Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Wednesday, April 12, 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.


Washington, D.C.: If I live in D.C. where should I buy a car?  Which area has the best taxes?

Warren Brown: Good morning, everybody. Greetings from the New York International Auto Show where the Internet and everything else works, thank God!

So, Washington, here's the deal: If you live in D.C., per se, you don't have that many choices because you don't have that many dealerships. That leaves Maryland and Virginia, where you will find the preponderance of the area's 226 or so dealerships. My hunch is that Va. is easier on the taxes -- except, well, there is always Arlington County, which tries to tax every single thing.

For best guidance, check with the Center for the Study of Services in D.C., which publishes the very excellent Washington Consumer Checkbook.


Charleston, W.V.: Hi Warren,

I would like to move up to the near luxury class of automobile. On my salary, it's going to have to be a used car. My question is: would you recommend a used (three to four years old) Saab or a used Volvo? I like either the Saab 9-3 or 9-5 or the Volvo S60 or S80. Comments?

Warren Brown: Both are good Swedes fully funded by American companies --GM for Saab and Ford for Volvo. Both have excellent overall passive safety --crash safety -- records. And both also are pretty good in terms of active safety, which is avoiding the crash in the first place.

However, Saab might offer a better deal for reasons having more to do with name recognition than actual quality. Fact is, people don't know Saab as well as they know Volvo, which means, in the perverse logic of the marketplace, dealers are apt to charge more for Volvo than they charge for Saab.

But I'd hurry on that one, because the latest crop of Saab cars are bound to improve favorable name recognition for the brand.


Geneva, N.Y.: Warren: Toyota RAV 4 or Jeep Liberty? This is not for off-roading, simply driving around the city. I love the look and price of the jeep, but I've always been told that if you buy a new car, there's no reason not to buy a Toyota.

Warren Brown: There are any number of reasons not to buy a Toyota, and the Jeep Liberty ($21,040 to $25,990), also available with a 160 hp turbodiesel (noisy on startup, but very fuel efficient), is one of them. For that matter, so is the quite well done Chevrolet Equinox ($21,400 to $23,900).

None of this is to say that the new, larger RAV4 is not a good crossover SUV. It is. But, all things considered, including value for dollar, it is no longer necessarily the best in its category. People who claim otherwise are people who know nothing about the competition.


Washington, D.C.: I'm going to be heading to grad school this summer and I've recently found out that I'm going to need to buy a car. I've been out of college for two years now and I have no experience buying cars.

I'm going to school in N.Y. state. Should I buy a car here in the D.C. area or wait until I get to N.Y. Will I have an easier time getting a car loan now that I have a job as opposed to this summer when I'm in school?

And lastly what type of used car would you suggest looking for in the $5000 price range?

Warren Brown: A Toyota Echo, Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cavalier -- say, five to seven years old. I've driven all of those in the harsh winter environment of Syracuse, N.Y. Check around to be certain. Check with Carmax, local dealers. In fact, I know....well....I can't say that. Just check.


Washington, Va.: I am confused. It seems that most hybrid models do their thing in stop and go traffic and then revert to being all gas on highways. If I am looking for good mileage/less emissions on the highway is my best bet a clean diesel engine such as Mercedes's CDI? Thanks very much!

Warren Brown: You are not confused at all. Judging from your comment/question, you understand perfectly well. I wish I could say the same thing for many of my media colleagues who are all agog over what they think is a silver-bullet technology that, when all of the figuring is done, is little more than an excellently polished piece of brass.


Germantown, Md.: Hi, Warren. I'm looking at a Saab 92x Aero and wanted safety information. NHTSA actually tested a Subaru Impreza and used that for their results for the Saab. Saab claims that they have made safety improvements to this vehicle. How do I find out how safe this car really is?

Warren Brown: Unfortunately, Germantown, the only way to find out how safe a vehicle really is is to do what the engineers/technicians at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety do: Crash it. But we don't want to go there, do we?

But you're on the right track. The 92X essentially is a pinstriped and tufted version of the Impreza WRX. Both are small vehicles in a world where size still matters. (Keep in mind that all safety ratings are based on crashes involving vehicles of similar size, weight and geometry). All bets are off, for the most part, when something smaller meets something larger in a collision, although any number of mitigating influences favorably can affect those outcome as well).

But I'd have no worries about the 92X or the Impreza WRX. Wear your seat belts and use common sense. Doing those things will increase your margin of safety.


Seattle, Wa.: Can you explain why I would really be better off with all-wheel drive? Or can I skip it, as is my instinct? I live on a very steep hill in a city where it rains six months a year.

Here's the thing, for the last three years, I've been driving an AWD Subaru, long enough to decide that for me, the added "gripp-i-ness" feel of the all-wheel is not worth the trade off in start-from-zero acceleration, fuel economy and overall plodding feel.

I read a lot about safety, security, traction, rain, snow, etc. etc. as the advantages. And perhaps they are.

And on the other hand, there's my own experience. Before my current AWD car, I lived in very snowy and/or wet places -- Minnesota and the like -- and I did perfectly well with your basic American or Japanese front-wheel-drive sedans. Seriously, four years in Minnesota with a Plymouth Acclaim and no spin outs, near misses, hydroplaning -- that I know of.

Can you enlighten me? I'm not enthralled but am willing to admit I'm missing some nuances. Thanks!

P.S. What's the deal with the 2007 Passat: a step in the right direction, or a loss of precision?

Warren Brown: Frankly, Seattle, you've answered your own question. A good front-wheel-drive car with engine weight over wheel will do just fine in mot cases. The proliferation of AWD has more to do with what I call IRP -- Insurance Retail Phenomenon. As many of us have learned in dealing with medical and property casualty insurance companies, insurers do a heck of a lot better at selling "peace of mind" at premium prices than they do in settling claims. Isn't that right Aetna Healthcare? Isn't that right all of you insurers of Katrina damage who are reinterpreting your policies to mean that coverage, ah, gee, only applies to rain and wind damage as opposed to flood damage?

Anyway, AWD is a lot like insurance. Most of us buy it for peace of mind. But it won't keep you from slipping on truly icy roads; and, yes, under many circumstances, less-expensive front-wheel-drive would be just as good. You pay more for AWD -- a higher premium, so to speak. But what you get in return isn't necessarily that much. Isn't that right again, Aetna Healthcare?


Charlottesville, Va.: Diesel versus hybrid? What are the future costs and prospects for each technology in the U.S.?. Why has U.S. diesel production lagged so far behind Europe?

Warren Brown: First, Charlottesville, look for increased availability of diesel vehicles in the United States, soon. A number of samples are on the floor here at the New York International Auto Show. Now that the Environmental Protection Agency requires the production of super-low-sulfur diesel in America, the stuff advanced diesel-powered vehicles need, look for more of them to start rolling in.

Hybrids? They constitute rapidly changing interim technology. Look at batteries: Current generation hybrids primarily use nickel metal hydride packs, which are large, heavy, generally cumbersome. Those NMH packs soon will be obsolete by lithium-ion battery packs -- smaller, lighter, more power, but generally less tolerant of abuse in the vehicle's operating environment. So, the current push is to make the lithium-ion batteries more robust. What does that mean for the resale value of cars with NMH batteries? Hmmmm.

Also, two studies, one of them by Consumer Reports, revered by me and so many of you, show that both the operating and wheel-to-well costs of current generation hybrids actually exceed the costs of traditional fossil-fuel models. Wheel-to-well means the total energy cost -- how much to produce, equip, ship, operate, maintain and recycle the vehicle after its useful road life.


Raleigh, N.C.: Hi, Warren.

Browsing through the 2006 Consumer Reports Car Report I noticed that the car I purchased last year, a 2005 Ford Focus Wagon, made this years dreaded list of "used cars to avoid." Only the Wagon made the list, not the sedan or hatchback. Ironically, last year when I bought the car it was was a "Recommended Buy" by CR and it is again for 2006. They even single out the versatile Wagon for praise, just as they did last year. They offer no explanation in the magazine how one model of car could fall from grace so quickly while its mechanically identical stablemates don't. What do you think?

I've had no problems at all with my Focus Wagon and I'm very happy with it.

Warren Brown: I rest my case.


Tyson's Corner, Va.: You wrote in your column weekend before last that the 2007 Yukon (non-Denali) will get 22 MPG highway. You don't actually believe this, do you?

Warren Brown: Yes, the same way I believe that hybrids get the high mileage they're touted to get.

Now, here's how you get it out of the active engine management -- a.k.a. "displacement on demand" -- new Yukon. The trick is to keep the vehicle operating in its more fuel-efficient four-cylinder mode. How to do that? Drive the speed limit or lower. Accelerate slowly from stop. Decrease use of power-sapping devices, such as air conditioner. I tried that and got 21 mpg.

Of course, who drives that way regularly?


Fairfax, Va.: Re: Where to Buy in Metro Area

One thing to consider is that Maryland caps dealer processing fees at $100 (used to be $25), while Virginia has no cap. So if all other aspects of a deal are the same, a Maryland dealer can sometimes save you a couple hundred dollars in processing fees. (Note, though, that many dealers will negotiate on the fees.)

Warren Brown: Many thanks, Fairfax.


Washington, D.C.: Hiya, Warren. What is your learned opinion -- Chevy Silverado or Ford F150? Thanks!

Warren Brown: Democrat, or Republican. But the difference here is that both the Silverado and the F150 actually do something for you. Both work perfectly well. Both are good trucks. Shop for best deal. Too bad you can't do the same thing for elected officials. Oops. (I'm not supposed to be political here. Hee, hee. Like, what, I don't vote? Gimme a break!)


D.C. -- consumers don't care: So, do you really think Wal-Mart and maybe Costco and Sam's Club will eventually sell cheapie Chinese cars?

Warren Brown: Yes.

There's been much discussion on the issue between those and similar outlets and several Chinese car companies. Nothing at all firm or definite at this writing. I wish to emphasize that point. But the suggested approach makes sense. Wal-Mart has a superior distribution system, better than that of many car manufacturers and their franchised dealers. Wal-Mart also has lots and lots and lots of experience dealing with Chinese companies and the Chinese government.

According to several of my sources, Wal-Mart could -- and I emphasize, could --go the route of setting up a separate car distribution channel under a different name, but using all of Wal-Mart's considerable expertise in distribution and inventory management. Something to watch.

And, ah, don't expect those cheapie Chinese cars to stay cheapie very long. I've seen first-hand what the Chinese can do with automobiles. Believe me: They are every bit as good and as talented as everyone else. And they are very, very ambitious.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Warren. I'm looking to downgrade from my Toyota Camry XLE. I absolutely love it, but it's a bit too big for me now and I'm also looking for ways to cut some of my monthly bills (I currently pay $350 on a lease). The Corolla seems a little too small and basic. I have about $5K to put down on a new car (lease or to own). What would you recommend?

Warren Brown: Keeping your Camry, unless by "too big" you mean you have difficulty driving it, thus compromising your safety. Otherwise, I'd keep the Camry and do something else more remuneratively rewarding with my $5,000. You most likely will increase your overall vehicle expenses by switching out at this point.


Washington, D.C.: Do you know when we can see the 2007 CRV? Honda is keeping it under wraps. Any power train/horse power info?

Warren Brown: I think it's on the floor here in New York. I will check.


Lorton, Va.: Hi Warren: your article on what Detroit needs to do to recapture the buying public on Sunday was terrific.

Question: any sign of an Accord or Camry wagon making a reappearance, especially in a hybrid version? I saw an Accord wagon in a Japanese ad recently, and it was sharp! Will Honda put out a redesigned and hybrid CRV in 08? Thanks much.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Lorton. But it appears from everything I'm seeing here that Messrs. Toyota and Honda remain remarkably smitten by the notion of crossovers, those minivan-wagon-suv-truck-sedan thingies, as opposed to station wagons per se. But, yes, look for both of them to introduce/increase production of hybrids in the crossover genre.


McLean, Va.: For the person going to grad school in Syracuse, I agree with the suggestion of a used Corolla and would like to add the Mazda Protege as another strong candidate to consider.

Of course, when you're looking at a used car in the $5,000 price range, you'll need to carefully consider each individual car regardless of make/model -- there are some used Toyotas out there that have been beat around or poorly maintained, just as there are some used Hyundais that could be gems.

Warren Brown: Thank you, McLean.


Washington, D.C.: Speaking of New Yawk, what model cars do taxi drivers use?

Warren Brown: Still mostly Ford Crown Victoria models.


New York, N.Y.: Hi. I have a Mini Cooper s 2006. I am considering the adding the John Cooper kit to take from 190 HP to 205, but the cost is $5,000 and if I do on my own I void the whole car.

Any thoughts on this whole process?

Thank you

Warren Brown: Don't, unless you really are an enthusiast.


Vienna, Va.: Warren: what time of year do "last year's models" need to get off the lot to make room for next year's models? I always hear this in commercials but don't know when this typically happens -- is it August? I want to buy a car this year and would love to take advantage of deals that time of year might offer. Thanks.

Warren Brown: Those old in-put rules no longer apply, seriously. The industry has gone to year-round intros and withdrawals. Check around.


Warren Brown: That's it for today, folks. Gotta run. Thanks for joining me.

Eat lunch, Ria.


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