Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, April 13, 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.

____________________ This discussion will start momentarily.


Montgomery Village, Md.: What would be your take on the Mazda Speed 3 vs. a Volvo S-40 or Mini Cooper S? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Good morning. The Volvo S-40 is not quite a pocket-rocket, although it is available with a turbo charged 218-hp inline five engine. In the T5 version I think. But there's just something about the Volvo image that doesn't get the blood boiling in this league, especially at a price nearly $29,000 for the top model. I love the Mini-Cooper S. I'd skip the "Works" version which adds about $4,000 more to an already high Cooper S price. I'd go with the nifty Mazda3, which has all of the performance of the other two, none of the occasional reliability problems of the Cooper S, and is available at a lower price.


Boston, Mass.: Warren: Here's my observation, what do you think? It started out as wondering where have all the full-sized station wagons gone, spurred by this realization: a family friend has a BMW X3, and she's outgrown it, with her one kid plus one stroller! The X3 looks really big on the outside, much bigger than our Oldsmobile wagon growing up ('80s). But when I looked in the X3's trunk, it was not big at all. In fact, I remember the Olds' had about 4-5' of space, where the BMW had a max of 3'.

So I remember that in the '80s we had hatchbacks, station wagons, and minivans. But now, the family hauler class has changed to mini-wagons, small SUVs, and large SUVs and minivans. It's not that the cars have gotten that much bigger, but I guess the interplay between consumers and car manufactures has arrived at the fact that people like tall cars rather than long cars.

And this affirms your statements about tall-wagon/cross-overs as the new class of family haulers. Their arrival, to me, says that car buyers like tall vehicles, but not necessarily based on a truck frame. Do you have any comment on the evolution of family cars over the past 20 years?

Warren Brown: Hello, Boston:

Most sport-utility vehicles and all crossover utility models are used the way we once used station wagons in the 1950s--to haul lots of people and their stuff. But the fuel crises of the early 1970s came along and changed all of that. Congress, lacking prescience and wisdom, implemented Corporate Average Fuel Economy, which required automakers to sell new-vehicle fleets that met certain fuel economy standards, but did nothing to require or encourage consumers to buy them.

The upshot was the disappearance, for a while, of large station wagons and sedans that would've pushed car companies into the CAFE penalty lane.

But back then, both Democrats and Republicans labored under the notion that trucks should have lower fuel economy standards because trucks were used for blue-collar work and commercial hauling. And what Democrat would want to offend workers?

But a smart fella, named Lee Iaccocca, figured that trucks could be converted to minivans to carry people the same way station wagons once carried people--without running afoul of CAFE. It was a stroke of genius! Minivans begot sport-utility vehicles. SUVs begot crossover utility models. Thus, here we are today--largely thanks to the myopia of the federal government.

Now, minivans are passe, the butt of jokes on sitcoms such as "Notes From the Underbelly." Truck-based SUVs are a pain in the butt and the wallet. Car-based crossovers that look like truck-based SUVs are now all the rage. Funny world, ain't it?


"I love the Mini-Cooper S. I'd skip the "Works" version ...": Warren: Doesn't the Mini come with those ridiculous run flat tires? Who in their right mind would want those hard riding chunks of rubber?

Warren Brown: I could be wrong on this....but I'm almost certain that you can get the regular Cooper S without run-flats. And in defense of run-flats: If you understand the purpose of the technology and if you are not terribly sensitive of butt, you can appreciate them. They can run 50 miles or so at 50 miles per hour COMPLETELY deflated, allowing you to find safe haven for repair, unless you are out in the middle of some desert,


Lynchburg, Va.: Warren, we truly enjoy your work, particularly how you marry passion and pragmatism in your message.

We've read your recent articles on Hyundai with interest because we too are convinced that the manufacturer is not only building terrific cars but has the ability to surpass the established auto companies.

Hyundai captured our attention in 2001 with a marketing piece that invited us to test drive its new sedan, the XG 300. In return, we would receive a $100 gift certificate for Macy's or a free round of golf. We had a Legend and a Diamante that were both getting a little long in the tooth - so Hyundai hit a bull's eye by targeting us. We drove the car and thought it would be an ideal replacement when the time was right. We wound up buying the upgraded XG 350 the following year when the engine on the Mits started burning too much oil.

The XG has provided great service, reliability and value. However, the smoothness of an all-aluminum engine and the flexibility to better accommodate trips to Costco and Lowe's is drawing us to the Santa Fe or Veracruz.

