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Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2003; 11:00 AM

Warren Brown is back to talk about all your automobile issues! He has been covering the automobile industry for The Washington Post since 1982. Brown, who joined the newspaper in 1976, has what many people think is a particularly cool job: He gets to test drive all manner of cars, from top-of-the-line Mercedes sedans and the newest sports cars to Volkswagen Beetles and SUVs. His auto reviews are lively, detailed accounts of a car's good and bad points, addressing everything from a car's highway performance to its "head-turning" factor and sound system.

He regularly comes online Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions on every aspect of the automotive industry -- from buying your dream car to the future of the internal combustion engine.

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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Columbia, Md. : I'm a big (6'5") person looking for a good sized , dependable, SUV under $40,000 that will get decent gas mileage.Is there such a vehicle?

Warren Brown: Good morning, Columbia.
A part of the answer can be found in the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, or Toyota Land Cruiser.
But none of those come with what most people might consider good mileage. They are heavy, body-on-frame trucks, meant to do what trucks are meant to do. Eventually, they will be available in as gas/electric hybrids or, perhaps, diesels which will yield better mileage. Until then, you're looking at about 14 mpg.

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Falls Church, Va.: I just installed a baby seat in preparation for a new child. My wife is questioning my competancy and would like to know who will inspect my work. Any ideas or comments?

Warren Brown: No offense, Falls Church. But I agree with your wife. Have AAA, your local fire station, or one of the seat specialists at Fitzgerald Automotive install it. No need to argue over this one. Just get it right. And, hey, congrats on the new baby.

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Alexandria, Va.: Crossfire...looks great, I'll enjoy seeing them on the road, but if the reviews are right, I'll never own one for the same reason I won't ever own an Audi TT. I'm 6'4" and from what I've been reading, if you're much over 6', it's way too cramped. Getting in a TT for me was like getting in a Miata and then I couldn't see out the sides for the roof arch.

Warren Brown: Dear Alexandria:
The reviews are mostly right. It's a beautiful car with a few less-than-attractive flaws. 1. It's too cramped for tall people. 2. Its interior is, ironically, too big for really short people. 3. On the six-speed manual I tested, the gearshift knob kept coming off when I shifted into reverse.
Overall, I like the Crossfire; but it has a few boo-boos that leave me cross.

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Woodbine, Va.: Do you know any places where street racing takes place? Now that my bitchin' 88 Camaro is on the road I want to show those rice burners a thing or two!

Warren Brown: Not exactly street racing. But something close. I'm finishing up today at the Milan Dragway in Milan, Mich., where GM is letting us run the heck out of most of its 2004 models. People in these parts crowd the track on weekends to run their F-bodies and rice rockets. Similar tracks exist in and around the metro Washington area. Check the Virginia International and Richmond International Raceway sites, as well as sites for the Sports Car Club of America. Even better, check with your local Camaro club.

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Alexandria, Va.: Yo Warren, hope you can help. I'm looking for a new sports car that has some practicality (e.g., a backseat for my 3 yr old). I would love a 350Z so I came upon the Infiniti G35. Any others I should look into?

Warren Brown: The Mazda 6, but it has a lousy turning radius.
Mustang GT, lots of power and seats for four.
Coming soon, believe it or not, a truly hot Saturn Ion Red Line performance edition.
BMW 3-Series, of course.
Volkswagen GTI.
Ford Focus SVT, hot-to-trot with enough back space for children.
Subaru Impreza WRX, 227-hp, more for drivers than passengers, but has something that passes for rear seats.
That's off the top of my head.

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Columbia, Md.: Buick Regal GS or Infiniti G35?

Warren Brown: Now, that's an interesting question, because the Buick Regal GS is a real runner, although few people know it. Conventional wisdom says go with the Infiniti G35. But conventional wisdom has a way of wasting money. I say drive both and ask yourself if the G35, all things considered , is worth more than the Regal GS.

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Arlington, Va.: Warren:

What is your opinion of Subaru's new 4 cylinder turbo engine for the Forrester? Do you know if Subaru plans to also use this engine in the Outback wagon? Are there any major changes in 2004 for the Outback wagon?

