Maintenance & Repair

Most people wait until their car battery dies before they decide to replace it, a recent report revealed. The survey of 1,000 drivers, sponsored by Batteries Plus Bulbs , showed that 53 percent of the group waited until they were stranded by a dead battery and then had to call for roadside assistance.
"We get a lot of calls for dead batteries," says Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California . "It always seems to be at the most inopportune time and place."
While the battery is a simple, relatively inexpensive device, it is essential. If it doesn't work, you aren't going anywhere. So it pays to check your battery regularly and replace it before it dies.
A car's 12-volt battery stores electricity used to briefly turn the car's engine until it starts and runs. Then, the engine's power turns the alternator, which generates electricity to recharge the battery so it can start the car again next time. The battery and alternator are part of the car's electrical system, working together to power the headlights, radio, horn and other electrical devices.
The cost of a battery for most new cars ranges from about $75-$200, although batteries for some cars equipped with the " stop-start " feature (which shuts the engine off when the car is stationary in order to save fuel) would be much more, Mazor says.
Here are the five things that will help you avoid a dead battery:
1. Know Your Car Battery's Age: Most cars require 12-volt batteries that last from three to five years. Therefore, you should know how old the battery is so you can replace it before it fails. Hopefully, you kept the receipt or noted the date when you bought your current battery. Or, perhaps you bought your car new so the battery was also new at that time. But if you are like many people, they bought a car without knowing the age of the battery. Well, it's time to find how old it is now.
Open your car's hood and locate your battery, which is usually in the right front of the engine compartment. In some cases, the manufacturer places an easy-to-remove plastic cover over the battery. If you're lucky, you will see a simple circular sticker on the battery with the date in this format: "9/13," meaning September, 2013. However, other batteries should have a plastic strip with a code on it. Here is a chart to decipher battery codes.
If the battery has no date code, you are forced to judge the battery by its general appearance. If it appears old and has white corrosion around the terminals, you will definitely want to get it tested (see No. 3 below).
2. Look for the Warning Signs of a Dying Battery: You might notice that when you turn the ignition key, the engine cranks slowly. This could be a sign that your battery is about to die, Mazor says. Another telltale sign is to turn on the headlights when the engine isn't running, he says. If the headlights look dim, the battery could be on its last legs.
In some cases, a battery will die without any warning at all. If your car won't even turn over (there might be a clicking or buzzing sound coming from the electrical system), check first to see if the battery was drained because you left the lights on, or some other electrical device. Once the car is jump started , it could start, run and seem reliable. But the battery will probably fail again shortly, so replace it as soon as possible.
3. Get a Free Battery Test: Most chain auto parts stores will test the battery for free, Mazor says. Furthermore, various mobile services, such as AAA's Battery Service , will test the battery and let you know if it needs to be replaced. Installation of a new battery and disposal of the old one is usually free. Replacing the battery yourself is possible but not recommended for novices. The connections are often corroded and difficult to loosen. Then, lifting the heavy battery out and installing the new one requires a feat of strength.
4. Replace Your Battery Before It Leaves You Stranded: If your battery fails the free test, or it is cranking slowly, replace it. Use a mobile battery service or go to an auto parts store. The parts clerks will use a battery fitment guide to tell you what your car needs. Batteries are often sold with three-year, four-year or five-year warranties. Since the battery is a vital part of your car, Mazor recommends buying a top performer.
5. Maintain Your Battery: Do a visual inspection to check for corrosion around the battery terminals. Look for a chalky white substance that might affect proper electrical conduction. Clean the terminal with a wire brush and coat it with grease before reconnecting the battery. The grease prevents corrosion and improves the electrical connection.
If you have an older battery that allows access to the cells, adding distilled water will help it keep a charge. However, if you do this, proceed with caution. The sulfuric acid in batteries is highly corrosive and can burn your skin and eat holes in your clothes. There is even a slight danger of explosion.
When performing maintenance on a battery, work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves and eye protection. If battery acid gets on your clothes or skin, quickly neutralize it with a solution of baking soda and water. Never lean over a battery when charging, testing or jump-starting an engine.
Final Thoughts
The performance of modern batteries has improved, and Mazor says they will perform better for a longer period of time. But they still have one flaw: It's hard to predict when they will die. So regularly inspect your battery and replace it before it lets you down.

With a historic drought hitting the Southwest, many Americans are being asked to do their part to conserve water. There are restrictions and potential fines for watering lawns, hosing down driveways and yes, even washing your car.
Car washing is indeed a water-intensive affair. A free-running hose can spray out 80 gallons of water as you wash your car, and earn you a fine of up to $500 in California. Water-wasting fines are easy to avoid by using a shut-off nozzle, which reduces consumption to about 10 gallons.
Commercial car washes also go through the gallons, though their consumption varies, depending on how much water is reclaimed and evaporated. In general, a self-serve car wash will consume about 16 gallons and automated in-bay and conveyor washes can use up to 30 gallons per car, though some claim to use less than the typical at-home wash.
Fortunately, there are some water-wise ways to maintain your vehicle's appearance and value in these tough conditions.
The Basics of No-Water Cleaning
One way to maintain your car's finish while conserving water is to actually start with a good detail job. A smooth glossy surface will make it more difficult for contaminants to adhere. The detailing process will vary according to your needs, but the basic steps will include a wash, using a clay bar to remove surface contaminants, polishing with a compound to get a deeper clean and a wax application to protect the finish. The time, money or effort that goes into detailing may pay dividends if you're able to keep the car out of the elements.
The easiest way to preserve a clean and detailed car is to park it prudently. Keeping it away from lawn sprinklers, bird perches and vegetation that may drop sap is paramount. A covered parking space or a car cover will extend the time between washes.
A Light Dusting
Despite your best efforts, your car will get dirty. Fortunately, in drought-affected areas it's less likely to get coated by a layer of overnight dew. More likely than not, it will get a very light coating of dust. As long as conditions and surfaces are dry, products such as the California Car Duster will dispatch that dust easily. The paraffin-infused strands of brand-new car dusters have a tendency to leave some streaks, but after some use that will subside. Use only very light pressure on the surface, only a little more than the weight of the duster itself. That will minimize the chances of scratching.
Car dusters are intended for dry surfaces only. If there is any moisture present, it may cause streaking. Smaller dusters are also available and do an admirable job of removing brake dust from wheels.
With the light layer of dust removed, it is less likely that water spots or other contaminants will adhere to the surface of your car.
Liquid Damage Control
The trickier part of maintaining a clean car is dealing with liquids that hit its surface. According to Mike Pennington from car-care product maker Meguiar's , the biggest offenders are bird droppings and eggs . Both will eventually eat through the protective layers of your car's finish and damage the paint. You should remove eggs and droppings immediately. Water spots are less urgent, but the process for cleaning them up is similar.
You don't have to break out the hose and buckets, though. You can remove liquid contaminants with a variety of detailer sprays available from companies such as Mothers or Meguiar's. Nearly every spray we've sampled follows similar cardinal rules. It's important to use these products on a cool surface and in the shade. As Pennington notes, a hot surface will make the spray product evaporate prematurely, reducing its effectiveness and possibly causing more harm than good.
Towel Dry
It's also important to use a quality microfiber towel. Microfiber fabrics feature a very light construction that traps particles deep within the weave. The typical cotton terrycloth towel will keep contaminants closer to its surface and has a tendency to leave light scratches in its wake. Microfiber towels are also much more absorbent, which makes clean-up quick and effortless. They'll also remain effective for a long time if given proper care. Microfiber towels should only be washed with other microfiber products. Mixing in other materials like cotton will drastically reduce a microfiber towel's effectiveness.
A Deeper Cleaning
There are a number of products that offer a sound intermediate choice between a spray detailer and a full wash. Among them is Meguiar's Ultimate Wash & Wax Anywhere spray. Besides cleaning the surface, it also leaves a water-repellent protective coating.
For those who are more militant about water conservation, Meguiar's also makes Rinse-Free Express Wash and Wax, a product that eliminates the need to rinse off your car after washing. This concentrate is mixed in with the wash bucket water and is intended for moderately dirty cars. It was developed for on-location car care professionals with limited access to water and can be purchased online, though you might not easily find it in the usual car parts and accessories stores.
The Dirty Details
At the very least, using a combination of these techniques will extend the time between conventional car washes. It's very important to follow the product directions: Failing to do so could harm your car's surfaces. With some care and effort, though, you can do your part to combat the drought and maintain the appearance and value of your car.

