UK motorists are being charged as much as £152.75 ($US280.00) an hour for labour to get their cars repaired, according to independent automotive warranty specialist, Warranty Direct.

Analysis of 27 car manufacturers highlights the dramatic variation across the country with the headline £152.75 an hour being charged by a BMW franchised dealer in central London. This figure compares to a combined franchised and independent garage average of £56.72 for the whole country.

The Thames Valley belt of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire is the most expensive region in the UK with an average hourly charge of £68.61. Scotland is the cheapest, nearly 60% less, with an average of just £43.12.

Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Porsche and Audi dealers provided the five most expensive rates recorded by Warranty Direct. At the other end, Mazda delivered an average of £44 an hour, yet the dearest franchised dealer noted charged double that figure. Similarly, a Ford may cost £50 on average but a London franchised dealer will charge £106.

After pressure from the UK's Office of Fair Trading (OFT), manufacturers have recently lifted servicing restrictions allowing owners to freely choose where they have their new car serviced.

"Unfortunately, manufacturers don't have any control over dealer labour rates, hence the sometimes truly extortionate charges some motorists are having to stomach," said Warranty Direct spokesman Duncan McClure Fisher. "Everyone appreciates that the cost of living differs across the country but surely not to this level?"

Compared to the previous 12 months, Warranty Direct has registered a three-fold increase in the number of franchised dealers charging over £100 an hour.

"The obvious advice is to shop around, and as manufacturers have effectively given them a stamp of approval, don't ignore established or specialist independent garages. The service is just as professional and competent but you don't always have to pay the price," said McClure Fisher.

The data is based on claims handled by Warranty Direct since June 2003 and its annual survey of franchised dealer rates from across the UK.