It looked too good to be true—and it was. The infomercials for the CarMD device promised a simple way to keep my jalopy going by understanding what's wrong with my car before taking it to the repair shop.
Rather than popping the $98.99 for the gizmo, I suggested to the Darien Library that they purchase one. Yes, I am truly blessed to live in a town with a tech-savvy library that offers patrons any number of gizmos on loan, including GPS devices, digital cameras and Kill A Watt readers. But now I'm feeling a bit guilty.
Here's how CarMD is supposed to work.
You take the CarMD unit—about the size of a fat TV remote—and plug it into your car's computer output. There's the first challenge: finding that plug. But the company's website has a simple guide by make and model. My plug was behind the ashtray of my '97 Honda Accord. In my wife's '96 Volvo, it was under the coin holder.
Once you've turned on and plugged in the CarMD gizmo, you turn on the ignition but do not start the car. The handheld device talks to your car's computer, downloads the information, beeps four times, and you're done. Well, sort of.
If the handheld device shows a green light, as on my trusty Honda, you're OK. Your car's computer has found no problems. But if it's a yellow light, as I saw on the Volvo, the fun begins.
Next you have to copy down your car's vehicle identification number. Good luck reading that, if you can find it.
But here's where I was disappointed.
When I clicked the "check health status" button, the software displayed umpteen technical service bulletins for the Volvo going back to 1992—even though the car is a '96—but to read the full details, it's $1.99 per report or $19.95 a year to obtain them all.
Worse yet, the software told me nothing about why the yellow light was showing on the handheld device. A call to Customer Service—friendly and knowledgable—got to the root of the problem: the Volvo's "check engine" light wasn't on.
In other words, unless your car's computer has already found a problem and turned on that ominous dashboard display, CarMD isn't going to tell you much of anything. But it will ask you for money.
In short, CarMD is nothing but a big thumb drive, no smarter than your car's computer.
Now, had my check engine light been on, CarMD would, in theory, have told me what was wrong with the car and given me an estimate of how much it would have cost to fix it—valuable info to arm myself with before heading to the service station.
But until the "check engine" light shows up on your dashboard, CarMD isn't going to do much more than frustrate you. Save your dough.