Answers on Car-Repair Costs, Via the Web

Two new Web sites aim to demystify the frustrating experience of getting your auto fixed. As users add data, they should get better

The Web's ability to supply once-hidden information makes it much easier for consumers to get a decent price estimate for all manner of purchases. Automotive sites such as, for example, have changed car shopping by ending the dealers' stranglehold on information; customers now have a good idea what they should pay for the new or used car they covet. Auto repairs, however, have remained a black hole, with little opportunity for comparison shopping.

Two new sites, DriverSide and RepairPal, aim to level the field in service, allowing car owners to specify almost any kind of repair job and receive price ranges specific to their areas. Both sites are officially still in testing but available for general use.

And since the data they rely on are supplied, in part, by people who use the sites, the quality of the information is bound to get better on both. At this early stage, however, there are obvious differences between the two. DriverSide takes a broad but shallow approach, seeking to become a portal for all things automotive, while RepairPal focuses narrowly on maintenance and service. In this case, less is definitely more.

Driving in Circles

DriverSide duplicates many other sites by offering price data on new and used cars and selling a range of accessories. It will even list your used car for sale. DriverSide is set up like a virtual garage in which you, the user, create profiles of cars you own or might want to own. You can then find prices for new or used models of those cars, information on accessories and modifications, recommendations for scheduled maintenance, and estimates of the cost of various repairs.

The idea is fine, but unfortunately, the site is something of a jumble. As I tried to use its various features, I often found myself in a frustrating loop, clicking through page after page as I searched for a specific bit of information.

It's also maddeningly incomplete. This is acceptable in a site still in testing, but DriverSide should warn users about features that aren't likely to work. For instance, one nice idea is a searchable online version of the owner's manual. I looked up manuals for three different vehicles. Two consisted only of a table of contents, and the third didn't exist at all.

One Site's Edge on Quotes

How well did the two sites perform in estimating service costs? My car was fine, so I didn't have a repair problem to use in comparing quotes from repair shops with estimates from the two sites. So I had to settle for a more impressionistic approach. RepairPal, with its clean and simple design, fared better in this test than its rival.

I had both services check the cost of a brake job on an 2000 Acura TL. RepairPal's estimated range of $175 to $274 for the rear brakes and $175 to $283 for the front seemed realistic. DriverSide came up with $137 for the front and $254.76 for the rear—an odd disparity.

And if I ever blow a head gasket on that car, I'll have to find out where DriverSide thinks I can get it repaired for $48.30. That estimate includes no parts and just 0.7 hours of labor. RepairPal offered a much more realistic cost of $1,290 to $2,016, most of it labor, to replace the two gaskets on the V-6 engine.

So at this point, DriverSide appears to need more tinkering than RepairPal. But once the kinks are worked out—and these startups attract enough users who provide a critical mass of meaningful data—the services could become useful tools. At this early stage they offer users' ratings and reviews, but there isn't much on either site. Services that depend on user-generated content are only as good as those contributions, and useful content doesn't show up overnight. When it does, though, repair shops that have profited from consumer ignorance should watch out.

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