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Driver's Seat: Gifts for the auto do-it-yourselfer

If you're like me - haven't finished the season's shopping yet - here are a couple of gift ideas to consider.

The CarMD reads your car’s computer trouble codes, and then a computer program tells you what the codes mean.
The CarMD reads your car’s computer trouble codes, and then a computer program tells you what the codes mean.Read more

If you're like me - haven't finished the season's shopping yet - here are a couple of gift ideas to consider.

And if you're like me and like to keep automotive history alive by never replacing your car, you may want to put these on your last-minute wish list.


Deciphering the codes: Auto repair today often starts with finding what computer code has set off your car's engine light.

Service departments and mechanic's shops have huge, expensive diagnostic equipment and access to what the codes mean. The local auto-parts store often lends a handheld version of this tool, but finding out what the code means can be tricky.

CarMD claims to eliminate some of the guesswork. It resembles the store version of the tool: It plugs into your 1996 or newer car's interface, a USB adapter plugs into your Mac or PC, and a program gets you all kinds of information.

Install the program, register, and find out what's wrong with your car. Voilà! Right?

Doctor, doctor: Our 2002 Silverado with 175,000 miles failed inspection in spectacular fashion this year, and I've been arranging and rearranging Sturgis Kids' tuitions, Christmas, and other bills trying to get the repairs done.

But now my procrastination comes in handy; I used it as my test patient for CarMD.

Simple to use: The program worked easily. The instruction booklet gives you clues as to where the interface may be on your car. I found mine easily, and just a couple of seconds after I plugged it in under the dashboard, it beeped, telling me it had what it needed.

Installing the software from the CD was simple and in a couple of minutes I had an 11-page report outlining the problems with my truck. (I did say "failed in a spectacular fashion.")

At inspection time, my mechanic told me about four codes and said I needed these items replaced: The catalytic converter, spark plugs and wires, the thermostat, and an ABS sensor.

The CarMD report gave me four codes, and they roughly matched what I knew.

Different solutions: But come diagnosis time, things diverged.

CarMD claims to offer diagnoses based on technician feedback, and it offered these repairs: Replace the fuel injectors and intake manifold gasket. (This was based on only the first code; CarMD didn't offer repairs for the thermostat and ABS problems.)

I know the intake manifold gasket is a weak link on the GM 4.3-liter V6. I know this because mine has already been replaced.

So it sounds as if CarMD was a failure?

Not at all. I found a place to check all the codes and get real explanations for what they mean, and that's worth some money.

But is it worth $119.85? That covers up to three vehicles and six reports per month.

If you can decipher the codes and have the mechanical skills to diagnose and repair the vehicle, definitely. If you want a second opinion on a mechanic's report? That gets a little trickier.

Maybe this is the gift you buy for someone and try to piggyback your own car into the mix.


A better look: There's nothing like color-coding and numbering steps to make things foolproof, and that's what ScratchPro has done for scratch repair.

Say you have a long, narrow lane surrounded by lots of shrubbery, and the guy who is supposed to do the trimming is always off somewhere . . . I don't know, writing or playing with cars. (Procrastinating.)

Say you have a spouse who tends to back into said shrubbery to get the van turned around and into the garage in one fell swoop.

Say you have a bunch of teenagers learning to drive.

Then you have scratches.

Cute and useful: ScratchPro is as cute as it is functional. The little egg-shaped handle attaches to three different pads. Clean the car well, and then follow the steps.

Attach the first color to the egg handle, squeeze a bit of the gunk from the color- and number-matched tube and then rub in a circular pattern. The scratch quickly begins to vanish. Change to color No. 2 and then No. 3, and you're done.

I tried this on our tan minivan, which up close looks as if it had a tussle with a lion at some point, and several scratches have come right out without much work.

I also tried this on my black Mazda Protege5 and a nice long bumper scratch has become seamless.

This is a great alternative to a buffer and rubbing compound, especially for a recipient who doesn't have a garage.