Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Wednesday, March 15, 2006; 11:00 AM

Warren Brown talks 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.

Brown 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.

The transcript follows below.


Vienna, Va.: Hi, Warren. Love your chats. The new Honda Fit looks like a great car. From so many angles, it looks like my 2002 Honda Civic Si, which Honda never really promoted all that well and I don't think was a big hit here in the U.S. -- perhaps because of the "modest" 160 hp engine (I'll take the great gas mileage, thank you!). Do you think the Fit will be a winner here in the U.S.?

Warren Brown: Good morning. Yeah, the Fit will do okay. But It won't be a cakewalk for Honda. Many worthy competitors in that segment, including the Nissan versa, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Aveo.


Denver, Colo.: Mr. Brown: You've criticized Consumer Reports' reviews as being biased in favor of Japanese cars and against U.S. manufacturers, and I tend to agree with you. So, is there another publication or source of information that we should rely on instead of CR? Especially for reliability-over-time statistics? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Again, it is necessary to point out that CR does a very fine job of serving the consumer. I use it frequently. However, there is no such thing as an objective source, per se. Different organizations factor in different things different ways. For example, take CR's working definition of "reliability." Essentially, it translates to the ratio of consumer complaints per vehicle. And what are those complaints? They can range from scratched paint to a drivability problem.

Here's a good example: Many CR people complain that U.S. cars are too easy to steal. Yet, increasingly, people now are beginning to complain about those intelligent key ignition locks sold on many Japanese and other high-end cars.

The locks are meant to make it more difficult for thieves to take your ride. However, if you lose both keys, the original and the backup, you could be looking at a very high replacement cost for that ignition system.

Given those variances in research and interpretation, I'd suggest looking at a variety of information sources on cars and trucks.


Los Angeles, Calif.: If you had cash to spend on a car, say up to $25,000, would you pay cash or take a loan? If you are a single 32-year-old female living in sunny L.A. with the above amount, what would you buy? Thanks!

Warren Brown: I'd pay cash. Loans cost money because they usually come with higher interest rates than most banks or other financial institutions are willing to pay in earned interest on an investment of $25,000. Yes, you could plop your $25 K in the Stock long as you understand that, in doing so, you are simply engaging in the pinstriped equivalent of a slot machine.

The best road to financial solvency is the elimination and strict control of debt.


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: VW Service Nightmare: I dropped off my car for service on Saturday at VW Springfield. The car took six plus hours to repair and when it was ready I was unavailable to pick it up. So I paid via credit card for an after hours pickup and I was promised my car would be left outside. When I arrived at 7:15, I could see that my car was locked inside the service bay. I drove around the facility and saw two employees working in the garage. I spoke to them and indicated that I needed my car as I had to leave at 6am to drive to Boston to attend a funeral. The employees would not release my car (even though I had proof it was mine) nor would they call their supervisor to explain my situation. In fact, the employees threatened to call the police claiming I was trespassing. Long story short, I missed the funeral as I was only able to pick up my car on Sunday afternoon. If I want to bring a more serious complaint to whom should I speak?

Warren Brown: That is so terribly rude, goofy, anti-consumer. I'll publish your complaint here. VW is hereby invited to respond.

VW: Here we go, again: Good cars, lousy service. What? Do you all think I'm making this stuff up? These complaints are coming from YOUR CUSTOMERS. What do you all at VW have to say about it?


Rockville, MD: Warren: I've always appreciated your honest viewpoints. Since 1986, I have been in agreement with you on most things automotive. Back then you wrote how a BMW 535i was more fun to drive than a corvette. I bought one, drove it 235k blissful miles, never had a thing done to it, then bought a 525i in '91, put 260K miles on that with no problems. But now cars are so electrically complicated with literally dozens of computers, can I expect any car built today to last that long, or are those days gone forever? I've got a 2002 Audi A-6 with 70K miles on it that probably won't make 100K before the transmission, among other things, needs replacing.

