuilt one, and if your buddy can do it that would be a definite plus as although it may be a small job the labor will probably be as much as the rebuilt part. As to your bigger theme of the point of diminishing returns, that depends on your future plans. Right now it is paid for, so your capital costs going forward are maintenance and repairs. Right now for the alternator, let's say $500 is the max you would spend and will get you reasonably one more year before the next problem that may make the car worth nothing. That's $42 per month for transportation capital. To buy a new Accent you would probably be looking at a payment of $313 per month for 4 years (They have a pretty good 0% for 48 months offer right now). Your car is a bit of a turd right now when it comes to trading in. A dealership would probably want to give you $500-$1000 and then turn around and try to sell it for $3500 or more, so it is worth more to you than it is to them. If you did want to sell it now, your best bet would be to sell it privately and buy a used one. But if I were you I would put off that decision for another year. Your risk is that the car will have a catastrophic failure in the next year which will make it worth nothing, but even with that possibility you are only the value of the car now, which is not that much and even less for a trade in.
I glanced through your old posts to see where where you night be located and also saw you would likely be retiring in a couple more years. I think it is probably that this car would let you make it to retirement with a little TLC and you can make a decision then. Your transportation needs will likely change with retirement and you may even decide to move to a city with better public transportation. Or you may decide too buy a new car and fill some of the voids in your city's ride sharing by becoming a driver.
posted by Short End Of A Wishbone at 9:11 AM on February 6, 2021

Soundguy99: I googled "2011 Hyundai Accent alternators" so I assumed that it meant part cost only.

Hmmmm. Having just done the same I'm pretty sure that some of that is SEO (search engine optimization) goofiness from sellers. Like, the super-low prices are probably bullshit.

Doing a search for alternators that actually fit your car on the Advance Auto Parts site gets 5 results ranging from $195 to $260 (like this) and on the AutoZone site gets 4 results from $250 to $400 (like this.) (And the $400 alternator is from Bosch (high-end name brand) with a lifetime warranty, which I think is a bit more alternator than you need.)

So, yeah, I'd say realistically you're looking at $200-$300 for the part itself.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:15 AM on February 6, 2021

Best answer: Yeah, part of the wide range in prices is almost certainly due to SEO bullshit. You've also got new factory parts vs new compatible parts vs rebuilts of both. I've always used rebuilt starters and alternators and have never had a problem. I tend to drive my cars forever (currently 2010 Kia, 2004 Mazda, 1994 Dodge pickup) and do most of my own maintenance. You've said the car is otherwise in good shape, so I would definitely replace the alternator and keep driving it. As others have said, it is very harmful for car batteries to be drained too far; this will often greatly reduce their capacity to hold a full charge. You might need a new battery now, or soon.

At least with this car, you know everything else is fine; if you were to get a different used car, all that history is essentially unknown and you could find yourself the proud new owner of a big batch of problems.

The way I tend to look at a major repair is, what's it going to cost me, will this make the car last another year, and will that cost be less than a year's worth of payments on a different car?
posted by xedrik at 10:42 AM on February 6, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you all for your thoughts. Well, here I sit with 6"-8" of snow outside so I am not holding out any hope for my friend to come by today. Regarding the electrical check, it was just something he mentioned as a logical progression/process of elimination. I believe the charge numbers were something like 11.8, so I'm not going anywhere even if I could. He disconnected one cable in case it would drain (I think I read that somewhere and he didn't disagree with me). But it is a new battery, so it shouldn't be too drained, I hope?

And wierdo, I have the maintenance suggestion book (I bought this car new) and we go over it every time!

If it's over his head, I will go back to my regular mechanic of 20 years, but it's just that he offered.

what's it going to cost me, will this make the car last another year, and will that cost be less than a year's worth of payments on a different car?

Now this is brilliant.

It's good to have mechanically inclined friends, and smart-Meta friends!

I have taken people to the voting polls for sixteen years, but I am sure I can expand on that.
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 10:50 AM on February 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I just replaced an alternator on my Honda last year. It's a fairly simple mechanic job - I considered doing it myself after watching some Youtube videos - but on a lot of cars the alternator is in an awkward spot.

Because of that, labor on replacing an alternator is probably just as much as the actual part. If your friend has the tools to do it though, I would hold out for them to fix it for me. Because it's not complicated and will save you roughly 1/2 what the mechanic quotes.

Generally rebuilt alternators have a year warranty.
posted by bradbane at 11:21 AM on February 6, 2021

If the battery is flat, it's cold and you have a charger around, you might consider charging the now-disconnected battery. Cold is not great for depleted batteries. This is not the end of the world if it sees the shop in a day or two, more a belt and braces thing.

A full charge might also be enough electricity get you to your mechanic's shop. The battery won't charge on the way without an alternator, but once it's started the engine the draw isn't huge. Your mechanic is a better person to make that call, though. This internet rando does not want to be responsible for you getting stuck on the freeway.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 10:16 PM on February 6, 2021

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