Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Wednesday, July 5, 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.

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Washington, D.C.: In your column this past Sunday, you barely addressed the features of the Audi sport wagon but instead dwelled on class differences between the poor folks you drove past in West Virginia and the folks who can afford to buy the car. What does any of that have to do with the car? Do you think readers really care about your political views? If you're so bothered by the fact that not everyone can afford every car, don't constantly select Euro-luxury cars to "review."

washingtonpost.com: Here's this week's review of the 2006 Audi A6 Avant Quattro 3.2 wagon: Handling the Curves and the Social Implications , (Post, July 2)

Warren Brown: Tut, tut...and baloney. Exactly what feature of the Audi A6 was missing from my review? I can't seem to find anything significant, and neither can the people at Audi. Instead, you seem to be upset by my simple observation that America abounds in communities where cars like the A6 are not affordable and where things such as health insurance, moderately priced housing and a decent education aren't affordable. Indeed, your criticism smacks of the nonsense that a car review should only concern the nuts and bolts of the car as opposed to the socio-political environment in which it is developed, bought, sold and operated. I humbly suggest that if you desire that sort of automotive fare, you might be better off reading Car and Driver, or some other buff book. I rather see things differently. But you do have a good point--one that I intend to heed. I will start featuring more affordable vehicles, as well as more domestic models in my column. Meanwhile, if you want a $60,000 car, then go and buy one and enjoy it.

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Portsmough, Va.: Warren,

When will the Camaro come out? Ford's really selling the Mustangs.

Are they going to quit on the GTO? I have yet to see one on the road.

Warren Brown: No official announcement from GM, but the word on the industry street is that the reborn Camaro will see light as a 2008 or 2009 model. What's certain is that GM will produce the Camaro inasmuch as DaimlerChrysler is going ahead with the Dodge Challenger and Ford, as you've pointed out, is having no problem at all selling Mustangs. On the GTO, I just don't know. If someone out there does, please chime in.

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Portland, Oregon: Warren,

Why no turbos on GM sports cars ? The Sky and G6 could sure use one with that sad little four-banger.

Warren Brown: More powerful engines coming for those cars in 2007/2008. Turbos? Possibly, but probably not for these babies. Expect larger displacement fours or the addition of V-6s.

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Boston, Mass.: Warren,

When are they going to put more motor in the H3? My neighbor took me on a test drive and I was appalled at the lack of presence on the open road.

He's got the same number of cylinders as my Volvo, and he's probably 1500 lbs heavier.

Warren Brown: Hello, Boston:

The midsize Hummer H3 shares a platform with the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado pickup trucks and thus comes with the same 220-hp, inline five-cylinder engine used by those models. All three vehicles are compromises with the reality of a market that wants a tough-looking, tough-acting trucks at 1950s gasoline prices. GM, at the moment, seems to be having no problem selling the H3 exactly for that reason. But there is a drumbeat of criticism such as yours. My hunch is that if those drums start beating loudly, GM will listen and respond with a more robust engine for the H3. It's business.

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Clifton, Va.: Daimler Chrysler officially announced the Dodge Challenger this weekend at the Pepsi 400 for 2008 I believe. What the Challenger and Camaro need to do is trim down the weight and drop about 500 lbs off the Stangs weight. The current GT500 weighs as much as 550i. GT500 also suffers from all its horses not being up to par!

Warren Brown: As always, Clifton, we thank you.

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Baltimore, Md.: Warren, I'm an avid Honda fan and am nonplussed with the look of the new Accord. I am, however, in love with the Acura TL. Please tell me what you think of this car and if it's silly to pay more for a Honda in disguise. Thanks so much!

Warren Brown: Hello, Baltimore:

I commend you on your honesty, which should stand you in good stead as you drive the more expensive TL--truly an Accord in disguise--but just a much better looking Accord. Both are excellent cars. Paying more to satisfy the heart's need for beauty is a good and noble thing. Common sense does not apply here any more than it applies in any other aspect of passion, loving and being loved. Buy and enjoy. You know what you are doing...and why.

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Laurel, Md.: What's the skinny on the Honda Fit? I read it only gets 33/38 mpg. Is this unexpected? For some reason, I thought it would be much closer to 40 for the city.

It seems like a great "fit" for my family: small, back seat can be for the baby seat, while putting the other one down and having extra cargo room. I don't need a big SUV.

Many thanks, Warren.

Warren Brown: Hello, Laurel:

The Honda Fit, 19.3 inches shorter than the Honda Civic, previously the smallest car sold by Honda in the United States, gets 33 mpg city and 38 mpg highway with the five-speed manual transmission and 31 mpg city and 38 mpg highway with the available five-speed automatic. That's pretty good mileage, I think. The car is perfect for suburban-urban commuting. Fits easily into congested city parking spaces. My product evaluation assistant, Ria Manglapus, was able to do as much in the FIT hauling her two sons and all of their stuff as she did in her Honda Odyssey minivan. However, her boys complained that the Fit's rear quarters were not all that fitting for their rapidly growing frames.

