mechaniocMy '99 Volkswagen Cabrio is like an expensive mistress -- desirable and easy on the eye but expensive to keep. I know my greedy dealer's mechanics rub their hands every time it comes into the shop -- they jokingly call it "Hitler's Revenge."

Everything under the hood is run by a computer that breaks down as regularly as a needy junkie. I can't help but also wonder if being a woman who knows jack about cars also compels them to hike the price and say things like "It's too complicated to explain, but the solution we recommend is worth every penny." Sure, like when the "Check Engine" light came on the day AFTER I got my car out of the shop.
But I came across a new website, DriverSide.com, that could help car-know-nothings like me keep high repair estimates and labor charges at bay. I plugged in the make and model of my car, and it created a "garage" for me to track recall alerts and send a heads-up about scheduling that next maintenance appointment. It has an easy diagnose-your-problem section. When my car felt sluggish when I stepped on the gas pedal , it asked me a few questions (does the engine rev up during the initial forward movement? Are your transmission fluid levels too high or too low?) before suggesting that I may need to top off my transmission fluid. Then it let me check for a local mechanic, and gave me an estimate for the repair.

Other good tools include easy-to-read articles about what to expect during each regular maintenance inspection, what that "check engine" light really means and videos on how to check engine fluids and change air filters. The "Car Values" section determines what you can get for your car if you sell it or trade it in, although it showed an N/A on stats for my Cabrio, which is well past the 100,000-mile marker. While I won't learn how to be an auto mechanic, at least this website gives me more of an idea of whether my dealer's mechanic is giving me the straight story or just taking me for a ride.

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