Warren Brown: Hello, Rockville. Statistically, today's cars are more reliable, more durable, safer, and more enjoyable....and, yes, substantially more complicated.

So, while your techno-angst certainly is understandable, it's statistically unsupportable.

Many of today's cars, even the economy models, can run 200,000 miles or so with proper service and care. Be not afraid. It's okay to venture forth into the brave new world of technology, as long as you aren't on a hunting trip with the Vice President. He needs a GPS on his gun.


Temple Hills, Md.: Dear Warren,

I am currently struggling with the decision as to which car I am willing to purchase. I have been torn between the 2003 versions of the Audi A6, Jaguar S-Type and the Lexus GS. In your opinion which one would be the best purchase based on quality, driving experience and overall value?

Warren Brown: Hello, Temple Hills, Md.

1) Forget the Jaguar S-Type, especially for 2003. I'm sorry, but that car just does not live up to the Jaguar reputation in overall presentation and performance. Why bother?

2) I absolutely love the overall performance, feel and look of the Audi A-6, more so than I do those attributes in the Lexus GS.

3) However, the Lexus GS generally is a very well turned out car gifted with solid performance. And Toyota, which owns Lexus, generally does a good job of repairing the cars it sells. VW, which owns Audi, doesn't.

Advantage: Lexus.


Chicago, Ill.: Ok, before I even ask this question I know what you're going to think "must be a dumb blonde." Well I am blonde, but really not that dumb, just clueless when it comes to cars.

I was recently in a pinch and coming up on my next scheduled oil change, but needed a bit of oil according to my dipstick levels. So I purchased a quart of synthetic oil (I have a 3 series BMW), and completely used up the entire quart by pouring the oil, unbeknownst at the time, into the wrong slot, the dipstick insert and not the oil engine filler, OOPS. Needless to say, I did get the needed oil change just yesterday about eight days after my self "oil" fill up. Upon changing the oil they ask if I had any transmission work, because something is really leaking. I haven't had transmission work, so I stopped by the BMW service center and asked if they could verify that I have no transmission issue. The consultant looked the car over last night, and assured me no transmission issue exists, however, he pointed out that I must of had a sloppy oil change as he could see oil overflow in the engine area. At that time, I did not realize that I poured the quart of oil into the wrong spot, so we just shrugged, and I stated that I'd have to ensure that I return to BMW for all future oil changes. It wasn't until this morning, when my mind was much clearer that I put it all together and realized that the "sloppy oil change" was my mistake.

My question to you is what should I do now? My car has been leaking some oil for the past eight days, should I go to a shop? Is my car ruined/damaged by pouring into the dip stick slot?

Thanks for any suggestions that you may offer.

Warren Brown: Hello, Chicago. That's nothing dumb about what would did, blonde or not. You just made a mistake. We all do -- like all of those people who lose their electronic keys and then whine about how much it costs to make things right again.

The BMW people know how to handle this. 1. They should thoroughly clean that engine to make sure you have no pools of oil in hot spots. That could cause a fire. (Ask me how I know.)

They can drain the excess oil. You should be okay.

I mean, geez, stop fretting.

Consider that all of those smart people in the White House, Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Department and Congress went merrily marching into Iraq on certain "intelligence" about weapons of mass destruction that weren't there.

How dumb is that? And our President isn't blonde, and our Vice President is bald. See?


Rochester, N.Y.: Good morning, Warren. When is the Washington Post going to send a hard working auto reporter such as yourself to a Chinese auto show so that you can review Chinese cars? Also do you know if Chinese Buicks are the same as American Buicks. I always hear about the popularity of Buicks in China and was wondering if GM has a true world car.

You forgot to recommend a car to the 32 year old single female. How about an Eclipse or a Scion (the sporty version).

Lastly, I am not sure I would recommend paying cash unless someone has adequate savings in case of an unforeseen emergency.

