Photo: YouTube/Rednecks Gone Wild (Screengrab)

Here’s a question: Would you ever buy a crucial suspension part from Ebay that costs one-tenth as much as a similar piece at the parts store? Many of you would answer “no,” because something just doesn’t feel right about it. But it’s easy to understand why so many people do buy these parts when there’s little indication of any reduction in quality. At least, until something goes wrong.

I’m never going to tell you to go out and buy a bunch of cheap Chinese car parts from Ebay. But what I will tell you is that it’s difficult to justify buying a pricey part simply because it’s expensive. The problem I find with the aftermarket car parts market is that there’s often very little information out there as to what’s a too-expensive ripoff and what’s a too-cheap scam. It makes buying parts feel like a crapshoot.

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Often, the clerk at the parts store asks me: “Would you like the ‘premium’ for $20 more?” If it’s a part that I really don’t want to service again any time soon, I usually take the offer. And I see a lot of the shoppers at my local O’Reilly auto parts store do the same. They’ll choose the mid-grade or high-grade version of any part without having any data supporting their choice.

I was recently buying a head gasket for a Jeep Cherokee, for example. O’Reilly offered me two different parts. There was the PermaTorque Severe Duty head gasket for $33.99:

And then there’s the standard PermaTorque head gasket for $25.99:

I paused for a second: Why the hell would I buy a part just because the manufacturer puts “severe duty” (or in some cases “premium” or “deluxe”) in the name? I have no data to support that the black and blue gasket is worth the extra $8. Still, I couldn’t help but think, “You know, I really don’t want to fix this again. Plus, it’s only eight bucks.”

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Even the safe choice feels like a scam (is it even a “safe” choice?), but that’s my point. There are many disparately-priced car parts out there, but there’s rarely any easily-available data (or visual differentiation) that tells us the real benefits or dangers of each part. We’re ultimately left with two options: We buy the cheap part, feel guilty and pray it works, or we buy the mid-priced or expensive one hoping that the upper-tier price means it must not be junk.

This isn’t a good method of picking parts, but the reality is that I’m not going to get any field data on head gasket longevity anytime soon. I can try to email the manufacturers and compare the data sheets, or I can look for comparison tests from independent testers online, but even that likely won’t get me anywhere. The only thing I can really do is read reviews from Amazon, Ebay and—my favorite—car forums. If 50 people say the part is decent, there’s a chance it’s not total junk. Then I can save some money, buy the cheap part and still sleep easy knowing it won’t blow up my motor or send me careening into a tree.

Deciding on decent parts is made messier by branding, as I often come across a store-branded part that’s exactly the same as the Ebay part. Or are they the same? If I put them side-by-side, the parts look identical. And indeed, the materials may also be identical. But one may have come from a company that takes quality control seriously, while the other brand may have just phoned in the QC. So can I trust the reviews for one product to represent another re-branded product that looks exactly the same?

Clearly, buying car parts can seem like a minefield, especially when you’re buying critical parts keep your wheels on, and parts that connect those wheels the steering wheel. In lots of cases, people just buy the name brand, expensive parts for peace of mind. After all, you don’t want this to happen:

That video above shows a ball joint failure. Ball joints are a great example of where I’ve struggled to find the right parts. Lots of ball joints are garbage, and the ones that aren’t (MOOG, for example) tend to be punitively expensive. Finding the ones that lie in between the two extremes isn’t always easy.

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As an example, here’s a link to a MOOG ball joint sold at O’Reilly for $65. That’s a typical price for a MOOG joint, though sometimes you can find them as low as $30. That may not sound like a lot, but multiply that by four and your full set of ball joints will cost you over $100.

Last year, when I did my $600 Jeep Cherokee build, I bought name-brand AC Delco ball joints for one side, assuming that the brand would save me from any trouble. But for the passenger’s side, I ran out of funds and bought from Ebay the questionably cheap ball joints shown below. Total cost for all four? $24.

Photo: Ebay

That’s right, these ball joints cost $6 apiece, or between one-fifth and one-tenth as much as a quality MOOG part. Are these parts worse than the MOOG for my application? If the MOOG joint is really stronger, will my Jeep even put my ball joints under severe enough loads that I will absolutely need the more expensive parts? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and yet—even with the positive reviews I found for the cheap ball joints—I still felt guilty using these parts.

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This is the issue I face all the time when buying car parts: There’s so little useful scientific data out there (to be sure, you can find a few independent tests and some home-brew comparisons out there), the very nature of buying the cheapest feels like we’re compromising. In some cases, we definitely are. But it’s rarely clear.

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I committed what felt like even more egregious wrenching crimes with my loathsome Honda Accord. I needed a new control arm, which hold’s the car’s steering knuckle (which holds on the wheel) to the car. I bought one on Ebay and it only cost me $23. The equivalent part from O’Reilly? $56. Is the O’Reilly part, which looks almost exactly the same, better quality? Maybe, maybe not.

Photo: Ebay

I did the same thing with my inner and outer tie rod ends. A single inner tie rod end usually costs about $27 at O’Reilly, but I bought these off Ebay for less than $20 for both:

Photo: Ebay

The same goes with outer tie rods. These two from Ebay cost me about nine bucks a pop. The equivalent part at the parts store costs $21.

Photo: Ebay

Every part I’ve purchased from Ebay (I read their reviews carefully) has held up well, despite the low cost, and I’m really beginning to rethink my previous Just Buy Mid Grade strategy. In the rare case that I can find good independent comparison data, I’ll use it. Otherwise, reviews will drive my decisions. And if the $6 ball joint gets the same review as the $65 part, that’s an easy decision for me.

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But the bigger point here is that when even I—with a fairly solid understanding of what each car part does and how critical it is to keeping me safe—have little more than a vague understanding of whether I’m risking my life or getting ripped off, you know this Wild West car parts business is too damn confusing.