Thanks

Warren Brown: It's a hot one, Arlington. 210 hp at 5,600 rpm. 235 ft.-lbs of torque at 3,600 rpm. It all spools up nicely with relatively little turbo whine. Subaru had played around with the idea of putting the larger H6 (boxer six) engine in that one. But the company backed off, fearing that the heavier engine would upset the Forester's handling. The turbocharged boxer four fits nicely. Yes, expect to see it in Outback applications.

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Silver Spring, Md.: 88 Camaro......so he's the guy who left that big trail of oil and smoke on my street, I didn't think any of those heaps were still on the road.

Warren Brown: Oh, Silver Spring. As you know, I shed no tears over the demise of the F-Bodies, not because I hated them; but simply because I believed it was their time to go, especially inasmuch as their sales had fallen to unsustainable production levels with no hope of coming back.
BUT
There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a parade of totally spifed-out F-bodies, Camaros and Firebirds, rolling down Detroit's Woodward Avenue. It truly is a sught to behold.

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washingtonpost.com: Good Looks, and Then Some (Post, June 25)

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Vienna, Va.: Warren...couple of questions on your last couple of write-ups. I agree (having test-driven one myself) that the Acura TSX sports sedan is like the so-so looking high school girl that can really dance (though its interior is pretty nice too), but HOW can you compare it with ANY of the cars that you mention? The TSX has a 200 HP 4-cylinder....The Acura TL type S big-brother is a much larger car than this, with a 260 HP V6. The TL is based on the American-market Accord, which is much larger than the TSX. Ditto the Infiniti G35..it also is a MUCH larger rear-drive car, also with a 260 HP V6. The Audi A4, although sold in FWD, is essentially designed for AWD traction, which the TSX does not offer. The BMW 3 series, yes, is roughly the same size, but is quite a bit more expensive, does not come with 4-cylinder powerplants, and will substantially outdo the TSX in steering feel and chassis dynamics. I cannot agree with any of these conparisons.....perhaps the closest one would have been the discontinued Infiniti G20 even though the TSX has more power.
On the Chrysler Crossfire write-up, you also compare this 2-door fastback with the Acura TL, Audi A4, and BMW 3-series, so many of the same comments apply. Since the Infiniti G35 is also available in a 2-door coupe, that, yes, is a good comparison.....and an even better one, as you point out, is the Mercedes SLK which it is based on.
Well, so much for my comments...I don't want to steal your show. ONE more BIG question, though...have you had a chance to drive the Holden GTO?...there seems to be a LOT of interest in this car.

Warren Brown: Hello, Vienna.
The show would not exist without you and other chatters. So, many thanks forchecking in. You have a point. But my comparisons are more mareket-oriented than they are mechanically oriented although, obviously, mechanicals must be considered.
I look at what vehicles are aimed at the same market, the same buyers with the same demographic and psychographic profiles. The mechanicals don't have to be exactly comparable. It's the sales target that concerns me.
The new Holden GTO is on display at the Milan, Mich., track as I write this. ON display. The GNers won't let us drive that one today because they want to do a bigtime, GTO-specific test-drive event. I don't get it. But, at least, thye car looks good.

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Herndon, Va.: Warren, I have a 16 year old son who got his license a few months ago. His grandfather has a prospect for a car for him. It's a 94 Lincoln with only 20K miles for $6,500, the proverbial little old lady car, well maintained and garage kept. Not sure of the model. The grandpa is pushing to check it out, mostly for the low mileage aspect. I'm concerned about the size, power, MPG and potential maintenance costs, especially for a 16 year old. It would be convenient for my son to have a car this summer if he ever finds a job. Your thoughts?

Warren Brown: Dear Herndon:
It's not so much the car as it is the kid. Contact AAA, Geico, State-Farm, or some similar agency and ask for information on where you can enroll you 16-year-old in a good defensive-driving, smart-driving course.
You can die in anything in a severe vehicle crash.
Avoid the crash. Stay alive. Find a course, and learn to drive.

