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iCarumba helps pinpoint car troubles online

Drivers with a mysterious clanking in their engines can make a click of their own--on the Web--to help identify what's wrong with their car.

Drivers with a mysterious clanking in their engines can make a click of their own--on the Web--to help identify what's wrong with their car.

iCarumba, an online company based in Seattle, helps car owners identify their car's problem, estimates repair cost range and suggests key questions to ask a technician. Through "Dr. Carumba"--a database of car-debilitating scenarios--drivers enter their car's history, its trouble area and symptoms. The site then narrows down the problem--and helps customers find a local repair shop.

By the end of March, car owners will also be able to pinpoint the source of their headaches through images and sound files associated with their cars' symptoms.

The site offers a one-to-one chat service with car experts, an option for customers who need more help than what the database offers. If customers have further questions, they can call a toll-free number to reach an adviser.

iCarumba is driving into an area that is sorely needed on the Web. J.D. Power and Associates, a research firm for the auto industry, found in a recent study that one of the larger areas of demand on the Internet was for Web sites that could help consumers better understand their car problems.

"The concept of the one-on-one chat with a mechanic is not only something valuable for consumers, but will be in such great demand that their bigger challenge will be in staffing up on enough qualified mechanics to fill it," said Chris Denove, director of consulting operations for J.D. Power and Associates.

But it isn't the first car-help model to roll off the production line.

In the true style of Tom and Ray Magliozzi's (a.k.a. Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers) radio show, which has aired on National Public Radio for more than 12 years, Cartalk.com is loaded with cheeky commentary and advice for car owners, such as car reports and free classifieds.

Cartalk.com's "Lemon Laws," for example, outlines car buyers' rights in each state. For fun, "Car-o-Scope" helps drivers find out if they have the right "carma" with their car--and which model and brand is best suited for their personality.

Microsoft's CarPoint and Autobytel--both sites that sell cars online--also send maintenance reminders and recall notices to car owners registered with their sites.

Tapping into car maintenance services is an area unexplored by many of the major car retailers, online and off. Even traditional companies such as Midas, which offers advice for consumers, haven't rolled online yet. But that will soon change.

Industry analysts expect online auto retailers to expand with services that will build a relationship with customers over a lifetime.

"Everyone in the online auto market wants to have a good excuse to email their customers once every 6 months," said Joe Sawyer, a senior analyst for Forrester Research, an Internet research firm. "They want such services to create stickiness for their site, to cross-sell products, and to create a relationship beyond just buying the car."

In this case, iCarumba is kick-starting the practice with highly personalized service. The site lets car owners store their vehicle information, keep records on maintenance, and opt for email on recalls and service reminders.

"Dr. Carumba gives repair and service advice like a mechanic would give to his mother," said Ken Brookings, iCarumba's chief executive and co-founder.

The Shop Selector walks customers through picking a local service station, highlights its specialties and member ratings, and books appointments.

Of the 285,000 service stations in the United States, iCarumba has relationships with 8,000 independents and 9,000 chain-related shops, 40 percent originating in the San Francisco Bay area, known as a high-tech mecca. These shops pay iCarumba up to $5 for referring an expensive repair and $2 for standard repairs.

"This is probably the lowest customer acquisition cost that the shops can find," Brookings said.

For its part, iCarumba is actively recruiting the rest of the 258,000 shops nationwide, which are listed on the site's yellow pages. Pulling in referral fees from these shops could mean a sizable profit for the upstart, which is also making money through advertising and do-it-yourself products sold on the site.

"Of course, just like any other dot-com company, they'll have to answer that nagging question 'How do we do this and turn a profit?,'" J.D Power's Denove said.

Brookings said that iCarumba has received $35 million in funding from Arch Venture Partners and Madrona Investment Group, among other private investments.