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September 20, 2010

Keeping the Old Car Running


My constant harangue against traffic and in favor of trains aside, I do own a car: a used ’97 Honda Accord with 130,000 miles on it. It’s a great car (the interior infused with cigar smoke notwithstanding), and I hope to run it into the ground.

Used cars are hot these days. Prices have climbed 10% in a year as more drivers decide to hold onto their cars longer. And why not?

We don’t have to be suckers to Detroit’s game of staking our egos on each year’s new model, which immediately loses 20% of its value the day we drive it home. Used cars can prove perfectly reliable, if you keep them in good shape.

So when I saw a TV infomercial for CarMD, a device that promised a simple way to keep my jalopy going, I was jazzed. I love car tech and this sounded great!

Rather than popping the $99 for the gizmo myself, I suggested to the Darien Library that they purchase one. Yes, I am truly blessed to live in a town with a tech-savvy library that offers patrons any number of gizmos on loan… GPS devices, digital cameras and Kill-A-Watt readers. But now I’m feeling a bit guilty.

Here’s how Car MD is supposed to work.

You take the remote unit, about the size of a fat TV remote, and plug it into your car’s computer output. There’s the first challenge: finding that plug. But the www.carmd.com website has a simple guide by make and model. My plug was behind the ashtray of my ’97 Honda Accord. In my wife’s ’96 Volvo, it was under the coin holder.

Once you’ve turned on and plugged in the CarMD gizmo, you turn on the ignition but you do NOT start the car. The handheld device talks to your car’s computer, downloads the information, beeps four times and you’re done. Well, sort of.

If the handheld device shows a green light (as on my trusty Honda), you’re OK. Your car’s computer has found no problems. But if it’s a yellow light, as I saw on the Volvo, the fun begins.

Next you have to copy down your car’s VIN (vehicle identification number). Good luck reading that, if you can find it.

You then load the CarMD software onto your computer, register online with name and address (no, I did not read their Privacy Policy!) and open the software. Type in the VIN and the system should identify your car by year, make and model. You can register three cars per device and they don’t all have to belong to you.

But here’s where I was disappointed. When I clicked the “check health status” button, the software displayed umpteen TSB’s (Technical Service Bulletins) for the Volvo going back to 1992 (even though the car is a ’96) but to read the full details it’s $1.99 per report or $19.95 a year to read them all.

Worse yet, the software told me nothing about why the yellow light was showing on the handheld device. A call to CarMD’s Customer Service (friendly and knowledgeable) got to the root of the problem: the Volvo’s “check engine” light wasn’t on.

In other words, unless your car’s computer has already found a problem and turned on that ominous dashboard display, CarMD isn’t going to tell you much of anything. But it will ask you for money.

CarMD is nothing but a big thumb drive, no smarter than your car’s computer.

Now, had my check engine light been on, Car MD would, in theory, have told me what’s wrong with the car and given me an estimate of how much it would cost to fix it: valuable info to arm myself with before heading to the service station.

But until the “check engine” light shows up on your dashboard, save your money. CarMD isn’t going to do more than frustrate you. Save your dough… maybe to buy a new used car.

1 comment:

Travis Funkhouser said...

If you're looking for a device to decode your pending trouble codes you can check out http://www.carcheckup.com. We're a more expensive, but more complete solution for automotive information as compared to a simple code reader.