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New Sedona Owner, Va.: Just wanted to thank you for the review on the Sedona. Just bought one last Friday after test driving the Grand Caravan and certified used Odyssey's and Sienna's. Ended up with the EX because you can't get the power sliding doors on the LX. Love it!!! Can't beat a safe, smooth ride and a 10 year warranty. It already makes errands much easier with the kids. And every dealer I went to handed out your review as if I don't read The Post!

Warren Brown: I'm happy that you are happy. The Sedona is my favorite minivan, considering its overall engineering, craftsmanship, safety, product quality and price. If ANYTHING goes wrong with your Sedona, you know where to find me. I know where to find those dealers who've been handing out my review. Enjoy!

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Kansas City, Missouri: My daughter has a 1999 Pontiac Sunfire that needs a used engine. I have been told various things by different people, so I am going to the real source. It is the 2.4 L size, and some people say you can replace that with a Chevy Cavalier, or Pontiac Grand Prix motors. Can you give me some guidance? Thanks in advance.

Warren Brown: Hello, Kansas City:

GM's Ecotec 2.4-liter, inline four-cylinder, 145-horsepower engine has been used in the Chevrolet Cavalier; and it is used now in the Chevrolet Cobalt, which replaced the Cavalier, as well as in the Pontiac Solstice roadster, and as the base engine in the Pontiac G6, which replaced the Pontiac Grand Prix that also used that engine. In short, the 2.4-liter inline four engine from any one of those models can be used as a replacement engine in your daughter's Chevrolet Cavalier. Good luck. Please let us know what you all decide and how things turn out.

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Herndon, Va.: Car and Driver as well as a lot of others, allow all of us, with no chance of owning such high price rides, to pretend just for a moment. On the other hand, for anyone trying to decide between that Camry or Accord or F150 pick-up there are also plenty of sources. You don't need to meet any set of our needs, just keep on doing whatever as well as you can. If indeed you do lack in the nuts and bolts department there are other sources out there and the worse we can do is place all our interest in just one source.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Herndon.

My approach is simple--to give my audience as wide a selection of vehicles as possible, to provide the fantasy of the unattainable and the practical information needed to acquire the affordable.

But I think I have to do more than that.

Neither the automobile industry nor the many vehicles it produces operate in a vacuum. What is made, sold, and driven exists within the framework of a social, environmental, and political order. It is sheer folly to ignore those things as if one somehow does not in some way affect the other. We live in a connected world, like it or not.

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Louisville, Kentucky: It's too bad you were told to leave politics out of these chats. I always enjoyed hearing your voice and opinion. Please let us know if you ever branch out from car reviews and into other topics.

Warren Brown: I have an unfortunate (for me) habit of seldom doing what I am told.

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Crystal City, Va.: For the person asking about the Sky. GM is putting a turbo engine into the 2007 Saturn Sky Redline and the Pontiac Soltice GXP.

I read the Chevrolet is putting a displacement on demand V6 in the 2007 Impala. Do you know when this will hit the showrooms?

Warren Brown: My information is fall of 2007 for model-year 2008. But I will check that.

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Germantown, Md.: What are the chances that GM will work a deal with Renault and Nissan? Every time they go outside (Fiat, Saab) they fail.

Warren Brown: First, my apologies to all of you for the interruption. If my Lenovo/IBM neighbor is reading this: Well, yes, now I need to place an order. My laptop just crashed. Kaput! So, we gotta talk about a new one.

Anyway, Nissan and GM. Not at all likely at this writing. Kerkorian and Jerry York again, two old guys from Tracinda Corporation who have more money than God and who are good at buying and breaking up companies but awfully lousy at running them. Anything can happen in this wacky world, but I'd be surprised to find anyone at GM wacky enough to go along with this idea other than, perhaps, a possible joint venture.

Program note: Unless the editors kick me off, we'll stay on until 1 p.m. today.

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Lansing, Mich.: I appreciate your insights and views on new vehicles. What do you think of the Chevy Impala SS? I noted you reviewed the base/mid model a while back and felt it was as good as its foreign-branded competition.

Any ideas regarding incentives? GM keeps saying that they won't offer what they did last year -- that they've already reduced base prices from last year's levels -- but it seems to me that sales are almost as bad this year and that Ford and DCX appear to be offering sweeter incentives than GM at present. Given the market -- not sure GM won't be eating some crow soon.

Warren Brown: GM saying it won't offer incentives is like me saying I won't have another Dr. Pepper, which I'm not supposed to drink but am addicted to swallowing. When I stop drinking Dr. Pepper, GM will stop offering incentives. The likelihood is that neither one of those things will happen anytime soon. So, yeah, GM will eat crow on this one.

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Vienna, Va.: I am most disappointed that Ford has apparently decided to throw in the towel on hybrid technology. We love our Prius but have been hoping that by the time we buy our next car, to replace our 13-year-old Escort, we would be able to get a truly full-efficient Ford. How could they weenie out and jump on the worthless Ethanol bandwagon? What are your thoughts?

