Buying roadside assistance
The President's Choice plan is pretty basic compared to the others but includes: towing up to a 10 kilometre maximum; a hotel stay and help to get your car to a service station if you get stranded somewhere remote (over 250 kilometres away from home); and a winching service to pull you out of the mud or snow. The plan also offers gas delivery if you run out (but you'll pay for it) and if you get a flat and have a spare, they'll come and fix it for you -- but they won't bring you a tire.
Still if you need a basic plan 'just in case', President's Choice clocks in at a very economical $69.95 per year for one car and $99.00 for two. Unlike CAA, the President's Choice plan is attached to the car, not the driver. If you need assistance when you're driving a car not registered to the plan, you're out of luck.
OnStar offers some advantages that the other plans cannot match. Because most cars using OnStar were manufactured by General Motors (GM) and have a computer capable of hooking up to GM's remote systems, OnStar can tell you what's wrong with your car from the inside out and pinpoint exactly where your car is at all times.
"[OnStar] can run vehicle diagnostics right over the line and tell you if there are any issues with the vehicle," says Randy Turgeon, a salesperson at Carter GM in Burnaby, B.C.
He adds, "OnStar's advantage is that when you need assistance, you are immediately linked to both the computer and a real person. You just push the button and talk. If you can't speak, if nobody responds on your end, [the agent at OnStar] will automatically send police and fire to your location."
OnStar has been so successful in the United States that it's now offered as a stand-alone product for non-GM vehicles. You simply install the OnStar rearview mirror and buy a monthly subscription. Canadians will be able to purchase the after-market unit sometime this year.
However, OnStar's Achilles heel is its price. In the United States the mirror costs US$299; there is another fee for installation and then another for your monthly subscription, costing you a minimum of US$200 a year.
The best plan
Perhaps the best roadside assistance plan is prevention. Most mechanics agree if you pay attention to your car's maintenance before the deep freeze of January, chances are you'll only need minimal assistance, if any. It seems common sense is still the best roadside assistance of all.
Stephanie Farrington is a writer in Ottawa.