Car Dealership Add-Ons: Which Ones are Worth Buying?


Typical paint protection demo

You’re certainly not done at the dealership when you’ve agreed on a price for your next car, but are any of those add-on products you’ll then be introduced to worth buying, or should you just forget about them?

Every add-on product a dealership sells can be worth buying, but buyers need to give careful consideration to whether or not any of them are really worth it to them at the prices being offered. If they were all free you’d take them all – but they’re not free – and they can sometimes be extortionately expensive. Here’s a list of add-on products you’re likely to be offered, along with my honest opinion about whether you should buy them, how much you should pay for them, and alternatives you might want to consider instead.

The products we’re going to look at are:

  • Paint and fabric protection
  • GAP insurance
  • Key protection
  • Window etching
  • Extended warranties
  • Nitrogen for your tires
  • Smart insurance (dent, tire and wheel protection)
  • Wheel and tire packages
  • Accessories

Paint and fabric protection

Paint and fabric protection products are one of the most common add-ons dealer are likely to try and convince you to buy, and not only with brand new vehicles either. You could be impressed by promises or even guarantees of these products protecting your vehicle for up to five years or longer, especially if you remember to touch up any areas of the bodywork that get damaged.

I cover the different types of paint protection in another post here, but the first thing you need to find out before committing to any product like this is which type it actually is. To be honest, I’d forget them altogether if you’re buying a used vehicle, unless perhaps it’s an ex-demonstrator that’s only a couple of months old.

If the product on offer is a high-quality specialist coating, and if you’re buying a pretty expensive vehicle, it might be worth paying up to a maximum of a couple of hundred dollars, especially if there’s fabric protection included too.

If a dealership is really serious about selling paint protection, they could have a demonstration to amaze you with. This could be something as impressive as a car hood with one side treated and the other side untreated, which is supposed to show how clean it keeps your paintwork. There’s a problem with this, which is current paint protection products are designed to PROTECT your vehicle’s paintwork from being damaged by things like tree sap, bird droppings, UV rays, salt, etc. They are NOT designed to keep your vehicle clean. I had to set up a demo like this in my showroom once. When I questioned the legitimacy, and indeed, the whole point of the display, it was then decided it wasn’t worth going ahead.

Another, more legitimate demo is a simple business card with one part treated and one part un-treated. A few drops of a liquid will then be put into the card, and they’ll roll off the protected part and soak into the unprotected area. It’s a powerful demo, and I know from experience that it works. However, you’re now prepared for it, so don’t get taken in. Judge the product on its merits and only buy if you can get it cheap.

GAP insurance

I’ve seen blog posts all over the internet about GAP (Guaranteed Asset Protection) insurance, and most of them are telling you not to buy it. Well, they’re wrong, and I can tell you this from direct experience of this much-maligned product. Gap insurance makes up the difference between what you paid for your vehicle originally when you bought it, and what you get from the insurance company in the event of a total write-off, whether it’s through an accident or is stolen an not recovered. If you have outstanding finance on the vehicle, Finance GAP pays the difference between what the insurance company pays out and the finance settlement figure, if it’s more than the insurance payout.

Nobody likes paying good money for insurance. After all, you’re paying money out for something you hope you’ll never have to use. But believe me, just like house insurance, you’ll be extremely glad you have it if you do need it.

I had a really nice old couple I’d been trying to sell a new luxury vehicle to for a couple of years, but they were quite happy with the one they had that they’d bought from the dealership before I started. One day they came in, and I just assumed they were in for a service or something. We started chatting and they told me they’d come in to get an idea of what their vehicle was worth because they’d had it stolen, and they wanted to know if the insurance company was making a fair offer.

The offer was right on the mark, but it was almost $20,000 less than they’d paid for the vehicle a couple of years earlier and they would struggle to afford to replace it with an equivalent that was newer. It crossed my mind they might have taken out GAP, but they said they hide no idea if they did or not. I dug out the old deal file from the archives, and it was my huge pleasure to be able to tell them they would be able to claim that nearly $20,000 from their GAP policy. Needless to say, I went on to sort them out with a spectacular nearly-new demonstrator that way was better than the car they’d had stolen.

GAP is worth buying, especially if you’re buying on finance. Once again though, don’t pay over the odds for it. The more expensive the vehicle is the more expensive the cover is, and that’s correct because it costs the dealer more. However, I wouldn’t pay more than a couple of hundred dollars for it on a non-luxury car and no more than $350 for something seriously expensive.

An expensive-to-replace Mercedes key

Key protection

Key protection is another insurance product, but this is one you can definitely do without. Admittedly, modern car keys are complex and very, very expensive to replace, but how often does anybody lose one of these keys these days? If it fails due to an electronic or hardware fault it will probably be covered by the warranty. If you are worried, your vehicle insurance company may offer key cover as an extra for a very small additional charge.

Automobile clubs like AAA offer cover with certain levels of membership, and it will often include other extras that make it much better value than key protection from the dealership. Some home insurance policies will even allow you to add expensive items like car keys that you take out of the home to your existing policy. Key protection is something you should ignore at the dealership, unless it’s bundled in with some other products you want at a great price, of course.

Window etching

Window etching is where your vehicle identification number is etched into your vehicle windows. The idea is that it deters thieves because they’d have to replace all the windows before they could sell the vehicle on, and that would make the whole escapade uneconomical.  It’s also supposed to make recovering the car after a theft easier.