Warren Brown: Hello, Vienna:

My thoughts on this issue contradict yours.

First, Ford has not thrown in the towel on technology.

Second, Ford will continue making gas-electric and possibly diesel-electric vehicles, or at least sourcing them (the diesel-electrics) from other manufacturers (Citroen, perhaps).

Third, E85 is not at all a "weenie" or a "worthless technology" as any number of real-world demonstrations of the use of that and other alcohol-related technologies amply show.

Fourth, science and engineering are not one-trick ponies, as opposed to the media's all-too-frequent embrace of silver-bullet thinking and the tendency of politicians who should know better to make public policy based on errant headlines.

Fifth, as has been amply demonstrated in France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, China--I could go on--people who know what they are doing in the movement away from oil know that, certainly for the time being, we are going to need multiple alternative approaches as opposed to one.

Sixth, gas-electric hybrids are no more than an interim alternative technology in a move to something better. Even Toyota knows that, which is why that company now is selling as many traditional ICE vehicles as it possibly can to build a bank to fund future technologies--which, by the way, exactly is what Ford is doing.

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Capitol Hill: Hi Warren:

Is it true what I saw last week - will we finally be getting the SMART car here in the U.S.? Will it be the same two-seater that's seen all over Europe?

Thanks and keep up the good work!

Warren Brown: Hello, Capitol Hill:

Yes.

Here's the summary of Daimler-Chrysler's proposed U.S, Smart intro for model-year 2008:

. Start with the For Two model, the one sold all over Europe, intro'd in the U.S. in big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, District of Columbia, Los Angeles.

. Initially intro gasoline only, which should still get about 60--repeat--60 miles per gallon. (Smart also has a Bosch-diesel-powered version and, at least several weeks ago at the Challenge Bibendum in Paris, was showing off a gas-electric hybrid model).

. Use the Penske retail chain, the second largest dealership chain in the United States and perhaps the most knowledgeable in things automotive (it is Penske, after all) to distribute the Smart For Two. Using the Penske distribution system should help alleviate the many distribution problems Smart ran into in Europe.

Note: Smart has lost several billion dollars since its European introduction in 1998. Daimler-Chrysler was about to snuff it, but stayed execution in the midst of rising oil prices.

Smart Four Four is dead. Smart roadster won't be sold stateside anytime soon.

Seems like rising gasoline prices have saved Smart's life and might finally put the little car (9 feet long)on the road to profitability.

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Baltimore, Md.: Warren:

I'm in the market for a used high-end convertible, Mercedes or BMW. Which is your pick?

Warren Brown: Seriously, either brand should make you happy. I mean, that's like deciding which side of heaven you'd prefer to inhabit.

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Hybrids and HOV lanes.: What is your opinion with Va.'s new HOV law and hybrids? Why differentiate between hybrid owners based on year bought. I thought all whole idea was that citizens took the advice of lawmakers and the media, bought their hybrids to take advantage of the tax break, HOV and other stuff. Also thought the whole idea of HOV lanes was to get people to car pool and reduce congestion.

Warren Brown: I am a very proud resident of the Great State of Virginia; and the Virginia Assembly's latest action on HOV lanes is one of the many reasons I'm proud to live there. The new ruling is fair. It makes sense.

1. Why differentiate between hybrids bought one year versus those bought July 1, 2006 and afterwards?

Ans. It's a basic matter of fair play. The media in its foolishness and certain lawmaker's anxious to make hay out of media hype promised people that if they bought a gas-electric hybrid, they would get all kinds of publicly sponsored goodies, including single-occupancy access to HOV lanes during HOV hours. A promise made is a promise kept no matter how goofy the promise.

2. The Assembly, under sober reflection, (I mean, c'mon, we've all done some awfully stupid things.), realized that it made no sense whatsoever to give single-occupancy access to hybrid vehicle drivers during HOV hours. Granting that kind of access defeats the purpose of the current generation hybrids (which do their best work in tight, congested urban traffic where the electric motor takes over) and HOV lanes (which are meant to relieve congestion by putting more than one person in a car during high traffic hours).

Now we need the good, smart, forward-thinking members of the Virginia Assembly to come up with a statewide (or, at least we here feasible) mass transportation system. It'll cost lots of money. But in the long run, it makes a heck of a lot more sense than the endless building of roads that lead to the next fuel-wasting traffic jam.

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Glen Burnie, Md.: I glad that you do reviews for all cars no matter what socio-class they fit in. It's nice to have a good perspective on all the cars on the road out there so we as consumers can make good decisions!

Warren Brown: Thank you, Glen Burnie.

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Anonymous: Let's all give $1 so that Warren can get a better laptop.

Warren Brown: Sorry, can't accept that. But I appreciate the though. Besides, the Post does pay wonderfully well. I'll buy that IBM. I have a neighbor in the business.

Thanks for joining me today, folks. Take care. God bless. See you all next week.

Just got your note, Ria.

I'm signing off.

You eat lunch, too.

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