Alex Rudloff  with his 2008 VW Passat

    Alex Rudloff with his 2008 Volkswagen Passat.

    by: David Sedgwick | AOL Autos

    How much do you suppose it would cost to replace that set of car keys in your pocket? A few bucks? Dream on.

    If it’s a “smart” key, it could easily cost you $200 to $300 -- or more.

    Many vehicles today have immobilizers that lock up a car’s ignition, fuel and steering systems unless a transponder in the smart key transmits the correct electronic code. Thus, thieves are deterred from stealing your car by using a makeshift key, but the downside it that smart keys aren’t cheap.

    The $600 Blunder

    Alex Rudloff found out the hard way. A couple of months ago, Rudloff -- an AOL executive who lives just south of Cocoa Beach, Fla. -- lost both sets of keys for his 2008 Volkswagen Passat sedan.

    The VW dealership in neighboring Melbourne told Rudloff that he’d have to transport the car to the store, where a technician could program a replacement key to work with the car’s onboard computer. That proved to be a difficult task. Alex purchased an un-programmed spare key that was supposed to let him shift the transmission into neutral. It didn’t work.

    Then he tried to slide a dolly under the wheels, so that a tow truck could take it to the dealership. But the car was parked too close to the garage’s right wall, and he couldn’t get the dolly into position.

    Finally, the tow truck operator located the Passat’s shift override, a yellow button under the shifter. He put it in neutral, dragged it onto the flatbed and took it to the dealership.

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    Adding up the cost of the key, the programming and the tow truck, “it was a $600 mistake,” Rudloff says ruefully.

    Legal Challenge

    Three years ago, the high cost of replacement keys attracted the attention of Weiss & Lurie, a Los Angeles law firm that filed a class-action lawsuit against VW. In 2008, VW settled the suit after it authorized independent repair shops to sell replacements. However, the settlement hasn’t had much impact on the cost of keys sold by VW or any other carmaker.

    Prestige Volkswagen in Melbourne tells me that it charges $156 for a replacement key and $105 to program it.

    We did some comparison-shopping, phoning German Concepts, a used-car dealership in Osceola, Ind., that is one of 37 independent stores authorized by Volkswagen to replace keys. We were told that they charge $260 for the key and programming -- virtually identical to the price charged by Rudloff’s Florida dealership.

    It’s not just Volkswagen that charges an arm and a leg for its smart keys. Porsche dealers charge $380 to replace and reprogram a key for the Cayman, and even a mass-market brand like Ford will charge $85 for a Fiesta key plus $85 for the programming.

    “It’s a monopoly, and there’s nothing you can do about it,” says Jesse Toprak, an industry analyst with the consumer Web site TrueCar.com, who once coughed up $380 to get a replacement key for his 2007 Mercedes SLK.

    Some automakers do allow independent repair shops to issue replacement keys. For example, independent locksmiths can replace Toyota keys if they purchase key coding equipment and pay a monthly fee. But there aren’t enough locksmiths in the car key replacement business to create competition, says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group.

    In 2006, the center surveyed 50 models and found that the average dealer price of a smart key was more than $150. The center unsuccessfully petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to probe the auto industry’s key replacement policies.

    Passat’s shift override, a yellow button under the shifter.

    Passat’s shift override, a yellow button under the shifter.

    Security Concerns

    For security reasons, automakers don’t want to turn over their key code software to any locksmith that asks. “You could be giving it to a thief,” Ditlow acknowledges.

    But he says automakers could create a secure nationwide key code storage system that would allow authorized locksmiths to use VIN numbers to look up key codes.

    “You don’t have to license every shop. You would license just enough locksmiths and shops to create competition to lower prices,” Ditlow says.

    Maybe so, but today there doesn’t appear to be a reliable source of cheap smart keys. To be sure, you can find a motley assortment of keys on eBay, that paragon of online capitalism. Recently, someone in Arizona was auctioning a Toyota Prius smart key, which (if new) would cost $195.

    So let’s assume you got a nice discount on that eBay key. The folks at Dunning Toyota in Ann Arbor, Mich., told me they were willing to reprogram it for $100. But they warned me that it was a crapshoot -- sometimes those used keys can’t be reprogrammed.

    In its 2006 testimony to the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for Auto Safety issued a similar warning. Caveat emptor.