Warren Brown: Thank you Rochester for correcting the oversight in my answer. And my apologies to our chatter for that incomplete response. Yes, the new 2007 Eclipse looks like a winner, especially the Spyder edition. The Scion tC car is quite likable, too.

As for China, geez, I've been twice, both times to Shanghai, including the Shanghai Auto Show. I'll probably go to the rapidly expanding Beijing expedition this year. And, dear folks, in addition to meeting you here and on the Car Pages of The Post and the radio (interesting developments there, as well), I'll start doing the podcasting thing as soon as our technical people can get me up to speed.


Lewiston, N.Y.: In last week's chat, you stated that "the reality [is] that it costs as much to develop and produce a station wagon as it does to develop and produce a SUV or crossover." Really? You are saying that it would cost Ford just as much to develop a Five Hundred or Fusion wagon as it has cost them to develop the upcoming Edge crossover that will replace the Escape? How do you figure? Also, you said that the Japanese companies are staying away from wagons because they can't sell them. Does this count the Mazda 6 wagon, which seems to be selling just fine? Finally, you call the the Acura TL a Honda Accord by another name. This is not so. The Acura TSX, not the TL, is the Euro and JDM Accord. I attend your chats every week, and there are always at least a couple of howlers like this. Don't you owe it to your readers and the Post to do your homework?

Warren Brown: Hello, Lewiston. I love these kinds of questions. They give me a chance to get nasty.

Yes, I owe it to my readers to do my homework, and to get in your face.

The Acura TL and TSX essentially are no more than modified Honda Accords by other names. Indeed, the only reason why the "Acura" name exists is because Honda, which owns Acura, figured that it could not move to high-end cars and prices with the Honda, which began its automotive life on the economy side of the tracks, remember? Do this: Look at the platforms of the Accord, TL and TSX. Look at the so-called black metal. How much real difference is there?

And, yes, when you factor in research and design, development, tooling, testing and everything else that goes into the production of a new vehicle, it costs as much to produce a station wagon as it does a car. Source: I spend lots of time with the research and development people at automotive companies worldwide. That's them talking, not me.

You ARE right about the Mazda 6 wagon, sort of. Mazda really isn't all that Japanese, you see. It's actually controlled by the very American Ford Motor Co. Or, didn't you know that?


Hilsboro, Va.: Warren: I was amused that you liked that behemoth you tested for last week's Washington Post. I believe it was the new Yukon or Tahoe. I guess it's good it got 19MPG, but really, shouldn't this country be looking at going in a different way in terms of fuel economy?

Warren Brown: Well, Hillsboro:

Why be amused or bemused? The reality is that there are many people out there who want, need, or otherwise prefer a fullsize SUV. The 2007 GMC Yukon Denali happens to be one of the best.

And it's the very dressed Denali that gets 19 mpg on the highway. The SLE and SLT versions get somewhere in the neighborhood of 22 mpg.

That's a big improvement, considering the usual segment performances of 15 miles per gallon and less for the big rigs.

Thus, to answer your policy direction question, America is moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. Those big rigs eventually will have gasoline-electric and diesel-electric engines for even better mileage and lower emissions.

America would be moving in the wrong direction to curb consumer choice. I mean, we already have enough of that don't we -- a government that believes it can engender freedom abroad by curbing and abusing it at home.


re: VW Springfield: That is possible the worst dealership I have ever been to in terms of service. I had twice made "appointments" for service there, and on average waited two hours each time just to be seen. They just don't care about serving the customer. Long story short, I traded my Passat for a 350Z Nissan, a company that is terrific in this regard.

Warren Brown: I've just finished reading a study in Automotive Digest that says that for every 100 unhappy customers, a dealership loses a net of 32 to 35 additional sales. That is why I don't understand this craziness of treating customers badly. Why anger the people who can make or break you? It just doesn't make sense, or cents.


Washington, D.C.: I'm seeking a fuel-efficient and capable SUV; does the Jeep Liberty diesel answer that call?

