We all need a road map to guide us in areas where are not familiar. I would like to take a couple of minutes and try to guide you through the servicing of your Toyota. I will emphasize up front that I work at a dealership but I don't represent Toyota Motor Company, so the statements are as honest and forth right as I normally am.
I will present this information in a question and answer format. These are some of the normal questions we would get from customers and if site visitors ask other questions, they may be added to help in the understanding of this mystery.
Do I need to service my Toyota at the dealership? In reality no, the service can be done by yourself or anyone you so choose. Toyota tells you this in your warranty information included with your owners manual. There are several reasons the dealer is the best choice to use and they are: they use factory parts, they keep all the service records for you, the people who are doing the work are trained and used to seeing the Toyota product and normally their pricing is competitive. If something goes wrong due to the servicing of your vehicle, or if something is missed that should have been done (when not done at a Toyota dealership), the warranty may not cover the needed repair. Many owners choose to use the local person they are familiar with, or one of the quick lube places (more on that later). Either one of those two places mean well, but they can't keep up with the new vehicles, and you may not be getting the complete service you think, by servicing there.
What does the warranty cover? It changes from time to time but today's warranty is the best it's been. You have some items that are covered under adjustment warranty for up to 12 months or 20K and the rest are covered up to the 3 years or 36K. After that the powertrain warranty comes into play for the remaining period up to 5 years or 60K. There are emission and rust warranties but normally they don't come into play. The warranty does not cover any of the normal servicing that Toyota recommends be done at various mileage intervals, these are your responsibility, as the vehicle operator. A warranty repair will pay for of the repair or part replacement of a part that is covered by the warranty, that did not fail from any outside influence, say an accident or lack of maintenance. The dealer will not charge you for these repairs, if the warranty in effect at that time allows for a replacement vehicle for an overnight repair, that is paid for also. If a dealer tries to charge you for a diagnostic charge, they are in error, and they should be informed that the warranty covers the entire repair expense.
Can I use a quick lube place for my services? We get this question all the time and as the vehicle owner it's a good question. First of all they are not trained to work on a Toyota. I admit that the act of changing oil and checking tire pressure is fairly common. However, I can't tell you how many times that when done incorrectly it has caused an engine to fail. They don't use factory oil filters and in fact the entire quick lube industry uses below standard lubricants and parts as a rule, some are better than others, but that is the exception. They cannot stay in business just changing engine oil and filters so they have to sell you some other service on each visit. What you don't know is that what they say is "recommended" by the factory really is not and is made up to "scare" you into whatever they are selling. Studies have shown that the average cost to visit one of those places is above $60.00, by the time you leave. Most Toyota dealers have a Quick Lube service that is priced between $21.95 and $24.95, without any add-ons, and they use factory parts with trained people. If you go to a dealer they will keep the records of your visit. If something goes wrong later on, with the engine or vehicle, you have someone to point the finger at if the service question comes up. If you use the non-dealer business you are the one in the middle with no where to really go (read between the lines, you will be responsible). The dealers normally offer, extended hours and have Saturday hours, so that should not be a problem and since no appointment is required and you get a 30 minute guarantee or the next one is free.
What do I really need to have done when I go in for services? This is the probably the first question a lot of people ask and it has biggest variance around the country. Here is some of the history so you can appreciate why some people are skeptical about going to the dealer.
To set the record straight the dealership is the best place to have your Toyota serviced bar none. The newer vehicles really don't require a lot of maintenance, as did the older Toyota's, so most of the visits are brief and monetary painless. There are as many opinions on how often the oil and filter should be changed, in my opinion you can do it as often as 3750 miles but no longer than 5000 miles, if you are the average driver who encounters stop and go traffic. If you were to change the oil within that frequency it's like you are taking out an insurance policy on the engine for about $24.00 a visit, at most dealers. The remaining services may require some additional items replaced or inspected, your maintenance manual that came with your owners manual, will explain what needs to be done. There is a schedule A and a schedule B for you to follow. If you do at least the A you will do the minimum of what Toyota requests, doing the B schedule will afford more protection for your vehicle and if you plan on keeping the vehicle for some time its the one I recommend you perform.
