Dear Tom and Ray:

I am interested in buying a used Fiat Spider. The reason I'm interested is that the Spider is the only sports car convertible within my meager means. I know very little about these cars other than what my father says. He says, "Italians make nice looking cars that don't run, and Germans make ugly but reliable cars." Is there any truth to this statement? - PeterRAY: There's a lot of truth to this statement, Peter. Italians have always placed a premium on beauty. They're great at things like statues, cathedrals and stuff like that.

TOM: The Germans, on the other hand, have always placed a premium on functionality and precision. Their trains run on time. They make wonderful machine tools and consumer appliances.

RAY: And we agree with your father that the differences are reflected in the cars that come out of these countries. The Fiat Spider and the Alfa Romeo are beautiful Italian cars. I just wouldn't want to count on them to get me out of a tight spot. (Ever notice how few Fiats are used as getaway cars in bank robberies?)

TOM: But as with many beautiful things, we tend to look past their faults. This worked for my first wife for a while. Anyway, if you love the way your Fiat Spider looks, you'll forgive the fact that it doesn't start every other day, that the roof leaks or that a different body part loosens up every time you go over a bump. Keeping it running will become a labor of love. So go for the Spider, Peter!

RAY: And when the magic wears off, trade it in for a nice diesel Rabbit.

Dear Tom and Ray:

Could you use your good offices - wit, irony, satire, even humor - to help get the automobile manufacturers to stop being cutesy about where they locate the horn button. They've started putting it on the wheel spokes instead of in the center of the steering wheel. When the wheel is turned, finding the button quickly may require taking one's eyes off the road. It seems this could lead to a fender-bender or worse. Am I the only one hung up on this one? - Andrew

TOM: We agree with you wholeheartedly. The horn should be in the middle. Throughout history, that's where it's always been. If you watch the movie "Ben Hur" and look closely at the chariot he drives, you'll see that horn is in the middle of its steering wheel, too!

RAY: You would think that plain, old common sense would lead most car makers to leave it there. But recently, some manufacturers have been moving the horn to the steering wheel spokes to accommodate an air bag in the center. I guess the theory is that if you can't find the horn to avert a crash, at least you'll have the air bag.

TOM: Anyway, the implication is that you can't have both a horn and an air bag in the center of the wheel. But we know that's not true, because we've seen that companies like Toyota and Mercedes have figured out how to do it.

RAY: Well, at least we know for certain that the horn is back in the middle. And I'm sure that as soon as my brother gets his hands on another Mercedes or Toyota to test drive, we'll be able to verify that the air bag is in there, also!