Question - I am looking for a new commuter car that is both reliable and gets great gas mileage. I work at Apple Computer, so while I'm busy saving an American icon, I don't want to have to worry about how I'm getting to the office every day! I've been attracted by the mileage of the Volkswagens with their TDI diesel engines, but I'm wondering why they aren't more popular. They get much better gas mileage, don't they?

I won't buy a car until I hear from you. If you don't respond, I won't be able to go to work, I won't be able to continue my crusade to save Apple, and if Apple goes under, you'll have to consider yourselves partially responsible. No pressure, though! - Doug

RAY: Geez, Doug. Sometimes the answer to a question practically leaps off the page at you. And it is absolutely clear to me that an individualist like you needs a new Volkswagen Beetle. Plus, it'll soon be available with that "Turbo Direct Ignition" diesel engine you're enamored with.

TOM: The new Beetle is a wonderfully cute, reliable commuter car that people are going absolutely gaga over. Everybody seems to love it; old folks, middle-aged folks, and, especially, young women. And given your obsession with computers, I suspect your social life can use such a boost!

RAY: And you're right, diesels do get better gas mileage than gasoline engines. They're also noisier, dirtier, slower and hard to start in cold weather. But they do have their devotees. And since you work at Apple Computer and are used to embracing seemingly superior technology that the rest of the world refuses to notice, there couldn't be a better engine for you than this! Enjoy the Beetle, Doug.

Question - I have a '94 Honda Accord LX that I recently took in for a 30,000-mile service (it has almost 60,000 miles). The nice mechanics informed me that I needed an oil pan gasket which is a real bargain at only $30. Unfortunately, it costs $165 to install. As a single female, I tend to be a little skeptical of mechanics. So my question is, what is an oil pan gasket? Do I really need to pay $200 to replace it? I checked some auto repair books at the bookstore but couldn't find anything about it. - Jenifer

RAY: Generally speaking, Jenifer, a "gasket" is a seal; a larger version of what your plumber would call a "washer." That's why they're cheap to buy. They're usually made of some sort of rubber or composite material, and they usually go in between two metal parts of the engine to keep fluid from leaking out between those parts.

TOM: But because they usually fit in between two hard-to-reach, important pieces of the engine, they're usually expensive to install.

RAY: And the oil pan gasket, as you might guess, goes between the oil pan and the bottom of the engine block, so it has a pretty crucial role to play in keeping oil in the engine. And since the front exhaust pipe has to be removed on this car to get the pan off, the job does involve a couple of hours of labor.

TOM: However, we can't tell from your letter whether or not you actually need a new oil pan gasket. If it's not leaking much - if you're not having to add any oil to the engine between changes - it may just be that the bolts are loose. And tightening them up may stop whatever small amount of oil is oozing out.

RAY: So this is definitely a case in which you'd be advised to get a second opinion, Jenifer. Since you say you don't trust these mechanics, ask another mechanic to make sure the bolts are tight and see if he thinks the gasket needs to be replaced now. But if it does, $200 is about the right price.