One year ago, we set out to test a theory: Could a person with limited funds and poor credit avoid a "Buy Here, Pay Here" car dealership by purchasing an inexpensive but reliable car outright? We set a price point of $3,500, figuring that someone could reasonably save up that amount. But this meant we would have to buy an older car than would ordinarily have been sold at a "Buy Here, Pay Here" dealership.

We chose a well-maintained 1996 Lexus ES 300 in Classic Green Pearl, with chrome wheels and the then-popular Gold package. It was like a time capsule from the '90s, but we liked the styling and the price was within our budget ($3,800 after tax and title). Also, Lexus is a brand known for its reliability.

Time, however, takes its toll on everything. And despite the Lexus being relatively reliable (it left us stranded twice in just over a year) there were a number of costly and unavoidable issues and repairs. We sorted out most of these over the course of the year, but those instances resulted in higher maintenance costs than we had anticipated.

In this chapter, we take care of some final repairs on the Lexus, sell it and determine whether we'd proved our theory of the Debt-Free Car.

Final Repairs
The Lexus ES 300 was in Death Valley, California, on its last road trip , when Senior Consumer Advice Editor Phil Reed noticed that the driver-side door wouldn't open from the outside. There was also a loud rattle coming from inside the door panel. Reed's first response was to spray WD-40 on the door latch mechanism, but that yielded no results.

Reed took the car to a body shop near his home. The culprit was a broken plastic clip, hidden deep inside the door panel. It was a quick fix and the car was ready the same day. Total cost: $100.

Coincidentally, the "Check Engine" light came on during the same Death Valley trip. Reed took the Lexus to Pep Boys and used its code reader to diagnose the problem, free of charge. The diagnostic code, "P0135," meant that there was a faulty oxygen sensor on "Bank 1" of the engine.

We took the car to an independent garage to keep costs down, but oxygen sensors are a relatively expensive part. The total cost for the fix, with parts and labor: $272.

In February we fixed a problem that we had thought we could ignore... until it started getting worse . The gauge cluster light bulbs had burned out to the point where we couldn't see the speed we were driving until the 80 mph mark. This bulb burnout was a common issue on Lexus ES 300s of our vintage, but it turned out to be a more specialized repair than we had anticipated.

Our usual shop wasn't able to fix it, so we called on a person who has a network of mechanics and was happy to refer us. He recommended a shop a few miles from the Edmunds offices. Within a few hours, the gauge lights were fixed . The bulk of the total bill went to labor, as it was a fairly time-consuming job: $112.

Later in February, the "Check Engine" light made a surprise reappearance . It turned out to be a minor repair, and our mechanic didn't charge us since we were repeat customers .

We took care of two final items not out of necessity, but for the purposes of selling the car. We knew that some Edmunds employees were interested in purchasing the Lexus, so we decided to get the oil and air filter changed: something you'd do as a courtesy for a member of the family. We took the car to Jiffy Lube and had a surprisingly positive experience . The cost of this minor maintenance: $51.

After the oil change, we took the car to get a smog inspection . In California, it is the seller's responsibility to ensure that the vehicle passes a smog test. We'll confess to being slightly nervous about whether the Lexus would pass, given the recurring "Check Engine" light issues, but the Debt-Free car passed with flying colors. Cost of the smog inspection: $71.

In-House Sale
When March rolled around, the Lexus had been in the fleet one year and it was time to sell it. We typically give Edmunds employees first crack at buying a car before we turn to CarMax or a private-party sale. To avoid any perception that we play favorites with employees, we offer cars to them at a "no-haggle" Edmunds private-party TMV ® price. We listed the Lexus internally at $2,668.

About five people responded to the listing, but in the end it came down to two employees: Bob and Blake. Edmunds policy states that when there is more than one employee who wants to buy the car, the matter will be decided by a random drawing.

We dusted off an old raffle cage used for events at the office and called in the VP of HR to supervise the proceedings. She put six crushed pieces of paper in the cage: three for Bob and three for Blake. After a couple of spins, we had a winner: Bob.

Bob was looking for an inexpensive daily driver that would replace a Honda Civic in his garage. His main car is a gas-guzzling sport sedan. The Lexus would serve as a fuel-efficient daily driver.

If we had sold the Lexus on Auto Trader, we would have likely listed it for about $4,000. We're fairly confident we would have ended up accepting an offer somewhere around $3,300. It would have been nice to come close to breaking even on the price of the car, but we're glad the ES 300 has found a home.

Final Stats
Miles Driven: We drove the Lexus a total of 18,394 miles: far more than the 15,000 we had originally set for our goal, and likely more than the average driver would put on a basic transportation car in a year.

