QDear Tom and Ray:

I was told by three different mechanics about a month ago that the knock in my '97 Grand Cherokee was an engine about to go. After comparing options, it seemed the best route was a new $2,500 engine with a three-year warranty. The mechanic told me the installation would take two days. It ended up being a week, at which time I received a phone call saying I didn't need an engine at all. I was told that instead, I needed a power-steering pump (an additional $75 for the part). This is AFTER he had completed the engine install. As I sit typing this, I am livid and really at a loss as to what I can do. Am I really out $2,500, and does he bear no responsibility for charging me and installing something I didn't even need? Finally, how the heck do you confuse a power-steering pump and an engine repair? I'm not a mechanic, but isn't this in "Car Repair 101"?

-- Michelle

ARAY: I don't think he took Car Repair 101. If he had, he never would have admitted that you didn't need the engine! He would have said, "By the way, you also needed a new power-steering pump, Michelle. I'll just add it to your bill."

TOM: So we have to give him credit here for at least being honest.

RAY: On the other hand, assuming he was one of the three mechanics who gave you the diagnosis, he was grossly incompetent to mistake a bad power-steering pump for a failing engine.

TOM: Whenever we hear an engine noise, the first thing we do is take off all the belts. That takes all the accessories -- like the power-steering pump, water pump and alternator -- out of the equation. If the noise then goes away, we know it's one of the accessories. If the noise is still there, then we look at the engine. Your mechanic obviously skipped that crucial first step.

RAY: So he screwed up badly, and he's absolutely responsible. But what to do now? If you think he's a decent guy and he just made an honest mistake, I would make a deal with him. I'd say: "Look, you completely misdiagnosed this and put in an engine when I didn't need one at all. So here's what we'll do. You donate your labor, and then we'll split the wholesale cost of the engine." That's going put you out about $750. But you'll have a new engine.

TOM: If he refuses, you can always take him to small-claims court, and you'll easily win.

Dear Tom and Ray:

The power steering on my 1996 Volvo 850 Wagon doesn't seem to work on cold mornings. The steering is very stiff until I reach the first traffic light on the way to work. Then it works fine. The dealer's mechanic says the seals are fine and the pump is working okay. The belt is also okay, and the reservoir is full of fluid. This problem only shows up when it's below 40 degrees outside, and it gets bad below 30. This is a real safety hazard, and I'm afraid to let my wife drive the car. Help!

-- Bob

RAY: Geez, Bob. I hope it's not what it sounds like.

TOM: My brother thinks you have a bad steering rack.

RAY: Unfortunately, you have the classic symptoms. But before you panic and take out a home equity loan, have your Volvo mechanic check out the pump more thoroughly. The only way to really check the pump is to put a gauge on it and measure how much pressure it's putting out. So insist that your mechanic do that. And even if the pump seems to be okay, you might ask him to try a new one anyway, since it's relatively inexpensive.

TOM: But if all else fails, start saving your pesos, because a new Volvo rack is in the neighborhood of a thousand bucks. Yeah. Ouch.

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(c)2002 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman