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Scrutinize that repair rating

Before you plunk down a bundle for a new or used car, do some legwork to figure out how much you're going to spend after you buy the vehicle.

This kind of information is readily available online, and what isn't can be had for free in the magazine section of your local library.

But even if you collect all the information available, you still don't have a crystal ball.

"I always look up ratings and reliability statistics. However, these often do not match my experience," says Mike Clark of Iowa City, Iowa. "The VW I owned was incredible, yet the rating was poor for reliability.

"My other cars were also exceptions," Clark says.

Wisdom from the Web
If you do have faith in statistics, the Web offers a gold mine of data on cars.

J.D. Power & Associates tracks the records of new and used vehicles, ranging from 1990 cars to 2004 models. Repair and reliability data is more plentiful for cars that have been on the road for a few years.

In 2003, the organization began looking at three-year horizons for the first time, so you can see what repairs the owners of 2000 models have had to contend with.

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A quick scroll through JDPower.com will let you see how your vehicle stacks up.

You can also check out car enthusiast magazine sites, like CarandDriver.com and Motor Trend.com. They'll give you some pointers on what problems to look for. Generally, mechanics say, enthusiast magazines will pick up on repair issues before the research firms -- with their three- to five-year horizons -- can issue studies on what's wrong.

Another source is Edmunds.com, which has projections of all ownership costs including repairs and gives you an estimate of maintenance costs.

(Edmunds prepared a special chart for Bankrate.com, listing costs for models from the past five years.) *SEE ATTACHMENT*

Then there's the respected team at Consumer Reports, which has been tracking cars and their repair records for decades.

What's behind the ratings
"We have a 327-acre auto test facility in Connecticut, with 18 full-time employees who test and rate cars," says Douglas Love, a spokesman for Consumer Reports. You can also get car reliability data from Consumerreports.org. Some of the data is free, and some requires a paid subscription.

"The April auto issue of Consumer Reports, which is cars from cover to cover, offers a short synopsis of 200 makes and models plus test data," says Love. Books on individual cars are also available for sale.

As a nonprofit organization, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, does not receive any benefit from touting any particular car.

For many car buyers, Consumer Reports is the first stop.

"Consumer Reports helped me think through buying a Mazda 323," says Tim Bascom, a writer in Newton, Iowa. "It had a good repair rating. The engine was said to be very sturdy, and proved to be.

"The only concerns were brakes and muffler," Bascom says, "and that is exactly what I had to work on. I had to replace the muffler every year or two, but I didn't mind because the car just kept running and running and running."

"What's more," he adds, "I had a friend who owned a Mazda 323, and he confirmed that the only thing he had to keep working on was his muffler."

Get a personal opinion
A quick call or visit to your mechanic can also give you the inside scoop.

"As far as the repairs go, I lump Japanese and American cars in the same boat," says Mitchell Seligson, a mechanic with 16 years of experience and the owner of Masterfix, in Orangeburg, N.Y. "European cars are more expensive to repair."

There are several reasons why European cars cost more to fix.

"The quality is sometimes a little lacking, parts are expensive and diagnosing them is expensive," Seligson says. "They tend to have a more proprietary set-up."

Your insurance agent can also give you a preview of your repair prospects since the replacement cost of parts is often reflected in your quote. And searching through Insure.com can give you an idea of how the insurance industry as a whole views your car choice.

Buying used cars
If you're buying a used car, the online forums at car sites like Edmunds.com can let you hear what other owners of the cars you're considering have experienced.

The forums are full of scare stories, but there are some pleasant experiences, too.

Car shoppers like Clark say a combination of research methods increases the likelihood of a good deal, despite his string of exceptions to the rule.

He has a detailed research ritual for used-car selection.

"When I buy a car, being on a limited budget, I first search out the cars that interest me, then the ones that I can afford, then I search all the periodicals that have an article about the model," says Clark.

"I then read Car Talk's account of the model, personal reviews by owners and then Edmunds, Kelly's Blue Book and the Black Book, which gives me the most accurate price of a particular model," Clark explains.

He always makes a personal trip to the repair shop. "After I have located several models, I talk with my mechanic."

A local mechanic can provide feedback on how a car is faring in your area. He may tell you that the mountains in your area don't interact kindly with your chosen car, or that the local weather hurts the vehicle you've had your eye on.

Filter out rumors
One thing mechanics stress is that myths and longstanding reputations don't mean much when it comes to an individual make and model.

News headlines claimed the Ford Explorer turns over too often. But Shawn Harris, a mechanic with Overdrive Auto in Iowa City says that from what he's seen, the model is quite safe, as are most of the SUVs he's seeing.

With most cars, it's how you take care of it, Harris says. "Cars are better than they used to be," he says. "Most people keep their car for at least five years. Ten years ago, they kept it for less than that."

You can get half-a-million miles out of a Rolls-Royce engine, Harris says, but with good care you should be able to get well over 130,000 miles out of almost any car's engine.

Watch out for new-feature bloopers
Sometimes a hi-tech car can mean high repair bills.

"One of my concerns relates to the cars with new fantastic features, like wireless networks," says Seligson. "When you have lots of features, that means lots of things can go wrong. If the parts can only come from the dealer, that can be expensive."

Even if the change isn't fancy, it can make it tough for a mechanic to accurately estimate your repair costs.

Although consumers try to figure out what it will cost to repair their cars, it's not an easy task, especially because Consumer Reports and other sources evaluate new cars before they've been on the road for a while.

"When your car does need a repair, what will it cost? It's really very difficult to figure that out without consulting a parts and labor guide," says Seligson.

"As an example, some American cars use a pump that in the aftermarket costs $80 or $90. Then I had a Buick in with a little section of pipe that rusted out, which cost almost $300. It looked like a $90 part. So it's hard to guesstimate."

"So when someone asks me, 'Will it cost a lot?' I tell them, 'Can't tell you until I look it up,'" he explains.

He uses the Nichols Chilton Labor Guide, which gives the estimated labor time for various repairs.

The feel of a car
Even if a consumer does lots of number crunching to predict repair costs, that may not be enough to get a total sense of what it will be like to own the car.

Seligson emphasizes that there's a difference between the numbers and the actual personality of a car. He also says that models change every year, so the charts may not really tell you much about your particular car if it's a new model right after a design change.

How those cars fare on the road will only be obvious a few years down the line.

-- Updated Jan. 11, 2005

2004 Car Guide
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