Fuel Economy: The Lexus ES 300 proved to be more fuel-efficient than we had anticipated. We ran it almost exclusively on regular unleaded fuel, except for one month when we were testing if premium would make a difference (it didn't). The Lexus averaged 24.9 mpg over the course of 70 fill-ups. For reference, the EPA rated this car at an estimated 18 city/26 highway and 21 mpg in combined driving. The best mpg was 33.4, set during the Lexus' cross-country trip . The worst tank was 16.5 mpg, which likely occurred after driving in L.A. traffic. The average tank of gas cost us roughly $43.16, with an average fuel price of $4.08 per gallon. This translates to a cost of 16 cents per mile to drive.

Maintenance Costs: We spent a total of $3,286 in maintenance over the course of 13 months. Coincidentally, that was the exact price of the car before tax and title.

At the beginning of the project, we established a monthly maintenance budget of $365. Our theory was that the buyer of a debt-free car could use the money he'd ordinarily have spent as a car payment for car upkeep. We used the $365 figure because it was the average monthly used-car payment for someone with poor credit in 2012, according to Experian Automotive. Our maintenance spending averaged about $253 per month. We went into the red a couple times, but for the most part, our repair and maintenance expenses fit well within this budget.

We committed one budget bust intentionally, in the first three months of ownership. (You can read about this in more detail in Chapter 6 . The car was about to take a cross-country trip, and we wanted to make sure that we took care of several items beforehand. Most car owners would likely have waited on some of these repairs, so the costs would have been more evenly spread across a year of ownership.

The Lexus was in the black every month until January, when it went over by just $7. By the end of the ownership year, we had a budget surplus of $1,459. A disciplined car owner would set aside that monthly surplus, maybe as the beginnings of a substantial down payment on another car, as a starter budget for second-year maintenance costs, or better yet, to fully fund the next debt-free car purchase.

We were curious about what those second-year costs would look like. We took care of several big-ticket items in the first three months of ownership: new tires, battery, control arm bushings and brake rotors. Those costs would not be repeated in a second year of ownership. To get a preview of second-year maintenance, we subtracted those items from our first-year spending and did some math. We estimate that our monthly maintenance budget during the Lexus' second year would have been around $120. But since our long-term cars are one-year snapshots of ownership, we won't have the chance to test that part of the theory.

The True Cost of Buy Here, Pay Here Cars
We now know what our Debt-Free Car cost us to own and operate for just over a year. But how would a car buyer have fared if he had gone to a "Buy Here, Pay Here" dealership, rather than buying a car outright? A critic of our project gave us a good basis for comparison.

A few months after our project launched, Peter Salinas, managing editor of Dealer Business Journal , a publication for "Buy Here, Pay Here" dealers, took issue with several points in our premise and said our project was "Fundamentally Flawed."

The biggest issue, he said, was that people with poor credit do not have $3,500 to buy a car outright, nor would it be feasible for them to save up that amount without it negatively impacting their lives.

He proposed that a 10-year-old Ford Taurus or Buick Century from a "Buy Here, Pay Here" dealer would be a more reasonable selection for such a buyer. Salinas said that those vehicles run from $4,500-$5,500 at auction, which is where car dealers often get their cars. He chose a midpoint value, $5,000, and proceeded to illustrate how the numbers would shake out at a "Buy Here, Pay Here" dealership:

$5,000 for the vehicle the dealer bought at auction
$600 to recondition it
$2,000 for dealer overhead costs (i.e., building and lot expenses, insurance, personnel and employee benefits)

We are at $7,600 so far. Next is the dealer mark-up. This is how car dealers stay in business. However, Salinas didn't provide that information. We turned to Edmunds.com's senior pricing analyst, Richard Arca, to help fill in the figures. He said that for a 10-year-old vehicle, the average mark-up is about 40 percent from auction to retail purchase price. That would be $2,000 for the car in this example. The $5,000 Taurus will now be listed for about $9,600.

Next come the tax and title fees. We used a 2003 Ford Taurus (a 10-year-old car) as the basis for calculating the fees on our finance calculator. The sales tax and registration would be about $1,056 for this car in Santa Monica, where the Edmunds offices are located. The total so far is $10,656 but that still doesn't include financing costs.

We used the following stats to populate our finance calculator: A $792 down payment (the average down payment at a "Buy Here, Pay Here" dealership in 2012), a 17.7 percent interest rate (the average interest rate for a deep subprime consumer, according to Experian Automotive) and a 36-month loan (the length of the average "Buy Here, Pay Here" loan). This adds up to $2,920 worth of finance charges on the Taurus.

The grand total of the "Buy Here, Pay Here" loan would be $12,784, with a monthly payment of $355 per month. So it would have taken only an $800 down payment to get the immediate gratification of getting a car at a "Buy Here, Pay Here" lot. But in the long run, the buyer would have paid $8,984 more than we paid for our Lexus ES 300.

Further, a "Buy Here, Pay Here" purchaser can't sell the car without going deeper in debt. If he falls behind in payments, he faces the possibility of repossession. And there's still the cost of maintenance and repairs to pay for, in addition to the $355 monthly payment. Is a 10-year-old Taurus more reliable than a 17-year-old Lexus? Maybe. But it still will cost some money to keep up.

Our Debt-Free car buyer and his family, on the other hand, have the freedom to sell the car whenever they want. They are not in debt, and they don't have to worry about making car payments every month. They only make "payments" to themselves for maintenance. And if they lapse on one of those payments, their car doesn't get repossessed. At worst, they just have to put off repairs for awhile.

Success or Failure?
Would our imaginary owners have been happy after a year with the Debt-Free Car? We have mixed feelings about this.

On the plus side, we ended with a surplus in our maintenance budget. The car got good gas mileage. It was comfortable and had a reasonable number of amenities. And when you look at the total costs compared to a "Buy Here, Pay Here" car, the Lexus shines even brighter: Even counting our costs of maintenance and repairs, the Debt-Free Car buyer would have been $5,698 ahead.

But the Lexus did leave us stranded twice. It required a number of trips to the repair shop. We used resources that everyone has access to (word-of-mouth references, online forums, Yelp, YouTube, Google Search), but it took some time to sift through all that and find a good shop and decide what parts to buy. We took care of some fixes ourselves and others we left to the experts.

Would our Debt-Free Car buyer and family have been discouraged by that kind of ownership experience? Would they have had the time, patience or willingness to do some DIY repairs? Some of our readers argued that people buying in this price range most often perform most of the repairs themselves, but we know that a lot of people just want reliable, hassle-free cars. Would our Debt-Free Car have been too much trouble for them?

If someone were to ask us if they should follow in the footsteps of the Debt-Free Car, we would tell them yes, but with a disclaimer: In this price range, you will drive a car that will have repair issues. If you have a trusted mechanic, or if you are capable of doing the repairs on your own, then by all means, give it a shot.