Warren Brown: Yes, but noisily on startup. About 30 percent better fuel-efficiency than the 3.7-liter V-6 gasoline model, which supposedly gets up to 22 mpg on the highway. The gasoline model runs regular unleaded, which generally is cheaper than diesel in the United States.


Silver Spring, Md.: Rockville had a good question about whether newer cars will last as long as his good old BMWs. The joke is that after buying two BMWs he bought an Audi and seems surprised that it won't make it to 100k without major repairs. An Audi? I know, I know, Audi makes great cars, and all carmakers make mistakes. Still, an Audi? He couldn't find a Peugeot or Renault?

Warren Brown: Och, Silver Spring!


Denver, Colo.: The blind spot visibility in the Nissan Z350 is the main thing that keeps me from upgrading from the Z300 to this newer car. Any idea if Nissan intends to enlarge the rear triangle window or address the visibility issue in future models? Thanks.

Warren Brown: I recently attended and intensive BMW driver-education course in which all of my instructors insisted that there are no cars with blind spots. I disagreed vehemently...until they showed me how I could eliminate almost any blind spot in any car by properly synchronizing the rearview and sideview mirrors. This is not to argue that you are wrong about the Z350. It's just to say that I had exactly the same belief until those instructors showed me that I was wrong.


New York, N.Y.: We will be buying a minivan in about two months. We have our eyes on the Toyota Sienna and the Honda Odyssey which seem to be the same in terms of ratings, features and price. Do you have any comments on one over the other? And what about new vs. used? They both seem to hold their resale value, so we're not seeing significant savings on a two or three year old minivan.

Warren Brown: Forget resale value. It's mostly a myth of the marketplace that has very little to do with tangible quality or reliability. It's mostly perception, which can be manipulated or otherwise altered by events, especially changing consumer tastes.

That said, I'd take the Toyota Sienna over the Odyssey because it offers overall better value -- "value" being defined as the amount of good stuff you get for money paid.


Clifton, Va.: Just to let you know my sister bought a new '07 Tahoe after her '01 Infiniti QX4 was totaled. She was very impressed with the SUV. She needed the room to haul her dogs. Nothing from Toyota worked since you had to remove the third row seat. Acura and Honda just didn't have the room. BMW and Benz, forget it, no room there. Also, she got it for under invoice. She loves it. I drove and was very impressed. Best SUV out there of any size, in my opinion.

Warren Brown: Hello, Clifton. She get the Denali version, or what?


Arlington, Va.: What do you think about the 2006 Nissan 350Z? I'm thinking of trading in my 2004 Nissan Maxima.

Warren Brown: Are you going through a divorce or some other kind of partnership breakup?

Or, is it that the children have left the house and are now paying their own mortgages and rent, and you're ready to celebrate your parental liberation?

It couldn't possibly be a midlife crisis. Those are greatly overrated.

I ask because the cars are so different in attitude -- the entry-level luxury, but unmistakably family Maxim sedan versus the hot-to-trot, homebody-I'm-not 350Z roadster.

Yeah, I like the Z very much -- tight, lightweight and all of that, and snazzy to boot. But I'm a terribly conflicted individual.


Silver Spring, MD: Just a comment re: VW service . We have a 2003 Passat purchased at Martens. While I cannot say the vehicle has been very reliable (a couple of electronic issues, fuel pump failed), the service at Martens has been very good.

Warren Brown: Thank you. We like hearing from all sides.


Arlington, Va.: Re: Rochester. I believe that the popularity of Buicks in China dates back to when Sun Yat-Sen drove a Buick, and everyone wanted to emulate him, even to this day, apparently.

Warren Brown: And the Chinese have a completely different take on Buicks. The models sold there have super-nice interiors, demanded by the Chinese consumers who can afford the cars in the first place. Even the exterior jewelry, the badging, is different and more attractive than the pieces put on the Buicks sold stateside.

