Only a couple of years ago, the concept of a maintenance contract only applied to the top-end luxury cars, and was certainly not a common part of the South African automotive landscape.
However, in recent years this has spread to virtually every sector of the industry, and the majority of new cars are offered with a maintenance or servicing contract of some sort - either as a standard feature or an added-cost option.
Obviously it's not a freebee, even if it comes standard - you're paying for the privilege as it's included in the purchase price of the car - but it does allow for a measure of hassle-free motoring.
This type of contract runs concurrently with the traditional new vehicle warranty - the purpose of which is to cover the owner in terms of defective materials or workmanship.
It covers all costs related to the regular servicing of the vehicle at the manufacturer's stipulated intervals. This includes the usual items such as oil and filter changes, spark plugs, brake and coolant fluid, as well as the labour.
In addition, all repairs and costs resulting from normal wear-and-tear fall under the 'maintenance' aspect of the contract, and includes components such as brake pads and discs, suspension, gearbox, clutch and exhaust. Essentially, if you have a problem with your car at any time (especially out of the stipulated service intervals) it will be repaired at no charge. The maintenance contract doesn't pay for obvious items such as fuel, top-up oil and tyres.
Component failures resulting from driver abuse certainly won't be covered, and could nullify the remainder or some aspects of the contract. Similarly, all maintenance and servicing has to be done by the official dealer with original parts, otherwise the balance of the warranty or contract will be cancelled by the manufacturer or importer.
Service plans are a far more recent development, and are simply designed to cover the cost of the traditional service.
This means that the normal service conducted at the dealer, including items such as oil and filters, spark plugs, fluids and the associated labour are completed at no charge to the customer. However, any other work that extends beyond the vehicle warranty, and occurs outside of the service parameters, is charged for.
It's important to note the time and distance limits relevant to the appropriate maintenance or service contract. The entry-level in both cases is around three-years/60 000 km, while five-year/100 000 km cover is very common. Some programmes involve a measure of proportional contribution where the customer pays an increasing portion of the costs as the mileage climbs. And once the contract has run out, the customer is liable for all maintenance and servicing costs.
Most manufacturers offer the option of upgrading a service contract into a full-blown maintenance plan, or extending existing cover in terms of time, distance or both - although this is often prohibitively expensive. In most instances, the contract can be transferred to the new owner if the vehicle is sold later on, but this may involve a quality check at the dealer and a small administration fee.
Make sure you read and fully comprehend the intricacies of the plan being offered, and understand what is covered and what items are excluded. Don't be scared to ask - it could save you plenty of frustration and unexpected bills in the future.