But if you get overwhelmed dealing with mechanics and repair shops, or will worry excessively about potential breakdowns, you may want to find a newer (and more expensive) car. But bear in mind that there's no guarantee that a newer car won't break down either.

Breaking the Cycle
Financial guru Dave Ramsey has a great quote: "If you will live like no one else, then later you get to LIVE like no one else!"

It means that if you make financial sacrifices now, you will reap the rewards later. It isn't easy to save money, but at some point, people with troubled credit must break free of the cycle of debt to have any hope of improving their financial futures.

If you're ready to join them, we would encourage you to try cutting back on unnecessary expenses to save up for a car. And once you have enough money, keep up that pattern of savings to give yourself a maintenance budget. Self-discipline, planning and knowledge: the real secrets to owning a debt-free car.

Related Articles:
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 1: Finding and Buying an Affordable Used Car
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 3: Curbstoners and Internet Scams
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4: Dealing With Repairs
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5: Driving Cross-Country in a 1996 Lexus ES 300
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 7: Sailing Past 150,000 Miles
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 8: Wrap-Up

1996 Lexus ES 300 Long-Term Road Test

If your car's "Check Engine" light is glaring at you, it's probably because the oxygen sensor is malfunctioning. That's right, the oxygen sensor. It's a little device that's a mystery for most drivers but its misbehavior is the problem that most commonly triggers a Check Engine light, according to CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. The oxygen sensor unseats the formerly most common Check Engine light culprit: a loose gas cap. There are fewer reports of that problem because savvy motorists have learned to fix it themselves and consumers now buy new cars with capless gas tanks.

But don't despair. Replacing your car oxygen sensor will keep you from wasting money by burning extra gas, and the repair isn't horribly expensive. We know this firsthand. We had to replace the O2 sensor on our 1996 Lexus ES 300, the subject of our Debt-Free Car project , and it wasn't as much of a hassle or expense as we had feared.

After the dreaded Check Engine light appeared in our Lexus, we plugged the CarMD device into the car's computer to read the error code. In our case, the code was P0135, which meant that the oxygen sensor in "bank 1" was malfunctioning. It was surprising to learn that something was wrong with the car, since it still seemed to be running fine.

Even though a car seems to be behaving normally, a faulty oxygen sensor will cause the engine to start "gulping down gas," says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com. She says this problem can cause up to a 40 percent reduction in fuel economy. Sure enough, when we checked our fuel record for the driving we did while the Check Engine light was on, our mpg had taken a hit.

The oxygen sensor, developed in the early 1980s, is an essential part of the car's emissions control system, says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the American Automobile Association (AAA) . The sensor is about the size and shape of a spark plug and protrudes into the car engine's exhaust stream. It determines if there is a lot or a little oxygen in the exhaust, so the engine can make adjustments to the amount of fuel being used in the engine to run at maximum efficiency.

Oxygen sensors in older cars fail for a variety of reasons, according to Bosch , a leading manufacturer of auto components. In some cases, sensors are fouled by gasoline additives or oil from worn engines. Newer oxygen sensors can last 100,000 miles if conditions are right, but often problems occur sooner.

After we plugged CarMD's diagnostic device into the Lexus' onboard computer port, we connected it to our desktop computer. It accessed a database of information about this engine code and how to have it repaired. Among other things, the report included an average estimate just to buy a new oxygen sensor: $168.82.

At the first sight of a Check Engine light, most owners of new cars that are still under the factory warranty would simply make a beeline for the dealership's service bay. But car owners on a budget might want to go the do-it-yourself diagnosis route to save money. By using the CarMD device, or any engine code reader, drivers can learn what the problem is, and the skill level required to fix it, before attempting the task.

Modern cars have two to four oxygen sensors, Nielsen says. A V6 engine, such as the one in our Lexus, has one sensor in each exhaust manifold and one after the catalytic converter. The sensors simply screw into place, but reaching them can be a problem for do-it-yourselfers. Additionally, since the exhaust subjects the sensor to extreme heat, it can "seize" (become frozen in place) and be tough to unscrew. A new sensor comes with anti-seize compound to apply to the threads, but the compound should never be put on the sensor itself.

Nielsen says that while a code reader might indicate that the problem is the car oxygen sensor, there are other problems that can trigger the identical code — a disconnected vacuum hose will do it, for example.

As a first step, a car owner can look under the hood to see if there are any wires or hoses disconnected, Nielsen says. In some cases, a wire leading to the oxygen sensor could be broken or burned out. If nothing obvious is visibly awry, it's time to go to what Nielsen calls "a trusted mechanic." Reputable garages use an expensive diagnostic machine called a scan tool — not to be confused with an inexpensive code reader — that can watch the operation of the engine in real time and see if the oxygen sensor is actually the problem.

"Most motorists would be well served to find a shop that they trust and take their car there for all oil changes and tire rotations," Nielsen suggests. "Then, when they have a problem with something like an oxygen sensor, they trust what the mechanic is saying rather than thinking that they're trying to rip you off."

In our case, we learned that the faulty O2 sensor was in the rear of the engine and difficult to reach, so the fix seemed above our skill level. Instead, we took the Lexus to Overseas Garage , in Long Beach, California. There, the mechanic told us that the new sensor would cost $117, plus $144 in labor for a total of $261. This was close to the $246 average cost cited by CarMD's Brocoff.

While many people opt to simply ignore "Check Engine" lights, Brocoff says this can cause bigger, more costly problems later. "So the problem you could have fixed for a few hundred dollars turns into a repair of the catalytic converter, which would be over a thousand."

Driving back from the garage, it was a relief not to stare at the glowing check engine light. This made us realize that fixing such a problem provides another benefit: peace of mind.

Since our last report, our debt-free 1996 Lexus ES 300 crossed the 150,000-mile mark. This is a major milestone for any used car, and since the owner's manual stops listing the recommended services at 150,000 miles, it now puts us in uncharted waters. The voyage to 150K saw a few rough patches recently, but nothing that would sink our project car.

Leaky Chrome
One October morning we noticed that the driver-side front tire looked low. We first suspected an air leak from a nail or road debris, but after taking it to a tire repair shop, the true culprit was the chrome wheel itself.

A portion of the chrome plating had worn off from the inner part of the wheel, which led to corrosion. This corrosion, in turn, was slowly letting air out at the tire bead. The tire shop used a wire brush to remove the corrosion and then applied bead sealer. What wasn't clear however, was how long this fix would last. The shop said the sealer might last six weeks, or it might last a year. The only permanent solution would be to either re-chrome the wheel or buy another one. We opted to fix the leak at $35 and regularly monitor the tire pressure.