The recently introduced Buick Lucerne comes closest to the Chinese Buicks. Believe it or not, that is a very good thing.


Fredericksburg, Va: Hey, Warren. The 2007 Toyota Camry looks like it has been overhauled. I know you had a limited test run of the car and said that it had a little muscle this time. Do you plan to fully test it soon? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Yes, Fredericksburg. I probably will do an extended run in the hybrid model. This is the best Camry ever!


Alexandria, Va.: Warren: Would you please (again) address the driving while distracted issue? I saw a guy putting on his shirt and tie while behind the wheel, every other driver is holding a cell phone to his/her ear, looking at something on the passenger seat, and my all time favorite turning their heads clear around to talk to passengers in the front seat and back. Can't people get that driving is serious business.

Warren Brown: All I can say, Alexandria, is that he'd better not try that in the United Kingdom. He could wind up with the U.S. equivalent of a $450 fine and six points against his license -- based on a distracted driving penalty recently given to UK motorists who was powdering her face and doing her hair at the U.S. equivalent of 32 miles per hour.

That's just dangerously nutty driving, folks. Stop it.


Washington, D.C.: Hello, Warren. I am a longtime Mercedes driver and I looked at the new S 550. Great looking car with a lot bells and whistles, also an $90,000 price tag. From what you know about the Lexus LS 460, should I wait to see it before deciding whether or not to buy the Mercedes. I keep hearing that the LS 460 is quite a package. Thanks!

Warren Brown: Yes, I would wait for the Lexus. I'm anxious to see if Lexus/Toyota takes the same high-tech -- almost over-the-top high-tech approach as Mercedes-Benz.


Akron, Ohio: Warren,

I read your article about GM's market troubles and it got me thinking about Honda. Specifically, I look at the European Accord and wonder out loud why the European market gets such a great looking Accord while our Accord is a Frankenstein of a car that can't figure out what it wants to be. Seriously, it's the UGLIEST car I've ever seen from Honda. Yes, I know I can go out and buy the European Accord with an Acura badge here in the states, but I feel like I'm getting ripped off and paying extra for the "luxury" car brand. What are your thoughts on this? While your at it, why do the European and Asian markets always get the good stuff years before we do? Blunt Truths About GM's Market Troubles (Post, March 5)

Warren Brown: Historically, the Japanese and Europeans had intro'd their new models in home markets, worked out the kinks, and then shipped them abroad to the North American market as "new," where they're often perceived as trouble-free because any trouble they had was taken care of at home.

But while we're over here oohing and aahhing over the "new" models, the Europeans and Japanese busily are rolling out second and third iterations of the same cars which are, of course, better than what we're driving here.

But rapid developments in technology and approaches to platform engineers, especially global simultaneous engineering, is changing all of that. Soon, we will be getting what our overseas friends get, or at least more reasonable facsimiles of what they are getting.


Munich, Bavaria: Hello, Warren. Though I've never been to the USA I like your chat a lot. It's interesting to see the different attitudes and needs of U.S. and European drivers. Are there no French carmakers selling their vehicles in the States? You never talk about them. In Europe, they are pretty big and I thought they were operating worldwide.

Warren Brown: Hello, Munich:

No, the French are not selling in the U.S. at this point. Hard to even find a used Peugeot.

But, who knows? Washington and Paris are talking again, getting downright chummy as a matter of fact.

And the French car companies finally understand that Americans want things such as air bags and interiors that can withstand the brutality of a summer Phoenix sun, and engines that can cope with the privations of an Anchorage winter.

They'll be back.

Who knows, if they return before the current administration leaves, we can call the French rides Freedom Cars which we will drive to Liberty Fast Food Joints and order hamburgers and Freedom Fries.


Warren Brown: Wow! Time flies when you are having fun. Thanks for visiting. Here's hoping to see you all next week. Take care. God bless. Drive carefully, and smile.

P.S. Lunch time, Ria.


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