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Product Reviews

Replace your high-tech car keys for less

Fobs can be costly to replace, but you don’t have to pay dealer prices

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Car keys have gone high tech, and replacing one is no longer a quick, inexpensive trip to the hardware store. A Consumer Reports electronics engineer found that out the hard way. While at the beach, he forgot that the key to his Toyota Prius was in his pocket, went for a dip in the surf, and never saw the key again. The cost of a replacement: $600.

Like many new cars, his Prius uses a proximity key that electronically unlocks the car when you touch the door handle and lets you start it by pressing a button on the dash. But even less sophisticated keys don’t come cheap.

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Most ignition keys now have a transponder that electronically communicates with the vehicle to prevent theft; the car won’t start if the key isn’t programmed to match it. The systems also include a separate or integrated fob with buttons for locking and unlocking the doors.

If you lose the key and fob, you can expect a dealer replacement and programming to cost $200 or more, depending on the vehicle and the key’s design. A Lexus dealer quoted $374 for a new key, fob, and programming, and a BMW dealer said replacement keyless fobs could be as much as $500, depending on the model.

If you don’t need the key right away, one way to save is to buy a replacement over the Internet. A Honda dealer, for example, told Consumer Reports’ shoppers it would cost $200 to replace the key for a 2005 Accord. At KeylessRide, one of several sites that advertise keys at discount prices, they bought a Honda key for that car for $54; an off-brand version was listed for about $40. Having a locksmith cut and program the key added $80, for a total of $134.

Depending on the make and model, you might even be able to do the programming yourself, saving more money. Instructions and videos can often be found online. Try searching for your car along with the words “key programming.”

Another common problem is when the buttons on your fob stop working, but the key still starts the car. First try replacing the fob’s battery. They are often available at drug stores and retailers such as RadioShack for less than $10.

Look for a small screw or a slot along the fob’s seam where it can be pried open to access the battery. Make a note of any identifying numbers and take the old battery with you to the store.

If replacing the battery doesn’t help, you might need to replace the fob’s electronics.

A Honda dealer quoted $80 for that task. But Consumer Reports’ shoppers were able to simply open the $54 online key, remove the electronics assembly (with buttons), and transfer it to the original key. They followed the easy programming instructions that came with our key and saved $26.

You can even go cheaper. Online the shoppers also saw replacement fobs and electronic assemblies for as little as $35.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.
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