Breakdown in Fresno
The Lexus crossed the 150,000-mile threshold in Fresno, California, home to our Senior Automotive Editor Brent Romans. We'd boasted about how rock-solid the car had been, so (of course) the car failed to start the following day. Romans was waiting to pick up his daughter from school and had been parked for a few minutes. There was power to the accessories (radio, lights, etc.), but the engine wouldn't crank. He tried jump-starting the Lexus, but it didn't work.

Romans called a tow truck. The driver cycled the key on and off about 10 times until it finally caught and started the vehicle. The following morning, the Lexus started fine but would not maintain idle, and shut off each time. Romans took the car to a local mechanic, who we'd found by using some crowdsourced online reviews .

The problem turned out to be the starter solenoid contacts, which were corroded and worn. Our mechanic explained that this was a fairly common issue with Toyota products of this era. "Back in the day," said the mechanic, "Toyota used to force you to purchase a whole new starter motor, but now you can just get the contacts separately."

This issue was so common that the mechanic even had a bag of the copper contact pieces on his work bench. The mechanic also cleaned up the Lexus' throttle body, which he said had heavy carbon build-up on the throttle plate and bore. He speculated this was likely the cause of the subsequent die-at-idle problem. The new starter contacts were $14.65. With labor and tax, our final bill came to $137.

Off-Brand vs. Name Brand Gas
Our Lexus served as a guinea pig for an informal experiment in November. We wanted to see if there was a difference in fuel economy from gas bought at no-name stations. After 1,000 miles of driving, we saw no appreciable difference. These findings match up with what we learned in a recent feature on cheap gas . This means that our hypothetical owner of a debt-free car can save a few bucks while not having to worry about a loss in fuel economy or compromised engine longevity.

Major or Minor Service?
The 150,000-mile service on the Lexus ES 300 is considered a major service by dealer service departments. The owner's manual calls for a whole list of things, including an oil and filter change, new air filter, new A/C filter, replacement of the brake fluid and coolant and a bunch of systems inspections. At the dealership, this service would cost us well over $250.

If our Lexus were a new car, we would abide by the owner's manual. But our goal for this project is to put ourselves in the shoes of a budget-conscious family and take the lower-cost route. So we took the car to an independent garage. We told the mechanic there to take care of the bare essentials — an oil change and tire rotation. We also asked him to look into a potential oil leak.

A few hours later, we got the condition report: There was an oil leak around the timing-belt cover. This could have led to a domino chain of repairs. If you take off the timing belt cover, you might as well check and, if necessary, replace the timing belt. And if you do the timing belt, you might as well replace the cam seals and the water pump. This would add up to about $798. Luckily for us, we knew the timing belt was in good condition. We had it checked at the last oil change. But we made the decision to live with the oil leak and periodically check on the oil level. After all, what old car doesn't have some type of fluid leak? As long as the oil isn't gushing out, we can live with it.

The cost for our 150K service was $75, which was more in line with the cost of a minor service. By not going the soup-to-nuts route, we saved about $200.

Headlight DIY
Also in November, one of our editors noted that the Lexus' headlights were quite dim at night. Part of the problem was the clouded headlight housing. The other problem was old bulbs, which seem to have lost wattage with age.

Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed had cleaned the headlights with a DIY kit when we first purchased the Lexus, but the effect seemed to last only a few months.

Since there was money in our budget, we bought a set of Philips "X-treme Power" headlight bulbs for $28 on Amazon.com. The company claims they give off "80 percent more light," so we tried them out.

There was a definite improvement in the light quality, but not quite 80 percent better. During the installation, Reed also noticed that one of the high beams had burned out. He picked up a set of Sylvania Silver Star bulbs for about $24.

Plotting a Course for Uncharted Waters
The Lexus is now heading into its final stretch of months with us. We don't see much reason to drastically alter our maintenance course. We will continue to change the oil every 5,000 miles, the interval recommended in the owner's manual.

We've driven more than 16,150 miles in the Lexus so far — well past the 15,000-mile mark we set out at the beginning of our project. At this writing, we have stayed within budget for seven straight months and have a surplus of $942.

Our Lexus still has a few lingering issues, but what car of this vintage doesn't? We'll keep a close eye on things and handle any repairs as they surface.

Related Articles:
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 1: Finding and Buying an Affordable Used Car
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 2: Preventive Car Maintenance
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 3: Curbstoners and Internet Scams
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 4: Dealing With Repairs
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 5: Driving Cross Country in a 1996 Lexus ES 300
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 6: Midyear Check-In
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 7: Sailing Past 150,000 Miles
The Debt-Free Car Project Chapter 8: Wrap-Up

We hear it all the time: "Where can I find a good car mechanic?" In the past, word of mouth was probably the best way to find an auto repair shop that would do the job right and charge a fair price. But now, a good mechanic might be only a few mouse clicks or touchscreen taps away.

Crowdsourced review sites have greatly simplified the search. Here are a few tips on how to work these sites to find a good car mechanic in your area. Keep in mind that this isn't an exact science. Sometimes a highly rated shop might disappoint, but at least you can tilt the odds in your favor.

Yelp
Yelp.com describes itself as a site that "connects people with great businesses," whether that's a hot new restaurant or a top-notch dentist. And, luckily for car owners, it also has auto repair reviews. The site is free and has a mobile version, plus apps for Android and Apple mobile devices.

We've had good experiences with Yelp recommendations as we looked for a mechanic to work on Edmunds' long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300, which is the subject of our Debt-Free Car Project . With our new long-term vehicles, we tend to use dealerships exclusively. But because containing costs is important for the Lexus project, we've used Yelp four times to locate independent mechanics. Of the four, we would go back to three of them. We've found Yelp to be the most useful site, thanks to its review volume and convenience.

Here are a few tips to help you narrow down your mechanic search. Type "auto repair" into the search field and enter your ZIP code. You can filter the results based on distance, most reviewed and highest rated. The goal should be to find a place that strikes a balance between a good rating and a substantial number of reviews. For example, a place may have a glowing review, but if it's the only review, that customer's experience might not be the same as yours. Or worse, it could be a misleading review from an employee or business owner.

Yelp has an algorithm that helps it spot misleading reviews, but sometimes they can slip by undetected. That's why it is important not to put too much stock in one review. Instead, see what patterns emerge after you've read numerous reviews. Look for reviews that are specific and give plenty of details about the users' experiences.

Sometimes, the owner of an establishment will reply to a review. This response can either be a thank you to someone for a good review or a defense or apology if the review was a negative one. Either way, we consider a thoughtful reply a good sign — particularly in response to a negative review. It shows that the business cares about its reputation.

Angie's List
Angie's List prides itself on having a thorough vetting process for its reviews, which cover everything from automotive listings to home repair and even wedding planning. In a search we did for our area, Angie's List provided a number of repair shops nearby, but we found the volume of reviews lacking when compared to Yelp. For example, one repair shop we used for the Lexus had just one review on Angie's List, and it was from 2008. The same shop had 22 reviews on Yelp, with the most recent one being less than a month old.