    Right now, the best consumer advice is this: Don’t lose your keys. Rudloff says he’s learned his lesson. “We bought three new keys, and we put one in a safe,” he said. “Keys are getting too fancy. Let’s leave it at that.”

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    1 - 9 of 9 Comments
    yankeescouse9 Nov 02, 2010 4:15 PM
    I just had an incident with a jeep cherokee where there was no spare and the key was lost. The jeep dealer told us the only way it could be done was to have the car towed to the dealer that no locksmith could do it, as the key had to be programmed and only the dealer can do that..... but to tow the car without the key was impossible, according to everyone as there is no way to put the car into neutral without the key.. we found found a locksmith that would come to the car we just needed to get the key code from jeep, which we had to fight with them to get and, also the program code, jeep told us that the car would not start if the locksmith did it and that the car would be locked up for over 4 hours and would still have to come to the dealer to be reprogrammed. the locksmith came got the car opened in 2 mins and with some sort of handheld device that plugged into the car somewhere put the program code in and I'm in the car driving away in less than 5 mins but 350 dllrs poorer.. absolutely no towing involved nor any dealer, only now no smart key unless I buy one which they can make but just didn't have with them at the time unless i wanted to wait 2 more hours while he went to get one.......The dealer out and out blantantly lied.
    Report This
    nrkmann Oct 17, 2010 11:48 PM
    Registration with Drivers License and Mercedes has you a new working key in 24 hours or less. Less than $100. All they need is the VIN to make the key.
    Report This
    donbro2 Oct 14, 2010 4:20 PM
    i cant complain about my car when obama is distroying this republic.thank god the republicans are taking over in november..then we can move for impeachment in february....peace
    Report This
    mtequilam957 Oct 13, 2010 6:20 PM
    I can't complain. Eight months ago, the Honda dealer in Greensboro, NC charged me $175 for everything(2 keys and programming the car).
    Report This
    cscottfields Oct 13, 2010 3:50 PM
    Cfields I broke the key case to my 03 honda accord and went to the dealer to get a replacement. They wanted to charge me about $250.00 for the key and reprogramming. Being that I always get my car serviced at the same dealer they cut me a brake on the new key. Knocked off close to100 bucks. Keep your service advisor on your Christmas list. You take care of them and they'll take care of you.
    Report This
    litamoran Oct 12, 2010 6:51 PM
    When I purchased my car, the dealer talked me out of getting a smart key. He said that if I lost the key and needed a replacement, It would cost $200-$300 for the first replacement, and might go higher for a second-time loss. He suggested an alarm--and not the alarm that was offered as an option on the car (Camry). He said it's best to confuse any potential crooks; they may get/have some kind of work-around for Toyota alarms. If I have a different brand, it gives me a bit of an edge--and he suggested I put a general "equipped with an alarm" sticker on the window if I put any sticker on the window at all. Why tell them what kind of alarm you have? I appreciate that guy very much, especially since my last car was stolen (another Camry).
    Report This
    kerinmart Oct 12, 2010 3:13 PM
    Ref the above article, one driver said he bought 3 keys and kept one in the safe, beware if you are using a European manufactured car as some keys need to be rotated every 6 to 9 mths as there is not a battery to replace. As your key is in the ignition it is recharged so if spare is in the safe for a couple of yrs it may not function when needed. its best to use each key for 6 mths to to be on the safe side and to keep them recharged. Martin UK.
    Report This
    dncr4u2c2002 Oct 12, 2010 2:08 PM
    and what if your keys get stolen does that fall under insurance policy??
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    diltpernz Sep 29, 2010 11:43 AM
    There have been some recent advances in cooperation between auto manufacturers and the locksmith industry. Locksmiths that pass a background investigation and are members of the Associated Locksmiths of America can sign up with NASTF and aquire key codes and technical information from many auto manufacturers. The security aspect of this is overseen by the NICB. Not all locksmiths participate in this, so you do need to spend some time looking, but it can be worth your time. As with anything else, taking care of this while you have time to find your best options will save you money over waiting until it becomes a crisis situation. If you need assistance with this in the East Bay area of California, Old Capitol Lock Services, or Keys for my car can help.
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    AOL Autos looks at how smart keys can prove not to be very smart and can leave you in a costly trip to the dealer.


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