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ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE: Help Wherever You Need It


Customer service is the buzz-phrase in the world today, whether it's being treated better by the airlines, the supermarkets, or the automotive manufacturers. Twenty years ago, customer service only existed for the privileged upper crust of society. Now it's offered to everyone. Why has this changed? Because products across the line have become so similar in quality, there's little differentiation between brands. Can you really tell  the difference between store brand cola and Coke? Perhaps, but for many the tastes are similar, they both quench the thirst, and aluminum can packaging is identical.

The same goes for airlines. The seats are usually the same size, leg room in coach is minimal, and both take off and arrive at the same locations in approximately the same time.

This is where customer service is the most important. Why you choose to fly one airline over another, or buy one brand of soda over another usually has to do with pricing, and the way you're treated. Why do you think airlines invented frequent flyer miles in the first place?

It's no different with automobiles. Sure, a Mercedes-Benz S600 offers many different amenities than a Chevrolet Malibu, but it's the price that separates them. But put the Chevy Malibu up against the Oldsmobile Cutlass, or the Ford Contour, or the Chrysler Neon, and the choice becomes much more difficult. Same on the upper end. A Lexus will offer all the same features of a Mercedes-Benz, of a Lincoln Town Car, or even an Infiniti Q45. What makes the difference is customer service.

One of the most popular means of expressing an automotive company's commitment to the customer is the array of roadside assistance programs that are offered either free with the vehicle purchase or at an additional charge, depending on the number of services provided.

Way back when, the American Automobile Association was the only white knight roadside damsels in distress had to look to for help on the highway. Now, the AAA is lagging in basic services compared to the car companies.

"If your vehicle is stolen or you're a victim of a carjacking, OnStar can track your vehicle and call police immediately before you or your car become part of a chop."

Domestic manufacturers lead the lineup when it comes to roadside assistance. There are still a handful of low-end Japanese products that don't offer the feature for free. For example, Mercury products feature the "Mercury Commitment," which includes free towing to the nearest dealership (unlike AAA which tows you--five miles free only--to the nearest service station), will change flat tires, bring you gas, and unlock your keys if you've left them on the seat.

Mercury also states that they will respond within 45 minutes, unlike AAA, which may take hours if the weather's bad or it is inundated with calls. Another feature I like about the Mercury Commitment is they ask first if you're in a safe place, whereas AAA makes you wait by the car. For women on the road, this is an invaluable service for peace of mind.

The high-end manufacturers offer all these features, and more, such as trip planning, loaner vehicles when yours is in the shop, and an emergency services button if you're in an accident and need immediate help.

Right now, the best system on the market is OnStar, which, although not free like Acura's TLC program or Hyundai's roadside assistance plan, offers the most features and thereby the best safety for women traveling either alone or with the family.

OnStar, an $895 option (plus installation) on General Motors products only (for now), will provide you not only with roadside assistance, but can remotely lock or unlock your vehicle (no waiting for a truck and a slim jim tool), provides services-locating assistance (say you're looking for your hotel late at night and don't want to pull off to ask because you aren't familiar with the area), and instant help from any emergency service personnel, be it fire, police, or ambulance needs. OnStar operators will even stay on the line with you if you think you're being followed, and will direct you to the nearest police station. Women can't ask for any more than that.

In addition, OnStar can provide route mapping directions to anywhere in the country, and you don't need to change compact disc maps, listen to an electronic voice telling you to turn right, go straight, or enter freeway, and you don't need to write down the directions while driving at speeds at night on the highway. The OnStar phone system has a record button that let's you tape the directions given by the operator, and you can play it over and over until you reach your destination. No more fumbling with tiny buttons, bright screens, and confusing maps on the navigational system.

And if your vehicle is stolen or you're a victim of a carjacking, OnStar can track your vehicle like the Lojack system, and call police immediately before you or your car become part of a chop shop operation.

A monthly charge of $22.50, plus cellular phone charges, is all this will cost for your peace of mind. But since this is only available on GM products, others have come into the A monthly charge of $22.50, plus cellular phone charges, is all this will cost for your peace of mind. But since this is only available on GM products, others have come into the market as well. AutoLink, which is part of Motorola, also has a comparable system, featuring global positioning satellite navigation, roadside assistance, route support, and remote locking/unlocking services. and On Guard Tracker from ATX Research is another company featuring many of the same services.

Regardless of which program you choose, think long and hard before buying a vehicle that doesn't offer some kind of assistance or service. It's way past customer service; it's become a matter of life or death. become a matter of life or death