The small number of reviews on Angie's List can be both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, the chance of a falsified review drops considerably, since the site requires a paid membership to access the site and post a review. But at the same time, it is hard to get a feel for a shop that has very little feedback.

Google
Google's enormous database will yield the greatest number of search results, but they may require some extra filtering to be useful. Type "auto repair near (your ZIP code)" into the search field. Ignore the sponsored ads at the top of the page. The repair shops will appear about halfway down the page, with their address to the right of their listing. Google has its own review and scoring system. Approach these as you would Yelp reviews.
Edmunds Dealership Directory
We have dealer locator for those in search of a dealership service facility. The Edmunds moderators closely monitor the reviews for misleading postings.

Other Sources
Yellowpages.com and Citysearch.com are two other sources. The reviews on these sites are spotty in terms of quantity, and we haven't had the chance to use them that much. Still, the sites can be useful for those who want to research a shop thoroughly.

Message Boards
Enthusiast message boards dedicated to a particular car make and model often have forum threads where members discuss their local dealerships or independent repair shops. Forum members chime in and give their experiences or recommendations. Apply the same filtering that you use with Yelp reviews: Look for patterns of excellence or disappointment.

A Final Tip
Despite how far crowdsourced reviews have come, an old-fashioned word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust can often be the most effective tool. Ask your friends and family who takes care of their cars and you may just find your new mechanic.

Gasoline is expensive and you're looking for every way possible to save money at the pump. You already shy away from premium fuel, knowing that your car doesn't require it . You'd like to save a few pennies per gallon more by going to an off-brand gas station. But you can't get rid of the nagging fear: Is the cheap gas going to damage your car's engine?

Edmunds.com put this question to experts in several fields, including an automotive engineer at a major carmaker, gasoline manufacturers and two engineers with the American Automobile Association (AAA) . It boils down to this: You can stop worrying about cheap gas. You're unlikely to hurt your car by using it.

Because of the advances in engine technology, a car's onboard computer is able to adjust for the inevitable variations in fuel, so most drivers won't notice a drop off in performance between different brands of fuel, from the most additive-rich gas sold by the major brands to the bare-bones stuff at your corner quickie mart.

Still, spending a few extra pennies per gallon might provide peace of mind to someone who just purchased a new car and wants to keep it as long as possible. People with older cars might not be as concerned about their engine's longevity. They can buy the less expensive gas and still be OK.

Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California , summed it up this way: "Buy the cheapest gas that is closest to you."

Recipes for Performance — at a Price
But this doesn't mean that all gas is the same, even though it starts out that way. The fuel from different filling stations comes from a common source: the "base gas" from a refinery. Workers there mix additives mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency into the base gas in order to clean a car's engine and reduce emissions. Then, the different gas companies — both off-brand and major brands — put their own additive packages in the gas to further boost both cleaning and performance.

A key difference is that the major brands put more additives in their gas and claim to have some secret ingredients. This extra shot of additives provides an additional level of cleaning and protection for your engine.

But is this extra helping of additives, which jacks up the price, really necessary? And, if you don't use more expensive, extra-additive gas, how soon will your engine's performance suffer?

"It's not like any of the fuels are totally junk," says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the AAA. "If you buy gas from Bob's Bargain Basement gas station because that's all that's available, it won't hurt your car," he says.

The real difference is the amount of additives that are in the gas, Nielsen says. More additives essentially afford more protection — but they also cost more.

Some automakers and oil companies believe that the amount of government-required additives isn't enough to protect engines. They have created a Top Tier gasoline designation. It means that those gasoline brands sell fuels that provide more and better additives.

Nielsen recommends that drivers look in their car's owner's manual to see what the carmaker recommends and, when possible, follow that guideline. People who are still concerned about gasoline quality can ask a specific oil company if it has performed independent testing to substantiate its claims.

Selling the Secret Sauce in Gasoline
The major oil companies spend millions of dollars convincing buyers that their gas is superior by creating ads that feature smiling cartoon cars, lab-coated nerds and sooty engine valves. Buy Shell's nitrogen-enriched gas , for instance, and you won't get a buildup of "gunk" in your engine, company advertising promises.

Is all this just a marketing gimmick?

"I am a Ph.D. chemist, a nerdy guy who wears a white coat," says Jim Macias, Shell Oil Company's fuels marketing manager. "We really believe there are differences in fuels. We can see it, feel it and measure it."

Macias says the gunk caused by fuels with insufficient additives can foul fuel injectors and even trigger "Check Engine" lights in as few as 10,000 miles.

But not everyone is keen to talk about gasoline quality and whether additives really make the difference.

Edmunds sought comment from one well-known seller of low-price gas: Arco . Arco also often finds itself targeted as being a lower-quality product. BP, Arco's parent company, did not respond to Edmunds' interview request.

The American Petroleum Institute provided background comments about fuel additives and promised to provide an expert for an interview. The API spokesman never called back.

Finally, Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, an independent, nonprofit testing facility, also declined to comment on the question of gasoline quality.

The Skeptics and Their Tests
The Auto Club's Mazor was more forthcoming, and has some interesting results from a blind test he did on three samples of gasoline from both major and independent gas stations.

"We tested emissions, fuel economy and performance and we could not tell the difference," he says.

Mazor believes that the driving public has outdated notions about gas. Twenty years ago, only premium fuel had detergents in it. Back then, it was beneficial to occasionally buy a tank of high-test gas to clean the engine. Then, he says, "regulations were very lax and there was little enforcement. But all that has changed."

Likewise, Randy Stephens, chief engineer for Toyota's Avalon , isn't wholly convinced by the claims of engine protection afforded by higher-priced gas. He says fuel experts at his company study the effects of different brands of gas on the Toyota engines. Automotive engineers disassemble engines after 10,000 miles of running them on different brands of gas to see if there is a difference.

"Honestly, in the 10 years I've been in charge of Avalon, I've never seen one come back with any sort of deposit issue," Stephens says.

Nevertheless, Stephens admits to being "swayed" by ads that tout cleaning agents. Twice a year he adds a bottle of Chevron U.S.A. Inc.'s Techron — the same additive that's in Chevron gasoline — to the fuel tank of his personal car.

American Suzuki Motor Corporation announced in November 2012 that it would discontinue new vehicle sales in the continental U.S. The American subsidiary of the Japanese automaker also filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

American Suzuki struggled in recent years. In its press release, the company acknowledged that it was facing a number of serious challenges, including low sales volume, a limited number of models in its lineup, unfavorable exchange rates and the high costs of state and federal regulatory requirements.

