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Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, January 26, 2007; 11:00 AM

Warren Brown has covered the car industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

Brown test drives all types of cars, from luxury sedans to the newest minivans and hybrids. His On Wheels auto reviews are lively, detailed accounts of cars' good and bad qualities.

Brown's Car Culture column addresses the social, political and economic trends of the industry.

Brown comes online Fridays 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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New Market, Md.: Good day, Warren. Thank you for all the insightful information about the car industry. Your programs are wonderful resources.

My question concerns options in the small to mid-size SUV categories. I drive a 2005 RAV-4 and am pleased with the fuel economy and the reliability. I need more space in the cargo area than the RAV has, but still need to have the best fuel economy possible. My driving consists of about 100 miles per day in mixed city/highway environments.

What vehicles would you recommend that will give me the approximate capacity of a Highlander or a Santa Fe but still retain good fuel mileage?

Thank you!

Warren Brown: Good morning, New Market:

I like the 2007 Subaru Forester 2.5X AWD wagon, which starts at around $21,000. It comes with a 2.5-liter boxer engine (horizontally opposed cylinder banks). The engine is longitudinally mounted. With the standard 5-speed manual transmission, it gets about 20 mpg city and 27 mpg hwy using regular unleaded gasoline. Cargo capacity is , I think, 69 cubic feet.

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Fairfax, Va.: Hi, Warren. Hybrids ... will I have to buy a new battery in several years for several $1000? Someone told me that the disposal of these batteries are bad for the environment.

Hybrid SUV ... good idea or not? Please give advantages and disadvantages of hybrids in general. I am thinking Toyota/Lexus SUV and Lincoln MKX has one. Thanks.

Warren Brown: Hello, Fairfax:

Hybrids, be they sedans, SUVs, or trucks, are good ideas. They constitute one of many approaches to reducing our dangerous dependence on oil. Inasmuch as there is not, never was, and never will be anything such as a free lunch in energy usage and its resultant waste, all of the alternatives involve certain tradeoffs. There is no such thing as a trouble-free, cost-free, trade-off free energy source. It is important for the American electorate and their putative political leaders to know that.

As for the particulars of your question:

Yes, of course,there is an environmental downside to battery disposal. Many companies right now are trying to figure out how to limit that downside through recycling and other forms of reuse--all of which require some expenditure of energy.

From a practical consumer perspective, yes, at the moment, it will cost a couple of thousand dollars, perhaps more, to replace the current generation of nickel metal hydride battery packs in 1st and 2nd generation hybrids, such as the Toyota Prius.

But there is something else consumers should consider:

Today's hybrids are as obsolete as today's iPods and laptops. Why? Because the moment you start moving into electronics, sensors, computers, et cetera, technology progresses rapidly.

For example, today's nickel metal hydride battery packs will be obsolete by tomorrow's lithium-ion,lithium-phosphate and lithium-magnesium battery packs.

From my view, that has to have a negative effect on the future resale value of today's hybrids.

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Herndon, Va.: We're looking for a mid-size crossover to replace my wife's aging Explorer ... something along the lines of the Toyota Highlander, Mitsubishi Outlander or Ford Edge. She'd like a well equipped model (leather, Nav system, etc.) and I want it to be safe, reliable and (hopefully) a little bit sporty. Plus I'd like to keep it close to $30,000 -- what would be your first choice?

Warren Brown: Hello, Herndon:

Currently, my first tall wagon choices include all of the GM Trio--Buick Enclave, Saturn Outlook, and GMC Acadia. Here's why: All three can seat eight adults comfortably for 50-miles at least. Longer driving distances tend to be more comfortable with fewer people in any vehicle. All three have exquisitely crafted interiors with side and head air bags. All three have very decent drive trains that provide enough power to get you into traffic court without draining enough fuel to land you in bankruptcy court. All three are available with more fuel-efficient two-wheel-drive, or more traction-assisting all-wheel-drive. Electronic stability control is standard in all three.

If you have an anti-GM Jones, it's in your best interest to get over it when shopping for tall wagons/crossovers.

If you neither need nor want seating for eight, and if you really want style, then, yes, consider the Ford Edge, the excellent new 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander, the very sporty Mazda CX-7. I also like the Highlander, an excellent technical piece of work. But the Highlander's exterior and interior styling bores me silly.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Warren,

Are the 2007 Saturn Aura and 2008 Chevy Malibu based on the same vehicle? If so, should I buy now or wait for the Chevy. Is it going to have better features?

