Part Hunting

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

August 21, 2009 5 min read

If your car -- and the dealer who sold it to you -- has gone the way of cheap gas, sidewalk pay phones and service station attendants, don't fret.

No matter how troubled the U.S. automotive industry may seem, finding an identical replacement part for a piece of your vehicle's original equipment will be relatively easy for a long time to come -- even if individual models and entire lines seem to have been dumped at breakneck speed.

That should bring some relief to Pontiac and Hummer buyers whose vehicles have been added to a growing list brands that have been disappearing almost as fast at the dealerships that sold them. Several thousand dealerships, along with their service and parts departments, have been shut in the United States and Canada since the beginning of 2009.

While the wave of bankruptcies, restructuring and belt tightening has forced car makers like General Motors and Chrysler to phase out models or drop entire lines, "there's an ample supply of parts," for now and in the foreseeable future, said Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for Edmunds.com.

It also means that you can rest easy if you opted for an extended manufacturer's warranty when you bought your car or purchased one just before the standard factory warranty expired. The parts will be there for as long as your warranty holds out, automotive insiders believe.

For consumers, the fallout from the massive fiscal issues faced by the industry may seem scary, but in reality the impact on the average car owner will be minimal when it applies to their being able to replace worn or broken car parts with original equipment. That's because many parts are interchangeable between many brands and models made by the same manufacturer. Air filers, brake pads, and rotors on some discontinued Pontiac models, for example, can be replaced with identical parts used in some Chevrolets, since both vehicles are made by General Motors.

It may be quite different if you bought a limited production vehicle. That decision could cost you more, and even more if you need to replace an original part with an exact duplicate once the warranty has run out. It may still be available, but because of the limited number of vehicles produced, it will be at a premium. "It's just going to cost an arm and a leg," Toprak said.

If you're like most auto owners and independent repair shops, you'll turn to after-market parts -- those made for your car but not by the car manufacturer. The quality of parts can vary. While it's not the only measure, savvy automotive parts buyers recommend judging by the price of the part.

Automotive replacement parts fall into one of three categories, says the United States Federal Trade Commission:

* New: Parts made to the original specs, either by the vehicle manufacturer or an independent company.

* Remanufactured, Rebuilt and Reconditioned: Parts have been restored to sound working condition.

* Salvage: Parts taken from another vehicle without alteration.

If you plan to use parts supplied by a local auto repair shop, check your state laws. They may require the shop to tell you if non-original parts will be used in the repair, the FTC points out. "Prices and quality of these parts vary," it cautions, adding that salvage auto parts, usually garnered from junkyards, may be your only option for some items you need to repair your car. "Their reliability is seldom guaranteed."

To the benefit of today's car owners, after-market auto parts are more available now then they were just a decade or two ago, a reflection of both the growth of the Internet and the emergence of giant national and regional auto supply retailers such as Auto Zone, Pep Boys, NAPA, Advance Auto Parts, O'Reilly, the U.S. Autoparts Network, rockauto.com and the granddaddy of auto parts suppliers, JC Whitney -- where you can still order a part for a 1928 Model T Ford or a six-figure 2009 Bentley Arnage.

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