Internet owners manual
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

The Internet can be the best "owner's manual" you'll ever have -- a quick way to find all kinds of useful information about your car or truck. If you know where to look. Otherwise, it's just an electronic pig in a poke.

Here are five essential online resources for the car owner:

* www.NHTSA.dot.gov -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's web site publishes information about safety defects and recalls -- as well as the results of the federal government's Five Star system of crash-testing of all new cars, trucks and minivans sold in the United States. You'll also find information about such issues as air bags, child safety seats and fuel economy. And if you believe your vehicle is defective and aren't getting much cooperation from the manufacturer, this is the place to go to file a complaint. This year, NHTSA has added resistance to rollover testing in addition to testing new vehicles for their ability to protect occupants in both frontal and side-impact crashes. NHTSA also maintains an auto safety hotline (1-888-327-4236) with up-to-date information about current recalls and other safety-related issues.

* www.nadaguides.com -- The National Automobile Dealer Association's web site offers retail and wholesale pricing guides that can help you determine the fair market value of just about any car, truck -- or motorcycle -- on the road. Use it as a research tool to figure out what your current vehicle is worth -- and what you might reasonably expect to get for it if you wanted to trade it in on a new car. New and used car dealers use the NADA guide to set their prices -- and so should you. NADA also publishes value guides for older/special interests/classic vehicles. (Another resource is the Kelley Blue Book; the online version can be found at www.kbb.com).

* www.carfax.com -- Just as you'd want to "screen" your daughter's new boyfriend, carfax runs a Vehicle History Report on any used vehicle you're thinking about buying. Though not foolproof, carfax is quite effective at red-flagging potential problems such as odometer fraud, flood damage, "salvaged titles" (that is, previously wrecked cars that have been reconditioned and sent to another state for resale) and so on. Carfax uses the unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) that every car or truck comes with from the factory to search state DMV records and other databases for evidence of things that might make you want to think twice before buying. You can order a single report for $19.99 -- or for five bucks more, get unlimited reports on multiple vehicles -- ideal if you're looking at more than one car.

* www.alldata.com -- Is the place to go to find comprehensive online diagnostic and repair information, including Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) put out by the automobile manufacturers (GM, Ford, Nissan, etc.) about various glitches and problems that have been discovered -- and how to fix them. TSBs are extremely valuable because they may contain information not in the factory service manual -- and may even supersede information contained in the shop manual. They represent the "latest word" about the upkeep and maintenance of your vehicle. Whether you're a do-it-yourselfer -- or just want to know enough to converse intelligently with the guy who actually turns the wrenches -- this is the place. Alldata also publishes a Tech Tips and Automotive Trivia section.

* www.hemmings.com --The online version of Hemmings Motor News, the "bible" of the old car hobby. Hemmings is basically a phone book-sized, nationally distributed classified ads section for antique/special interests/collectible vehicles and is particularly handy for tracking down parts and services for makes and models long out of production. If you need a distributor for a '58 Studebaker -- or a "screaming chicken" hood decal for your '74 Trans-Am -- Hemmings can point you in the right direction. It's also a great way to find an old car -- or sell one. You'll also be able to quickly locate clubs devoted to your particular make/model old car -- itself an invaluable resource.

* www.jdpower.com/cc/auto/insuranceratings -- Most people associate JD Power & Associates with the quality and owner satisfaction reports it publishes annually. But JD Power also rates automobile insurance companies according to consumer experience with each company in areas such as price, policy options, claims handling -- and overall experience. A score of five out of five in a category indicates the company is "among the best," while a score of three out of five in a category means the company "doesn't really stand out." A score of less than three out of five suggests sub-par performance. This year's standouts include USAA, Erie and Amica Mutual -- with scores of five out of five in most if not all categories of customer satisfaction. It pays to research insurance companies almost as much as it does the car itself.

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