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Dear Tom and Ray:

I have been looking for a new car. I presently drive an '88 Toyota Corolla that has over 100,000 miles on it, so I'm afraid it might be ready to give out. The Chevrolet salesman told me that their Geo Prizm is the "same car" as the Toyota Corolla. Is this true? Does it have the same track record as the Toyota Corolla? - Sara

RAY: It is true, Sara. We have to make a note of this. Every time a dealer tells a customer something that's true, we like to mark the date for the historical record.

TOM: Toyota and General Motors build cars together in a joint venture called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) in California. And that NUMMI plant builds, basically, one car.

RAY: Some of those cars are built for Toyota. Those are labeled Corollas. Others are built for Geo, and they're called Prizms. There are some cosmetic differences: different headlights, taillights, upholstery, etc. But mechanically, they're the same car, because all Geo Prizms and four out of five Corollas come off that very same assembly line.

TOM: So as you might expect, they have very similar mechanical track records. And it's not surprising that your Chevy dealer is the one who's bragging about this. If your Toyota dealer tried to sell you a Corolla by saying "it's got just as good a track record as a Chevrolet," THAT would be surprising.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I own a 1992 Saturn SL1 with 58,000 miles on it. It's a wonderful car that has very few problems, but I do have one concern. Periodically, my "Service Engine Soon" light comes on, stays awhile, and blinks off. My oil is full and recently changed, and all the other bottles are full. What is causing this, and is it serious? - Nikki

RAY: This light is telling you that a certain maintenance procedure is required right now, Nikki. We'll tell you how to do it.

TOM: Start by going out to your Saturn and unlocking the passenger door, not the driver's door. Then get in.

RAY: Right in front of you you'll see the flip-down door to the glove compartment. Open it.

TOM: Now rummage through the gas-card receipts, the Sleepy LaBeef cassettes and the pistachio shells, and reach down toward the bottom of the glove compartment.

RAY: If you feel around down there, you'll feel a flat, somewhat shiny object. Remove it.

TOM: That's the Owner's Manual. And the procedure you need to perform is to read it.

RAY: I realize it's not exactly a Michael Crichton thriller, but there's a lot of very useful information in there, including the answer to your question.

TOM: What you'll find is that the Service Engine Soon light is what many other cars call the Check Engine light. It's not an emergency, but it means that one of the signals going into the computer is not reading what it's supposed to be reading.

RAY: And the reason could be anything from a bad sensor to a bona fide engine problem. Your mechanic will be able to tap into the computer and read the "trouble code" on his scanner and figure out what it is. That's why it says "Service Engine Soon."

TOM: I think they changed the name because when the Check Engine light came on, people like my brother would get out, check the engine, and if the engine was still there, they'd get back in the car and drive away. So I guess Service Engine Soon is for people who took the Check Engine light too literally.