Now that I have mentioned the two schedules this is where a lot of dealers go astray from what is really needed. In the early days the Toyota products required more maintenance to keep them running as well as they did and each dealer established a schedule time for the various mileage services, the 15K, 30K, 45K, 60K and so on were the bigger ones. The newer models require less maintenance to be done, but the service department wants to keep the labor time the same as before, when nothing additional is really required. In some parts of the country the dealers have a maintenance schedule called the Min/Max - Normal/Enhanced or something like that. The dealer service department may present you with a choice of the two levels of service and you get to choose. In reality the Max is the most complete repair for you but if you take the Min and add say a $12.00 tire rotation and sometimes an air filter you would save $30-$90.00 or more per visit. The dealers also bury added repairs that you really don't need on a the regular schedule, like wheel alignment or tire balance. If you were to notice the vehicle vibrating you would tell them and if they would recommend a tire balance, are doing their job they will tell you when you need an alignment based on tire wear. I can't speak for all dealers, and there are a lot of good ones, but most over charge $100.00 or more on the major services for work that is not needed or even performed. You can't know what is really going on since so few owners really understand what is going on any ways. If the dealer has any service that costs over $250.00 per visit, some warning bells should go off and questions need to be asked, you will be amazed at what the explanations will be.
The timing belt is another one that is abused. There is no where that says you need to replace it at 60,000 miles but you need to know of its existence and the fact that it needs to be serviced. When to replace it is your choice, but somewhere in the 60-75-100K range is a good idea, and in fact the newer models have that as the recommended range.
I mentioned earlier that the mileage maintenance services are a carry over from the older days but why do dealers try to overcharge to perform these services. Since the vehicles are being made better, and the factory warranty is also better, the dealers/mechanics need these inflated maintenance costs to make the income they deserve for their skills. The factory uses the dealer as a scapegoat to cover the manufacturing defects or parts failures that they create. They do reimburse the technician to perform the repairs, but the repair times allowed are so low, that it actually costs the technician money to do your warranty repairs. Its not just a Toyota problem, but they base the repair times on today's sophisticated vehicles with some going back to 1988, even though the vehicle is totally different. Its not fair to the technician that Toyota wants to reduce its expense of warranty repairs. The dealership management recognizes that the vehicle needs "normal" service maintenance so they sometimes accelerate the items they recommend. Since some managers and dealership owners really don't know the actual requirements for service, and they let the past dictate the present. Not all dealers are like this, the ones who you are lucky enough to visit, where you don't leave your weeks pay on the cashiers counter, are the good ones who value you as a customer. I bet that if you have one of these dealers locally you may have trouble getting an appointment for service, because they are busy satisfying customers. The good ones treat you as they want to be treated and it shows in their pricing and quality of service they perform.
Now that I may have upset many dealers who have read this so far let me not forget that friendly independent mechanic you love to use, is actually worse. They normally take the dealers repair prices and place themselves a little lower. They do not use factory parts but charge you the factory parts prices or even higher, then act like your best friend ("you know we are cheaper than that dealer but do only what is needed not the extras"). They come across as someone who would not take advantage of you, well they would and do with regularity. The good independents are mirrors of good dealers, they offer reliable service, use quality factory parts and stand behind their work and there are many out there. Its the 80% of the others who are the problem. I can't tell you who is good or bad, but if the old saying is true that "if it sounds too good to be true then it's not" then it applies here.
You really need to consider going to the dealer for your service, they know your vehicle and can advise you when repairs are needed, you now know that you can take control of what is being done, and keep yourself informed as to how your money is being spent.
How about the national chains repair stores, can they maintain my vehicle? NO! Let me explain why I feel this way. They are in this business because the dealers created them with the take it or leave it "dealer" attitude and pricing levels for service. The chain stores are in this for a profit and to achieve that profit, they need they employ people who are not trained to the same level, or have the same experience as the techs at most dealerships. They use substandard parts quality to cut costs and suggest repairs that are not needed. You are influenced by the national advertising where they come across as cost efficient and friendly, but if you really knew the price gouging and unnecessary repairs performed you would be sick. Yes, the dealer is not, in some cases the best alternative but they are "saints" compared to the national chains. Your problem is that you don't know who to believe, we are accustomed to believe the TV and we like things that are less complicated and convenient. Using these places will not benefit your vehicle and may actually make you feel that the quality of the Toyota vehicle you own, is less than you expected because something failed that was major. My recommendation is to stay away from them, if at all possible, and in the long run you will save money using the dealer for your maintenance.