QDear Tom and Ray:

I'm shopping for a newer, used Volvo, and I fell in love with the S80. However, when I bounced this off my trusted independent Volvo mechanic, he told me he cannot work on these models because they are filled with proprietary software designed to drive owners to Volvo dealerships for service and repairs. Doesn't this run contrary to the great democracy in which we live today? -- Margaret

ARAY: Yes, it does seem a bit contrary to the American Way, doesn't it, Margaret? But I think the people are starting to rise up. In fact, I saw a protest sign outside a garage the other day that read "No Tire Rotation Without Representation!"

TOM: This is an unfortunate trend, Margaret. A number of higher-end, mostly European manufacturers are using technology that requires proprietary tools to diagnose.

RAY: That doesn't mean they won't give the tools to Sven, the local independent Volvo mechanic. But it means Sven would have to lay out eight to 10 grand for the special computer and software to work on S80s. And he'd have to pay for upgrades every year.

TOM: It's unlikely that most independent mechanics, who usually work on a variety of cars, are going to spend that kind of money so they can work on the half-dozen S80s that come in during the year.

RAY: So the reality is that this does create more business for dealerships and, over time, serves to drive independents out of business. That means less competition for your service dollars, which means fewer choices and higher prices for your repairs.

TOM: In fact, we did a study a couple of years ago and found that, on average, dealerships charge about 15 percent more for repairs than independent shops charge. And that's with competition from the independents. Without it, who knows?

RAY: We think this is anti-competitive. But it's apparently not illegal. So the only way you can protest, Margaret, is to buy something else. If you want some specific suggestions, I know that Lexus and Infiniti are two high-end cars that don't keep their diagnostics proprietary -- at least not yet. We work on both of those makes with our existing tools.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1993 Toyota Corolla. I bought it used three years ago. I have had to replace the starter twice. My question: Since my starter only really has to work for about two seconds to actually start the car, and since I only start my car on average twice a day, my own calculations tell me that the starter only does about 24 minutes of work per year. Considering this extremely lax work schedule, why would a starter ever fail in the first place? -- Jack

RAY: That's an excellent question, Jack. I don't know why starter components ultimately fail. But I suspect it has to do with the tremendous amount of current that flows through the starter every time you use it.

TOM: It'd be like if you only crossed the street twice a year. No big deal, right? But what if each time you did, you got run over by a garbage truck? It would take its toll. And so does high current.

RAY: In any case, two starters inside of three years is a lot, Jack. But we've seen this problem before with non-factory rebuilt starters in Toyotas.

TOM: While Toyotas are very well-made cars, we find that we replace aftermarket, rebuilt starters in Toyotas at three to four times the rate at which we replace the same types of starters in other cars.

RAY: This is not the case with the original-equipment starters that come with the car from the Toyota factory, or the rebuilt starters provided by Toyota dealers. The problems we have are with aftermarket rebuilt starters, which most people buy to replace their originals.

TOM: Since this car was already getting elderly when you bought it, my guess is that it had a non-factory rebuilt starter in it. And when you had to fix it, you threw in another one just like it.

RAY: So, if you haven't had to put in yet another starter before we could answer your letter, I'd suggest that you buy a brand-new or rebuilt starter from Toyota next time. Your mechanic can order one from a local Toyota dealer. My guess is, that one will last a whole lot longer, Jack.

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(c) 2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman