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Dear Tom and Ray:

Some local automotive repair establishments advertise AAA and ASE affiliation. I am familiar with AAA, but what does ASE stand for? Should these designations influence my choice of where to have my automobiles repaired? - CharlieTOM: ASE is the symbol of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence. Since anyone who feels like it can hang out a shingle and call himself a mechanic, ASE has taken a lead in trying to provide some sort of national certification for the people who work on cars. They do that by offering mechanics voluntary certification tests in eight basic service areas - engines, transmissions, fuzzy-dice installation, just to name a few.

RAY: When you see an ASE sign at a garage, that means that at least one of the mechanics who works there has passed an ASE test in at least one specialty.

TOM: It won't tell you whether the mechanic is careful or honest, but if your repair is within his particular specialty, at least you'll know he's not learning on your car.

RAY: AAA, on the other hand, is the Automobile Association of America. When you see that sign at a garage, it means you can use your Triple A card to get towed back there for free after they screw up the repair.

TOM: Actually, AAA "authorizes" certain repair shops based on their own criteria (and an annual fee paid to AAA). One thing they look for is at least some ASE certification. AAA-authorized shops are also required to guarantee their repairs for 90 days or 4,000 miles, and to let AAA arbitrate any dispute between the garage and its customers.

RAY: So that gives you a little bit more to go on, but I'd still go by a repair shop's reputation more than the letters it hangs in front of the washroom.TOM: Of course, there are some letters you should definitely avoid. Stay away from anyplace where you see "Member AYC." That's the American Yacht Club, and it means the mechanic is making large monthly boat payments - so watch out!

Dear Tom and Ray:

How about settling a simple argument. Is it best to check the oil level when the car is cold or after the car has been running? - Carol

RAY: Most owner's manuals tell you to check the oil first thing in the morning. Of course, if you do that, you have to be careful not to splash oil on your nightgown and slippers.

TOM: So we recommend you wait until after you get dressed and have breakfast. But the manuals are right. You do get your most accurate reading when the car is cold and on level ground.

RAY: Of course, one advantage of checking it while you're still in your nightgown is that flannel is very absorbent and is great for wiping off the dipstick.

The Magliozzi brothers' radio show "Car Talk" can be heard each Saturday at 10 a.m. on KUER FM 90.1 If you have a question about cars, write to Click and Clack Talk Cars c/o King Features Syndicate, 235 East 45th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.