The truth is, the vehicle already has its ID number stamped in numerous places already, so the amount a dealer will charge for etching the windows simply isn’t worth it. Some dealers try charging as much as $500 for this service, but it’s not worth paying a tenth of that for it. Some insurance companies run special events where you can have it done for free, and you can even get a kit from Amazon for about $20 to do it yourself if you really want it done.

Window etching

Extended warranties

In principle, an extended warranty is a good idea, but usually only in principle. Most new vehicles have manufacturer warranties that last a minimum of three years these days, and others go for as long as five years or even longer. If you are definitely going to be keeping a new car for longer than the factory warranty lasts, it will probably be cheaper to buy a warranty extension at the point of buying the car than it will do when the warranty runs out. Just be sure to check the warranty is transferrable for if you sell the vehicle before the end of the warranty period you’ve paid for.

Even so, I don’t remember any new car buyer choosing to purchase a warranty extension with a new vehicle. It’s much more likely a used vehicle buyer would be interested, but this is where the real caution needs to kick in.

Most reputable dealers will include some sort of warranty with a used sale, and it could be tempting to try and extend it. The problem is, used vehicle warranties can be very expensive, and they look even more expensive when you dig into the detail and find out what they don’t cover. Most of the stuff that’s very likely to go wrong will be considered as wear and tear with an aging vehicle, so don’t be tempted to sign up.

It’s a much better idea to keep up with servicing and routine maintenance because when something major goes wrong you’ll probably end up paying for it yourself anyway. The idea of an extended warranty is comforting, but the reality most of the time is anything but.

Nitrogen for tires

If you haven’t come across this one before, this is one you really should pass up. To be fair, putting nitrogen instead of compressed air into your tires will make them more pressure-stable in changing temperatures, and they will lose pressure at a slower rate. If you’re driving a NASCAR or you’re in Formula One, eliminating variations in tire pressure can be the difference between winning and losing.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and assume that most people reading this won’t be top-flight race car drivers, so you don’t need to pay a couple of hundred dollars filling your tires with nitrogen. And if you still want to have nitrogen-filled tires, plenty of tire shops will purge your tires and fill them with nitrogen for the price of a few beers.

Smart insurance (dent, tire and wheel protection)

When these insurance products first started to hit the market a couple of decades ago, some of them were seriously good value for money and they were definitely worth having. The problem was that the insurance companies soon realized they’d underestimated how many people would claim on them, and they been far too generous in many cases with the amount of cover they were offering for the price.

For example, I once sold tire insurance to a guy with a Subaru WRX STI because it covered him for malicious damage for up to five tires to be replaced in a two-year period, and he worked in a business where someone was very likely to want to do it to his car. The cost of replacing those tires would have been well over $1,000, but the policy only cost $200. Guess what? After about 18 months of driving on those tires, when the tread would have been quite worn, the guy put in a claim for four new tires after they were mysteriously stabbed with a sharp object and damaged beyond repair.

It’s a similar story with dent and wheel protection. Nowadays, the cover is so specific and so low-grade that it really isn’t worth paying the premium for. Windshield protection often means a coating is applied to the windshield to strengthen it and make is less susceptible to breaking due to road damage. If such a magic substance existed, don’t you think windshield manufacturers would already be using it?

Seriously, don’t touch any of these products if they’re offered to you, they’re not worth it these days unless they’re giving them away.  

Dent repair

Wheel and tire packages

The chances are that if you wanted bigger, fancier wheels on your vehicle, you’d probably have gone for a trim level that already had them. There is a circumstance where you might want to think about buying a wheel and tire package, and that’s when you live somewhere that experiences harsh winter weather with lots of snow and ice. In that case, a set of winter tires on a set of wheels is a very good idea.

Fitting winter tires in an area where they’re necessary due to severe weather in the winter is always a good idea, and we’ll cover the ins and out of winter rubber elsewhere on this site. You could just buy the tires, but swapping tires is harder and more time-consuming than fitting another set of wheels, and you can change the wheels yourself if you want, but not the tires.

Of course, if you somewhere like Texas or California and your dealer tries to sell you a set of winter tires and wheels, you’d probably be better off taking all your business somewhere else.

Accessories

There are loads of different accessories you might want to buy for your new ride, and some of them will have to be bought and possibly fitted by a dealer, so they have you over something of a barrel. However, just like the vehicle itself, you should still try and negotiate on the price.

Some items like roof racks, dog guards and dog mats can be bought cheaper elsewhere and fitted easily yourself, but be prepared for them to not be as good a fit as those supplied by the manufacturer. Off-road vehicles are a type you’re likely to want accessories for, but there are plenty of specialists who probably even specialize in the brand of vehicle you have, so be sure to check them out before committing to dealer prices.

Off-road accessories

Always check your invoice!

Before you sign an order and leave a dealership with an agreement in place for your next vehicle, remember to check the invoice properly before you sign anything. It’s not as common as it used to be, but it’s tempting for dealers to “include” one or more add-ons in the price you have already agreed. If you were already happy with the price and the “extras” included are a nice surprise and priced acceptably, then go ahead with the deal.

But if you don’t want the products listed, make sure they are removed and the price is adjusted accordingly. Sales teams are sometimes under pressure to sell a certain amount of these products each month and are penalized if they don’t. Sometimes they are so desperate to hit that target that they reduce the price of the vehicle and add the products in until the price gets to the number you already agreed.

If you’re ok with what’s effectively an extra discount, then go ahead. But if you’re not, don’t accept them taking the products out but still keeping the overall price the same. If you haven’t experienced this yourself, don’t think it doesn’t happen occasionally. It does, and I should know.

Sean Cooper

Former retail auto industry professional for almost a decade and now an automotive writer and journalist for the last 7 years

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