American Suzuki said it planned to restructure its business to focus on the more profitable motorcycle, all-terrain vehicle and marine products that it offers.

What does all this mean for Suzuki car owners? Here is a list of the most common questions about the issues they face.

Does My Suzuki Car Still Have a Warranty?
Suzuki said that all warranties would continue to be honored at Suzuki service providers . Suzuki vehicles had a three-year or 36,000-mile basic warranty, three-year or 36,000-mile roadside assistance, a seven-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a five-year corrosion warranty for the body panels.

Where Do I Go for Parts and Service?
"All parts and service will be provided to consumers through our planned continuation of a service and parts dealer network," Suzuki told consumers in 2012.

But the company put some limitations on its position, saying: "We intend to plan to continue to provide parts and service, as long as there is consumer demand, for a reasonable period of time beyond the warranty period." The best way to find a dealership now is to use the service provider search tool on the Suzuki Web site .

If finding factory parts becomes a problem, there are many aftermarket parts makers that consumers can turn to. These parts are readily available at major auto parts chains such as Napa and Pep Boys.

Where Do I Send My Monthly Payments?
Consumers who financed vehicle purchases through American Suzuki Financial should continue to make their payments as they normally would. If for some reason American Suzuki Financial ceases to be the lien holder, it would likely notify customers by mail. Owners who want to maintain their accounts online are being redirected to the main page for Ally Financial. For other finance questions, contact American Suzuki Financial at (888) 895-7578.

Who Gets My Suzuki Car When Its Lease Expires?
Your lease agreement should indicate where to turn in your vehicle. It is often the same dealer from whom you leased the car. If the dealer is no longer around, call Suzuki customer service: (800) 934-0934.

How Do I Find Out About Service Campaigns and Safety Recalls?
Check the Suzuki Web site's Campaigns tab for information on coverage extensions, safety recalls and customer satisfaction campaigns. You can also search for Suzuki recalls via the safercar.gov's vehicle owner's page .

How Does This Affect My Car's Value?
Every Suzuki model already had a True Market Value ( TMV ® ) of a few hundred dollars below invoice. Prices for used Suzuki vehicles will drop, though not by much. They were already low when compared to the more notable brands.

Here's one more reason to be careful about where you get a collision repair performed on your crashed car: If an airbag deployed and saved your life, you might not be so lucky the next time around.

Since 2009, authentic-looking but extremely dangerous counterfeit airbags from China have been illegally imported to the U.S., where they have been offered for sale online and might have been installed as replacement airbags by some unscrupulous collision repair shops, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

After a criminal investigation by several other federal government agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Intellectual Property Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, NHTSA issued a consumer safety advisory that warned both vehicle owners and repair professionals about the counterfeits and the dangers they pose.

NHTSA Investigation
Tests that NHTSA conducted on 11 counterfeit airbags produced an array of dangerous results, ranging from an airbag not deploying at all to an airbag exploding and shooting metal shrapnel and incendiary material into the vehicle's cabin during deployment. The explosion in particular led to the extraordinary warning by NHTSA, which does not normally test or regulate individual car parts.
"That's when [the situation] moved from an intellectual property rights prosecution to a severe safety advisory," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told Edmunds.com.

Airbags are a supplemental restraint system (SRS), secondary to seatbelts, which provide the primary restraint system in a vehicle. It would have been bad enough if the counterfeit airbags didn't deploy properly, Strickland said. That's "clearly a dangerous situation and violative of the federal motor vehicle safety standards."

"There's a different situation, frankly, when the airbag explodes in your face and sends shards into your head," Strickland said.

In the advisory, NHTSA also said it was not able to determine exactly how many counterfeit replacement airbags had been brought into the U.S. already, but estimated that less than 0.1 percent of vehicles were affected nationwide. The agency said it was unaware of any deaths or injuries that were directly attributable to counterfeit airbags at the time. Eight days after the NHTSA advisory, authorized car dealership repair shops replaced only 100-110 suspected counterfeit airbags, noted Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) in Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, NHTSA's Strickland said, "We're likely going to be seeing an increase of counterfeit automobile parts" including counterfeit airbags, despite the Justice Department's prosecutions. That's because counterfeit airbags are a highly profitable underground business.

Car owners must remain cautious both in choosing a collision repair shop and in confirming the source of parts used in the repair, NHTSA warned. And used-car buyers should investigate a vehicle's repair history and look for hints of an airbag problem. NHTSA's advisory also lists specific vehicle years, makes and models for which counterfeit airbags have been offered for sale.

Signs of Risk
In the NHTSA consumer safety advisory and a related dealer guidance document , NHTSA identified a number of factors that could indicate a counterfeit airbag was installed during a vehicle repair:

The airbag was replaced within the past three years at a repair shop that is not part of a new-car dealership.
The replacement airbag was purchased from eBay or another source not certified by the automaker.
The cost of the replacement airbag was unusually low compared to the normal price of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) airbag, which generally is $400-$500.
The texture of the vinyl material used for the counterfeit airbag trim cover is different from the OEM's material.
The color of the counterfeit airbag trim cover might be slightly different from the OEM parts.
The vinyl trim cover may not have "tear seams" or slight depressions in the vinyl material that determine where the flap doors will open during deployment (typically an H-pattern).
The letters "SRS," which are embossed or molded into the vinyl trim cover, are not well defined.
There is evidence that the installer of the counterfeit airbag shaved or trimmed the vinyl trim cover for a better fit in the steering wheel housing.
The airbag warning light, which can be found in the instrument cluster, does not illuminate when the ignition key is switched on or otherwise does not function as the automaker intended.

NHTSA gave this advice to used-car buyers:
Investigate the vehicle's history to learn whether it was ever involved in a crash that may have caused an airbag to deploy.
Be wary if the used car's title is branded salvage , rebuilt or reconstructed.

Buyers can get a vehicle history report showing collision repair information from a provider such as AutoCheck or Carfax . Another important source of information is the Justice Department's National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), which is available through several different data providers . The federal title information system sometimes contains the first available instance of junkyard disposal, salvage auction and insurance company total loss data, although this information is also available from a state Department of Motor Vehicles as a branded junk title, salvage title or rebuilt title.

Evidence of a Problem
The only way to confirm that a replacement airbag is authentic is to look at it directly. Genuine OEM airbags are labeled with serial numbers, OEM part numbers, barcode labels and warning labels. They also have wires wrapped in unique colors. Any of these may be missing or erroneous on a counterfeit airbag, according to NHTSA's dealer guidance document. Moreover, NHTSA says, there may be other telltale flaws with a counterfeit airbag, including tool marks, grind marks and rivets that appear to be tightened by hand rather than by a machine, as OEM rivets are.