Warren Brown: Yes, the Aura and Malibu share the same basic platform. That said, the two, through the magic of computer assisted design, have distinctly different personalities and appeal. I have driven the Aura in its various forms and have found them all, even the base XE, very much to my liking. I have yet to drive the new Malibu.

The Aura seems aptly named--a mainstream family sedan that has the aura and persona of a much more expensive vehicle, yet is priced from $20,00 to $24,000 in rounded numbers. Vehicle ride and handling, interior fit and finish, even the exhaust note say you are in a much more expensive car. I like that. It's about time that GM has done something like that.

The new Malibu has a bit more edginess in exterior styling. But it also embraces the approach of looking more expensive than it is.

If I sound giddy about all of this, it's because I am. I always knew that American car companies could compete in this league if they got off their butts and showed some chutzpah. GM is beginning to do that, and that is a very good thing.

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Springfield, Va.: We are a family of four with a need to carry an additional two passengers. What SUV or crossover would you recommend? Price is not a factor ... reliability, style, good resale and low maintenance are key.

We have a 2000 Town and Country minivan valued at $10,000.

Your thoughts?

Warren Brown: Hello, Springfield:

I refer you to my current ranking of tall wagons/crossovers. Again, at the moment, top billing goes to the GM trio of Saturn Outlook, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, all of which can accommodate eight people, all of which have electronic stability control and decent gasoline mileage.

If you don't need eight seats, most certainly consider the Toyota Highlander, Ford Edge, Mitsubishi Outlander, Mazda CX-7. I particularly like the Outlander because of its excellent attention to detail, overall ride and handling and very reasonable price.

Chrysler has a new 2008 Town and Country minivan with very clever swivel seats that children are going to love. I haven't driven the newest Town and Country; but here's suggesting that you might want to hold on to your current model until you have a chance to give the new one a good look. Possible trade-in.

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I'll push my foreign car before I buy another American car: Warren,

How can the American automakers say their cars are just as good as the others when they still insist on using drum brakes ? Drum brakes should have been forgotten years ago.

Also, they should not make airbags optional. Why nickel and dime the consumer? I believe if they build a better car, people will buy them. But as long as they continue to ping the buyer for things that should be standard they are going to be second fiddle.

Warren Brown: Well, keep on pushing, because I don't know what you are talking about. All American cars with drum brakes? Baloney. All foreign cars with disc brakes? More baloney. I humbly suggest that you do a detailed reading of the specs of all cars listed on The Washington Post site, www.cars.com, or on www.kbb.com, or on www.edmunds.com. And then come back and admit what you are sure to find out, which is that you are wrong.

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Paris: As a new owner of a secondhand car I was glad to see last week that you think the Toyota Yaris is a good value. I haven't owned a car in a long time but decided to buy one for a 20 kilometer commute. I was lucky to find a Yaris for sale that was a little over a year old so still covered by the three year guarantee. It drives well and is especially easy to handle in narrow spaces. The front wheel drive is perhaps the reason. One disappointment is despite the fact that the package includes luxuries such as air conditioning and a nice leather stick shift the carmaker's radio/CD player has no jack for connecting an iPod or MP3 player. Do you know if these things can be rewired to use the car's speakers? Thanks for the chat.

Warren Brown: Hello, Paris:

I don't know if you are in Paris, Texas, or Paris, France. If in Texas, take your car to Best Buy and speak to their mobile electronics people, who lately have impressed me with their ability to turn automobiles of all sorts into rolling sound studios. If in France, find a Best Buy equivalent. As for the Yaris, I love that little car. But in the mini-car category, my favorite remains the zippy, trippy Honda Fit Sport.

But, here's waiting for the eventual arrival of the Smart For Two. Really looking forward to playing with that one.

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Tenleytown: Warren: I need a little excitement in my life - heck, I drive a 1989 Camry -- at least it's a V6. What are the three (more or less) most exciting cars or events to see at the auto show?

Warren Brown: Hello, Tenleytown:

At 59, my definition of automotive excitement has changed dramatically. I'm less enthralled by bling and more exited by the promised zing of alternative fuel technology and alternative propulsion system, without which the cars of the future and the exhibits that fete them will be the moral equivalents of dead bodies at wakes.

But if you're in to the more traditional version of automotive excitement, by all means check out the Nissan Rogue (wonderfully weird and sassy), Chevrolet Camaro concept coupe, and the Ferrari lineup from Eastern's Automotive. And if you want to look at some truly hip stuff, stop by Automotive Rhythms Magazine's 2007 Urban Restylin' "Flip Your Whip" blings-the-thing clinic.

Disclosure note: I am a senior editor of Automotive Rhythms.

