How many Toyota mechanics does it take to change a lightbulb?


By George Miller

We are a Toyota family, formerly a Mercedes family and a Ford/GM family originally. Disloyal for not buying American? We had so much trouble with our Detroit iron in the old days that we never came back. They were disloyal to us. My father was a double Purple Heart Marine Corps WWII Battle of Iwo Jima veteran. So strong was his indoctrination and war experience that he wouldn’t even ride in a Japanese car for nearly a half-century. But now Japan is an ally and an important trade partner, even if the deal needs to be negotiated a bit better.

For economy, reliability and overall value, Toyota is hard to beat.

Toyota provides fine service, but sometimes it’s very costly for what you get. Case in point: recently, my wife’s Toyota Prius, a great little car and extremely reliable, blew the left (left is significant- harder to fix) headlight bulb. Unlike some models where you have to replace the whole headlight assembly, this just needs a bulb. So, you would think that would be just a few dollars, but you would be thinking wrong.

I had heard it was expensive to change that headlamp bulb and also hard to do, so we decided to ask the Toyota people what it would cost. $122, they responded. Whew!  But if it’s that hard, maybe we should just pay the toll and leave it to the pros. We were bringing the car in anyway for something else, so we added that to the list. But when we got there, it suddenly went up to $300+.

Oh, it has a “high-intensity bulb”, which is more expensive, they exclaimed and the job is labor-intensive. Well, didn’t they know that when I called? They have our car info and all of its records on line. 

The first thought that popped into my head upon hearing this was incredulity and  a variant of an old joke: “How many Toyota mechanics does it take to change a light bulb?”

We demurred, saying that it was too much. Too much for the grossly price-inflated lightbulb, way too much for the fully-burdened labor, which we were told involved removing the bumper cover, other parts and the headlamp assembly itself.  It also felt like a bit of bait and switch.

I told the service rep that I had seen videos and online free guides which demonstrated how to do it in 10 minutes plus $16-65 in parts. I had looked up the OEM Philips bulb which was readily available on Amazon for $50, shipping included, with “Brand X” being much cheaper. The service rep was skeptical, warning me that I would get junk from Amazon. I reminded him that Philips makes the bulb, not Amazon and that it is identical to the bulb already in my wife’s car, except that it probably works. The old bulb lasted 9 years, so no complaints. I gave them an opportunity to adjust it to a real-world price, which they didn’t.

So, I went home, took a deep breath and went back to the Internet guides to figure out how to do this. Some were contradictory, with different approaches, some wrong, or necessarily different for left and right sides and different model years. Since there were different bulb types (even the manual said some cars have halon and some have HID -high intensity discharge bulbs), I decided to take the old one out first before ordering a new one, which would take longer but help eliminate ordering error.

Disclosure statement: The ten minute job took me more than 30+ minutes -and that didn’t even include even longer to research the right methods to find one that made the most sense, because I had never done anything like this before and the headlamp cover was stuck, requiring some effort to dislodge it.

It turns out that by removing a plastic cover (6 screws) that ran the width of the car and removing the fuse box cover, a marginally agile person could then reach and remove the bulb cover, electrical lead, bulb retaining clips, then the bulb itself, without taking anything else apart. I couldn’t even see the clips, but the internet videos and illustrations taught me enough so that I could do it by feel without even seeing, them. The Internet is revolutionizing stuff like this…

The Amazon vendor said it would take 2 days to deliver the bulb, but it showed up at my door the very next day. I compared it to the one  removed- same exact make and model as the original.

It is often harder to re-assemble something than to take it apart, but I had it working in about 5 minutes, with another 5 minutes to put the covers back on, put away my tools and close the hood.

So, why is it a $300 job?

This wasn’t my first rodeo with Toyota. I don’t even bring my own Toyota there anymore, although my wife does. One of the other Citizens Journal folks knows how to do real mechanic work and usually takes care of mine, often using superior parts and methods to those that authorized dealers do. Before I retired, I had neither the time nor the inclination to do what I have just described, but had the funds to insulate myself from such hassles. But even then, I felt ripped off a couple of times.

Another example of this: I had a Toyota Landcruiser- fabulous vehicle. After 10 years, the air conditioner started having problems. It would run for about ten minutes, then the cold air would turn warm. The Toyota people told me that the Bosch compressor was completely shot and that I would have to pay $2400 for new one, This was years ago- maybe it’s more now. I knew that was wrong, because it worked flawlessly for about ten minutes, then it crapped out, leading me to believe that it had something to do with the control system.

I hesitated to go ahead with their recommendation, because it seemed incorrect, whether due to incompetence or cynical exploitation. A friend told me about a Mexican (now American) guy who did mechanical work on the side and who was well regarded. It took him about two hours to figure out that the problem was a grain of sand in a check valve, which he simply cleaned out, once he found the problem. Total bill $150. I wish I could find him now.

So, why is it a $2400 job?

Later,  I talked to the General Manager, who told me that it usually works out better to replace the unit rather than get bogged down in diagnostics and repairs or parts replacements which may not solve the problem. Better for them for sure. You and me, maybe not.

These problems are not restricted to Toyota dealers. I have experienced similar horror shows with multiple Mercedes dealers, who seemed to bill in increments of $1000, and finally found a competent independent mechanic who kept my maintenance costs down. I hear horror stories from friends occasionally about servicing or warranty issues with their various makes and models of vehicles.

So, why does this stuff happen? Well, it doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it is annoying, expensive and erodes confidence in the service organizations and even the manufacturers. In the headlight case, both the dealer and manufacturer shared some blame. What a dumb design that you can’t just easily reach in to change a headlight bulb! How dumb of the Toyota corporate service organization and the local dealer NOT to realize that there are much better methods available, especially when they are all over the Internet. Or maybe they are not stupid, but unethical, and they DO know, but cynically continue to charge much more lucrative rates. Neither case inspires confidence.


George Miller is Publisher of and a “retired” operations management consultant residing in Oxnard

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Dennis Ralph

In 1996 I purchased a new Chevy lumnia apv” all plastic vehicle” small bore Six. To date I might have 900 bucks in repairs in it. I’ve kept it in top shape, now I want a new car but every thing works on the lumnia , it’s almost like new so I’m going to hang on to it. The reason I got the foever car was it would never rust or dent and all I would ever have to do is plug in a new engine. 21 years now this day it is as solid as a rock It still will blow the doors osolf any of those Rice burning lounge cars. Good on your father! God bless his soul!


We started taking our vehicles to Williams Automotive in Montalvo. Scott Williams is an honest mechanic and always charges a fair price. Dealers’ service writers are notorious for “upselling” you to agree on more work no matter how insignificant, especially if you’re a woman!