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Wallops Island, Va.: Warren:
What is your opinion on the Buick Rendezvous? My wife has gravitated to it as a suitable "non-minvan" family hauler. After doing much research, it seems to occupy a unique and atractive market segment based on price/size/features/milage. Despite this fact, I can't think of a time when you have recommended this vehicle on this forum. Is there something terribly wrong with it that I don't see?

Warren Brown: Dear Wallops:
I just finished driving the new, 2004 eight-cylinder Rendezvous at Milan.
First impressions:
. Excellent overall build quality and interior presentation. GM finally understands the value of putting high quality materials in its vehicles.
. That V8 is quite smooth, quite powerful. None of that muscle-flexing stuff. Something more adult. No discernible downshifting during acceleration. Accelerates competently during lane changes.
. Stability is now greatly improved. Very little yaw in corners. Very confident handling.

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Detroit, Mich.: Looking for a relatively new used car. What would you suggest we look at if the only requirements are:

under $10,000
four door
manual
relatively good gas mileage/safty ratings
would prefer a smaller, newer car over a larger older one

I know that doesn't give you much to work with, but I've got no idea where to start here.

Warren Brown: Dear Detroit:
Hyundai Elantra.

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Oakton, VA: Warren...on the Acura TSX write-up.....comparing it to the Lexus ES300.....did you mean the IS300? The IS is much closer in concept to the TSX. The ES 300 is an ultra-smooth Camry-based luxury car that doesn't even try to be a sports sedan. In fact, the ES300 is one of the VERY few cars today that has what I would call a comfortable ride.

Warren Brown: Nope, Oakton, the ES300. It's closer to the market intent of the TSX inasmuch as both are entry-level luxers aimed at the $30,000 crowd.

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Rockville, Md.: To the Guy last week who wants a car so the women will like him:
Try buying a car for the usual reasons such as value, safety, gas mileage, etc.
Most women do not care. If it is stil THAT important to you...buy a 760LI that way you can sleep in the back with some room.
BTW, the Crossfire article seemed to indicate a love-like relationship between you and that car...

Warren Brown: Thanks, Rockville.
Yes, love-like relationship with the Crossfire, and all that means, which sometimes means a nasty argument as in: "Keep your gearshift knob on, please!!"

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Charlotte, N.C.: Another negative for the Crossfire --- it looks too much like the old American Motors Marlin!

Warren Brown: Ouch!

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Bethel, Conn.: Warren -

How is the Corvette celebration going? I'm biased, since my father is overseeing the nationwide Corvette Caravan and took a job with the museum. But tell me, how are the events in Bowling Green shaping up?

Warren Brown: Hello, Bethel:
I'm leaving Michigan tonight enroute to the Corvette celebration in Nashville. If my washingtonpost.com producers agree, I'll do a special chat from there. And, who knows? Maybe, WMAL might want me to do a brodcast from there, working with Brother Gearhead Bill O'Brien in Washington. At any rate, you'll get a Corvette feed, one way or another.

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Arlington, Va.: For Falls Church -- The fire station at the intersection of Wilson and George Mason has a program at least once a week for child seat safety inspection. My husband went -- there is a short presentation and then they will install your seats for you. It's at night too.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Arlington. Take note, Falls Church.

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Logan Circle, Washington, D.C.: My father just told me this morning that he's thinking about getting a Mercedes Benz SUV, probably the M Class. Any thoughts about this line? Just an overview...well built? Lots of repairs? Anything I could tell him?

He and my mother will be living part time in Maine and DC with easy, limited driving in both places.

Warren Brown: Hello, Logam Circle. Yes, the Mercedes-Benz ML320 is nice. Not my favorite.
Assuming that your father is going for a car-like ride, good in the rain and snow, reasonable utility....
Check out:
Lexus RX330
2004 GMC Envoy XUV, which has considerably more utility than ANY mid-size SUV. Yes, that's X as in XUV for that new Envoy.
Acura MDX
BMW X5
and, most certainly, the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot

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Arlington, Va.: Re: Columbia, Md. about the choice between and Buick Regal GS and the Infiniti G35. Check out the quality of the two cars. You will find that the Infiniti is infinitly better than the Buick. No quarter inch gaps between the doors and the body panels, the interior trim fits well. The roof liner is not held in place with velcro and magnets. I could go on, but you get the point. Detroit still has a way to go before its quality approaches the Japanese. But I've noticed that Mercedes and Nissan quality are approaching Detroit lately.