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Baltimore, Md.: Warren,

I've read a few of your chats and you've complained that you can't find tires for your Mini. Have you tried your Mini dealer? I work for a BMW/Mini dealer and we keep in stock a wide selection of tires. And BMW/Mini has their own local tire source for tires we don't stock. Usually can have non-stock tires same day.

Warren Brown: Hello, Baltimore.

I found tires for my Mini at a price $120 below that charged by "my" Mini dealer, who would have had to special-order them like anybody else.

I special-ordered the required tire through Merchant Tire.

I then took the tire to my trusted Sunoco station in Arlington, where it was promptly and professionally installed at a completely acceptable price.

Now, this is what I have to say to the area's Mini dealers:

Clean up your customer service act.

It stinks.

You need to give customers the information they need and want when they want it the way they want it.

You need to be more interested in customer retention than you are in maximum gross per customer repair visit.

I like the Mini car.

I HATE Mini USA's customer service experience.

Keep it up, and you all will wind up mini-car players in a maxi-sales auto world.

Clean up your act!!

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How does Ford sell nearly three million vehicles and lose nearly $13 billion dollars?

Warren Brown: Very simple.

A billion at a time.

A billion here to buy out tens of thousands of workers with expensive health and welfare benefits packages.

Several billion there to close down the places where those workers worked.

A billion here to re-skin and otherwise re-work an overly plush Ford F-150 pickup truck introduced several years ago, and that lost a couple of hundred million on its own in poor sales.

Several billion through betting way too heavily on the nonsense that cheap gasoline and high horsepower are forever.

A billion lost through not having enough small cars.

Several billion in needed investments in the research and development of alternative fuel models, which will pay off in the future.

And hundreds of millions through patently stupid executive practices, such as using corporate jets to fly home on weekends.

A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you've lost a record $12.7 billion.

Methinks they've learned their lesson.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: How hard is it to install an after market navigation system? I've preordered the AVIC-D3 already for my brand new 2007 Highlander and I've never installed anything myself.

Warren Brown: Again, Gaithersburg, check out those Best Buy people, or someone like them.

As for me and my cars, I'm simply going to buy a portable Garmin and be done with it.

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Clifton, Va.: New Market Consider the new 2007 RAV4 which is larger than your 2005.

Warren Brown: You are right, Clifton. As usual, thanks.

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Clifton, Va.: There is also a downside for the environment and workers making the batteries in countries where there are no environmental laws to protect the environment or any laws to protect the health of the workers. Making batteries involves using metals which can cause more harm to the environment than the emissions from an internal combustion engine and the emissions from these plants is far more dangerous.

And by the way, in the U.S. most of our electric power comes from very dirty electric plants. Plug in hybrids cleaner -- maybe and maybe not!

Growing corn and other plant material for ethanol consumes more energy than it saves!

Warren Brown: You, know, Clifton, I and some people from Ford Motor Company recently spoke with some fourth graders at Glebe Elementary School in Arlington who had ideas better than yours on these points.

The kids reasoned that it is a lot easier to control air pollution at a stationary source than it is to control it emanating from myriad mobile sources. An electric plant is a stationary source.

The kids reasoned that federal and international trade laws will have to be put in place to make sure that the people making and disposing those batteries, here or in foreign countries, are all protected by the same high health and safety standards.

Now, Clifton, if kids can display that kind of common sense, what the heck is wrong with you adults?

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Washington, D.C.: Warren, should I come to the car show on Saturday? If I do, what should I be sure not to miss? Where's the Post booth?

Warren Brown: You should come to see me and my wonderful assistant, Ria Manglapus, at The Washington Post booth in the main hall (top exhibit floor) of the Washington Convention Center. We will be there from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m..

You most certainly are invited to come earlier, from 9 am to 11 am, and be on hand for my talk show, "Warren's Pit Stop," Washington Post Radio, WTWP, 1500 A.M., 107.7 F.M., co-hosted with the talented, brilliant, perspicacious J.J. Gertler. Check with the guards to find out where to find us at the convention center because, at this moment, we don't know ourselves.

Find us. Come on by. We'll put you on the radio.

Or call us at 1-877-POST-1077. That's 1-877-POST-1077. Got that? Call us. We need you. You make the show. It's YOUR show.--1-877-POST-1077, and forget all of the wrong numbers I gave you in the past.

As for the D.C. show itself, heck, come on down. Look around. Stop by the WTWP radio booth or The Washington Post booth and tell us what YOU think is most important.

Now, let us end this session the usual way.

Okay?

1, 2, 3....

EAT LUNCH, RIA!!

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