Keeping your car running smoothly is always important, but never more so than in tight economic times.

You want to avoid huge repair bills or having to buy an entirely new car, but you don't want to break the bank paying for the basic upkeep of your car, either.

With that in mind, here are some basic tips that will help you find a good deal and drive away in a safe, dependable vehicle.

Shop around

In its April 2009 issue, Consumer Reports notes that when its editors called around to check up on the cost of a 60,000-mile checkup for a 2004 Ford Explorer, they were quoted prices that varied by as much as $252, even among Ford dealers in the same area.

Consumer Reports was quoted prices of $400, $499 and $589 by Ford dealerships in the New York City metro area. In Los Angeles, the same service drew quotes ranging from $338 to $590.

"Basically, you're dialing for dollars," said Mike Quincy, auto content specialist for Consumer Reports.

Coupons and deals

With all the coupons out there, it can become easy to get lost in the "labyrinth of auto repair," as Tom Torbjornsen, a veteran of nearly 40 years in the auto service industry and a blogger for AOL Autos, calls it.

"Automotive advertising and marketing is drowning the marketplace with excessive mailings, Internet ads, television ads and newspaper ads," he says. "Everyone is having a big sale."

But, before throwing up your hands and tossing those coupons in the garbage, take a close look at them. If they are offered by a reputable shop you feel you can trust, it can't hurt to save a few bucks. Just make sure you're not choosing a shop only because they are offering a "special price" that week.

Most people realize AAA offers roadside assistance, but not many people know AAA members also can save 10 percent on labor at many AAA-approved repair shops. Members can also save on most parts and accessories at some auto parts stores.

Importance of estimates

You can also save money if you get a copy of a repair estimate before you authorize repairs. These estimates should have all the necessary parts listed, as well as their prices.

Take it to a local auto-parts store and have a look at the pricing. It should be approximately the same.

Ladies, this is a good idea for all of you who've heard the horror stories about women never getting a fair shake with repair shops. If they've over-quoted you for parts, go back, get your car, and call the Better Business Bureau.

Warranties and recalls

Make certain that the needed repairs aren't under warranty or subject to a recall in the past few years before you sign off on a repair bill.

The best place to find out if your car or car parts have been recalled is www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov.

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