Warren Brown: With all due respect, that's baloney, Arlington. I've been spending much time this year looking at vehicle quality and manufacturing processes. My findings: Perceptions of domestic vehicle quality lag way behind reality; and perceptions of unassailable Japanese quality are awfully forgiving, as evidenced by the numbers of "service bulletins" affecting a variety of Japanese products.
By the way, you might want to check out the latest J.D. Power & Associates and Harbour and Associates studies, which generally arrive at the same conclusion, although they still give the Japanese a bit of a fading nod on the lead in automotive quality. That's fading..and fading fast. This is no longer the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s; and the domestics haven't just been sitting on their butts waiting for tomorrow to happen. It's a competitive jungle out there.
P/S That Crossfire wwith the lousy shifter knob is 80-percent Mercedes-Benz.

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Vienna, Va.: For the Camaro racer...

There are quarter-mile tracks all over the place around here. 75/80, Capital, and Maryland International are all within a reasonable drive. Depending on the night, racing is $10 to $30 a night, and there's cash prizes if you can walk the walk.

The D.C. region is awash with great legal racing opportunities. In addition to the dragstrips, there's a very active autocross community as well, and Summit Point is only an hour west if you're into roadrace-type events.

If you built your Camaro well, it would be competitive in any of these events.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Vienna. Please forgive that Internet interruption. It appears that the people at Starwood don't know the difference between 24 hours and four hours. They'd better not double-charge me.

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Washington, D.C.: Did I just read where VW is discontinuing the Beetle already? Or was that just the one plant in MX? Thought the thing was selling good. Thanks

Warren Brown: Hello, D.C.
VW is knocking off the original Beetle, currently being built in Mexico. The New Beetle remains. This year, it's enhanced by the New Beetle Convertible.

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Alexandria, Va.: Warren,
In response to the car seat check question, I'd like to recommend Officer Mark Bergin of the City of Alexandria PD. He is certified to check car seats; I believe he does monthly checks at the Alex. Animal Shelter. Check the City of Alexandria website for schedule. You have to install the seat and then he will redo it if necessary. A great service that more police departments should copy!

Warren Brown: Thank you, Alexandria.

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Arlington, Va.: Warren my man! Put down that glue jar you been sniffing...the Acura TX and IS300 are far closer in terms of pricing, features, and more importantly, target market, than the TSX and that bloated upscale Camry-like Lexus...go actually talk to anyone on the street and ask them.

Warren Brown: Okay, but it's not the glue.

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Rockville, Md.: Now that the H2 seems to be a hit, I understand and H3 (around 30K) is in the works. Your thoughts?

Warren Brown: Dear Rockville:
For some reason, the people at GM asked us not to talk about the H3 just yet. I don't understand that request inasmuch, as you've just demonstrated, word already has leaked out. So, I'm not breaking any confidences by telling you what you clearly already know, which is that, yes, there will be an H3, coming soon. It will be based on the midsize/compact pickup, new-for-2004 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Cayenne platforms.
It will be priced around $30,000, about $20,000 less than the bigger H3, which sits atop Silverado underpinnings.
Put it this way: This is an Arianna Huffington H3, a Hummer for people who hate Hummers.

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Takoma Park, Md.:
Any chance that Honda is going to replace the prelude with something else? I really like hondas but find them so boring. Thanks.

Warren Brown: Dear Tacoma:
I don't know. Will check. Here's hoping that the replacement, if there is one, won't be just another badge-engineering job.

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Somewhere, USA: How long will I have to wait for a hybrid SUV?