Of course, consumers can't see all this, and it can be expensive to have a car dealer's repair shop (or an automaker-authorized independent repair shop) examine an airbag after it was installed. The average labor cost for having a dealer's shop inspect a steering-wheel-mounted airbag ranges from $100-$200. Passenger-side airbag inspections are more labor-intensive and therefore even more expensive, according to NADA's Wood.

But if you suspect that your vehicle may contain a counterfeit airbag, there is an exam you can perform yourself before taking it to a trusted shop for a professional inspection.

A CarMD device, which sells for about $120, connects to the onboard diagnostics port (OBD-II) built into every car, truck, minivan and SUV since 1996. It communicates with the vehicle's various computer systems, including the airbag control unit that triggers the deployment of airbags.

The device can determine whether the airbag control unit has been removed, altered or is not functional. And if it detects a problem, a car owner can find the average cost of the repair in the user's specific locale on the CarMD Web site or from an agent at the company's phone-in help center. Nationwide and across car brands and models, the average cost to replace an airbag control unit and its impact sensor is nearly $555, including parts and labor, said Art Jacobsen, vice president of CarMD Corp. in Irvine, California. The cost of the airbag itself can add another $400-$500, he said.

The CarMD device's detection capabilities are limited by the technology in the vehicle and it won't work with all airbag-equipped cars. Only advanced "intelligent" airbag systems — which use special circuitry in the airbag module itself — are able to tell the CarMD device if the airbag is missing or inauthentic, Jacobsen said. Also, cars built before 1996 may have airbags, but they won't have an OBD-II port for the CarMD to use.

Getting a Proper Fix
NHTSA recommended in its advisory that consumers have only authorized new-car dealership shops look for and replace deployed airbags, but other auto experts disagreed.

The advisory was "real quick to absolve dealerships of any potential for malfeasance," said Michael Calkins, manager of approved auto repair at the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Heathrow, Florida. "I think they're on the right path, but I'm not sure that 100 percent of dealers are 100 percent not at fault," Calkins said.

Although the only source of genuine OEM car parts, including airbags, is a new-car dealership's parts department, dishonest dealership shops could cut corners in repairing older out-of-warranty vehicles, he said. Similarly, there are qualified, honest independent collision repair shops that won't deal in bogus airbags, Calkins and other auto experts asserted. (Some shops use undeployed recycled OEM airbags in their repairs. There's controversy about this practice as well.)

AAA maintains a list of nearly 8,000 approved auto-repair shops across North America, including mechanical, auto body and auto glass shops. Each undergoes on-site inspections, financial and insurance background checks and detailed customer surveys in a process that takes four to six weeks, Calkins said. The site visits are performed at least four times per year, he said. People can find the list through local AAA club Web sites.

State-specific collision repair shop associations are another good source of information about reputable collision repair shops, according to Erica Eversman, founder of the Automotive Education and Policy Institute (AEPI), a nonprofit organization based in Akron, Ohio, that aims to inform both consumers and auto repair professionals. The AEPI maintains a list of these associations on its Web site.

It is possible that an insurance company would cover the costs of discovering and replacing a counterfeit airbag if it were installed as part of a repair job warrantied by the insurer, NHTSA's Strickland said.

But in all likelihood it will be the victim who picks up these costs, Strickland warned. The counterfeit airbags are not the subject of a mandated recall and they are not covered under any automaker's warranty.

The only replacement airbag that can be guaranteed to be safe is an original equipment unit purchased from the automaker through a new-car dealership. There are no legitimate " aftermarket " airbags from third-party suppliers, experts say.
But there are alternate sources of original equipment airbags, and they charge a lot less for the parts than do new-car dealerships. They're automotive recyclers (colloquially known as junkyards), which retrieve never-deployed airbags from scrapped autos and sell them as replacement parts to collision repair shops. It's perfectly legal — and, critics say, very dangerous.
In the wake of National Highway Traffic Safety Admininstration 's (NHTSA) recent consumer safety advisory about the dangers posed by counterfeit airbags , the Automotive Recyclers Association (ARA) issued a supporting statement on behalf of the more than 4,500 automotive recyclers worldwide which are its members.

"ARA has long cautioned the automotive repair industry community and consumers about the dangers of using counterfeit airbags, as well as the alarming practice of omitting airbags altogether in repairs," the statement said. It went on to urge NHTSA to draw a clear distinction between counterfeit airbags and recycled non-deployed airbags that are genuine original equipment.
"The use of these components is a cost-effective option for a consumer," Michael Wilson, CEO of ARA, said in the statement. "Extensive research and years of experience have shown them as a legitimate alternative as well."
Tests on hundreds of recycled non-deployed OEM airbags by an independent laboratory — a study commissioned by ARA in the late 1990s — showed recycled airbags to operate within mandated performance specifications, Wilson told Edmunds.com.
Through its subsidiary, ARA Product Services, the association in 2006 launched "ARAPro," a program to certify airbags that have been recycled by technicians among its membership, who follow a 12-step protocol for removing and reselling a non-deployed airbag from a junked vehicle. The 12 steps cover the extraction, handling, inspection and storage of the recycled airbags.
Automotive recyclers who follow the ARA Product Services protocol all carry multimillion-dollar liability insurance policies to back up the certification, Wilson told Edmunds.
Nevertheless, critics contend that using recycled airbags is both unsafe and legally messy.
Because airbags are highly susceptible to moisture and temperature, they could be problematic even before they're extracted from the junked vehicle, explained Erica Eversman, an attorney and founder of the Automotive Education and Policy Institute in Akron, Ohio. The nonprofit organization aims to inform both consumers and auto repair professionals.
For example, if the junked car had been in an accident during a rainstorm and the airbag was exposed to rainwater, it still may no longer be viable even though it was never deployed, she said.
Additionally, "There are no laws about how the airbag has to be removed, how the airbag is stored, how the airbag has to be treated prior to any transport," she said.
In a letter to Edmunds after initial publication of this story, Wilson disputed Eversman's assertion. He cited a law that Rhode Island passed in 2010, mandating an inspection protocol that suppliers of recycled non-deployed airbags must follow. The installer must also retain a certificate of conformance for the recycled non-deployed airbag module.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an independent nonprofit organization funded by auto insurers that tests cars and studies car safety, has said that it also has concerns about the safety of salvaged airbags . It cautions consumers to use them only if it's not possible to buy a new airbag module, and urges them to ensure that the airbag module has been inspected and certified .
IIHS also warned that the use of salvaged airbag modules "is likely to exacerbate the already significant problem of airbag theft ." Stolen airbags can be sold at low prices to unethical repair shop owners who then charge customers standard prices for replacement airbags, IIHS said.