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I plan to lease a Mercedes, but I cannot get a straight answer on whether I have to service it at the dealership in order for the warranty to be deemed valid for the duration of the lease. Would you shed some light on this? – Rizwan

Whether you buy or lease, it shouldn't be the dealer's choice where you get your car serviced – it's yours.

"To maintain your warranty, you do not have to have your vehicle maintained at an authorized dealer," says George Moffat, manager of warranty and service contracts for Mercedes-Benz Canada. "Of course, the maintenance has to be done and documented."

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Achtung: you've also got to use approved fluids and an OEM oil filter, Mercedes says.

"We do see wrong filters being used and engines getting destroyed," Moffat says.

No manufacturer's warranty can force you to get your service done by the dealer, says George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a subscription-based consumer watchdog.

"If the manufacturer requires you to use a particular product or service to maintain the warranty's validity, it should be provided at no charge," Iny says in an e-mail. "Or be demonstrably the only appropriate way to maintain the vehicle."

That means auto makers can probably ask you to use specific products they sell – like Mercedes' OEM oil filter – if using something else could cause damage, Iny says.

"That's why a transmission service on a VW with the DSG automatic costs $500," Iny says. "You need to use multiple litres of a specific VW lubricant – to my knowledge available only from them – at $30 a litre."

What if it's not in the manual?

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And, you don't have to do everything they recommend at the service desk. Whether it's a dealership or a chain store, the people at the service desk are paid a commission, Iny says. That's why they push pricey extras like engine flushes and brake service that your car might not need.

So, if they strongly recommend the $600 Package A – when all you want is the oil and filter change required in the manual – stand your ground, Iny says.

"Stick with the schedule in the owner's manual which provides a reliable baseline for maintenance," Iny says. "APA is not aware of any systemic exaggeration in this schedules, unlike repair shop and dealer service department schedules."

Since the schedule in the manual is fairly conservative – and because you're probably driving in the winter and taking your fair share of short trips to grab milk – consider using the shorter severe usage interval for oil changes, Iny says.

"You can skip inspections when a vehicle is new, likely with impunity, but the auto maker could ask for records," he says. "Do not skip oil changes and tire rotations."

But, isn't it better for your car to go to the dealer? Mercedes thinks so.

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"We have the right parts, we train the technicians, we train the service advisers," says JoAnne Caza, communications director for Mercedes-Benz Canada. "They know the product intimately so there's no risk of errors."

But Consumer Reports says, "generally, you need to use a dealer only for work covered under the warranty, recalls, post-warranty fixes you're hoping the manufacturer will pay for under its 'good will' program, or high-tech systems that require a dealership's specialists."

While service usually costs more at a dealership, "delivery will likely be more consistent than at chain stores and independent shops," Iny says.

Plus, the dealer can give your car the latest software upgrades.

Okay to pre-pay?

If you're worried about expensive maintenance on a luxury car, you could buy the car company's maintenance program and pay in advance, Iny says.

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"The price of this coverage is currently very reasonable, usually under $1,000 for the duration of the lease and includes all inspections and fluid changes," Iny says. "The engine oil change schedule is sometimes stingy, so you may wish to pay for an additional change or two during the lease."

And if you decide to get your maintenance done at Canadian Tire instead of at the dealership, could warranty coverage be denied if you were late on an oil change or two, say?

"We play fair – at the end of the day, we're not declining warranty coverage of a window motor failure when oil changes haven't been done," Caza says. "But if there's a problem with the engine and the oil changes haven't been done in three years, then there's an issue."

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