Warren Brown: About a year, maybe less.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Do you know which SUVs or station wagons have retractable/roll-down rear windows? Many vehicles have gone to the hatch style but I appreciate the flexibility offered by a rear window that can open.

Warren Brown: Dear Alexandria:
Not off the top of my head, BUT....
The new Envoy XUV has a retractable roof, up-down "midgate" window, and a two-way rear gate (swing out/flip down) with an up-down rear window. It's the most versatile arrangement I've seen in a mid-size SUV.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi Warren!

I'm in the market for a new or slightly used car.. I've been driving a 1990 Pontiac Grand Am (162,000 mi!) since I got my license 6 years ago and I want something dependable, sturdy, and roomy but a bit more up to date. Any suggestions?

Warren Brown: Hello, Fairfax:
Long list:
Another Grand Am, circa 2000/2001.
Honda Accord V6 in the same chronological realm.
Chrysler Sebring
Toyota Camry
Mitsubishi Galant
Mazda 626

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Fairfax, Va.: What did you find appealing about the Buick GS? I've test-driven several Buicks lately (including that one) and found them quite wanting in several areas: cheap interior plastics, poor fit-and-finish, squeaks and rattles, marginal 3/36 warranty, old-tech engines, etc. Similiar Japanese cars, like Infinitis, Lexuses, Acuras, etc., blow them away in general quality. Of course, everyone's opinion is different...perhaps you can fill us in on why you think it is a respectable car.

Warren Brown: The 3.8 V6 engine blows the Honda V6 away. I have nothing against push-rods that work better than overhead cams.
Nor did I experience the squeaks and rattles you report; although, I agree that Honda's interior materialas are of a higher quality, for the time being.
I prefer more low-end torque to high-end. It's a feel thing. The TSX has a wide torque band, feels good; but lacks the rush of the Regal GS.

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Alexandria, Va.: Have you driven the new VW Touareg? When will I see them in my VW showroom?

Warren Brown: Not yet and not yet. But I hope by mid-August for the test-drive, at least.

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Washington, D.C.: I am taking a job in CT where public transportation is not an option and gas taxes are high. I currently drive an SUV on weekends, but have determined that it is not a good commuting car. What can you recommend around the $20,000 range that will be fun, sporty, safe and economical? My preference is to get something new. I would imagine that around that price range I won't get much in the way of luxury items (leather, CD changer, etc.)

Warren Brown: Dear Washington:
If you want leather and all of the goodies in a fun, sporty vehicle at a low price, I suggest you look at the Hyundai Sonata. Really.

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Annapolis, Md.: Warren, thanks for providing a refreshing perspective on automobiles and the auto industry. I'm in my mid-20s, hunting for a new car (or at least new to me), and want sedan-look and feel, but without sacrificing horsepower that allows me to get the most HP out of a non-V6 car. Four doors are a must, and anything with leather is out; sunroof is in - I've looked at the well-sold Accord and Camry, but don't won't to blend in with the rest of them on the roads. What's a girl to do? Thanks for your help!

Warren Brown: Dear Annapolis, if you can wait, get a Mini Cooper. It answers all of your needs and wants and then some at a price that makes sense in a premium small car.
If you can't wait, investigate the non-WRX Subaru Impreza, or the Mitsubishi Lancer, or new Mazda Protege.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hey Warren. I enjoy your column and your chats. My question is about VW Touraeg(?) What is the story on this vehicle? Any word on its availability? I am considering it vs. Infiniti FX 35. What do you think? What about long term quality issues?

Warren Brown: Can't answer that one just yet, Chicago. Will get on it, soon.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Warren, I think the answer you gave the guy looking for a sports-car with a small back seat for his 3-year-old was a typo. You said the Mazda 6. Did you mean the Mazda RX-8? This competes much more closely with the 350Z (which he said he liked) than the 6.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Silver Spring. Sometimes, I slips.

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Warren Brown: Okay, good folks. Gotta go before someone at GM accuses me of breaking the H3 embargo which already was broken. See you all next week, or maybe even this weekend from Nashville. Take care.

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washingtonpost.com: That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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