Here's our question: What is the difference between the two models? We understand that one is labeled an SUV (although isn't the Santa Fe based on the Sonata chassis?) and the other a crossover, but we're not clear on the difference. We also understand that the Veracruz is a bit longer, wider and shorter than the Santa Fe. The salesperson at the dealership told us that the main difference is that the Veracruz adds a third seat row. It seems hard to believe that Hyundai would introduce a vehicle whose only differentiator is an extra row of seats. If we're right, then someone in Hyundai's marketing department who was smart enough to find us back in 2001 is no doubt cringing because their sales folks don't understand the value proposition.

What's your verdict?

Warren Brown: Hello, Lynchburg:

If you need the extra space and if you are fond of luxury touches, get the Veracruz. It's just a larger, more elegantly designed wagon--er, crossover--than the Santa Fe. Neither one is a real SUV? Take a Santa Fe on a real off-road trip? Not if you plan to return in the vehicle you drove into the wild.


Rockville, Md.: How would you rank the 2007 Nissan Altima 3.5SL,Saturn Aura RX and Toyota Camry XLE-V6?I drive about 8,000 mi/yr and keep a car for 10 years.

Warren Brown:. Nissan Altima--no. 1

. Saturn Aura RX--no. 1A

. Toyota Camry XLE-V6--no. 2


"They can run 50 miles or so at 50 miles per hour ...": Warren: How much does a run flat tire cost compared to a regular tire?

Warren Brown: A whole lot more. But, hey, it saves the weight of carrying a spare.


Annandale, Va.: Hi, Warren. Love your chats and always look forward to the Sunday write up, but have to say I was disappointed with the picture last week of the Veracruz. It really provided no insight at all into what you were reviewing. It was only after I went to the Hyundai Web site that I had any idea. Just a comment...

Warren Brown: Yes, and we of The Car Pages at The Washington Post humbly, deeply, thoroughly apologize for that poor presentation. We promise that we will not do it again. Promise. Really. Terribly sorry. Imus kind of sorry. We really, truly, please-don't-fire-us, please-stick-by-us, please-forgive-us apologize.


Herndon, Va.: Warren, what do you think of the Ford Freestyle? It seems to a good compromise between the styling of the SUVs with the gas mileage and safety of a station wagon.

Warren Brown: Good morning, Herndon:

It IS, for all intents and purposes, a station wagon. And it's a pretty darned good one at that. Priced from about $24,000 to $31,000 (in base offerings), it is available with front or all-wheel-drive and a 3-liter, 203-ho engine. Major complaint: Some of our taller audience have complained about legroom in the second-row seats.


McLean, Va.: Following up on your answer to the Mazda3/Volvo/Mini Cooper question, the Volvo is actually built on the same platform as the Mazda3. The only real difference is that the extra money you pay for the Volvo gives you the option of a few extra "luxury" touches to the interior, as well as the option to get the turbo.

Warren Brown: Absolutely right, McLean. But my comments regarding the S40 spoke to the feel of the thing. It just doesn't feel like a pocket-rocket. Silly, I know. But there we go, again.


Chattanooga, Tenn.: Every week I read this chat, and every week I learn a little bit more about run-flat tires. My question: If these tires will, indeed, safely run while flat, how do you know when you've punctured a tire. Do they make a sound approximating the traditional "fwap fwap fwap" we all know and love?

Warren Brown: Well, Chattanooga, not quite. Think of it as a guy making love without much energy or emotion. It's that kind of feeling. The car is rolling. But the careful observer will know that it's faking it and won't keep rolling much longer.


Bethesda, Md.: I'm looking to replace my CR-V with something that has a third row (three kids and a dog), but I want to get decent gas mileage. Two questions: 1. Any new diesels coming out over the next year that fit my needs? 2. When are the next generation of hybrids coming out?

You've said that the new generation will present a significant improvement, but I'm not sure how long I can wait.

Warren Brown: Good morning, Bethesda:

The next generation of hybrids, primarily the dual-mode variety that can get more miles from battery power on the highway, should be coming out for the 2009-model year, which puts their ETA somewhere in the fall of 2008. Most companies plan to put versions of that technology in people haulers. We'll see. There's craziness afoot in America. Talk about gasoline prices peaking below $3.00 this summer. Here's hoping that U.S. consumers don't do what they usually do when gasoline prices drop--dump fuel-efficient models and start stamping their feet like spoiled children demanding more fuel-consumptive horsepower and speed. If that happens, expect the car companies to respond accordingly. They're in business to make money, after all.

But, more immediately for your needs, check out the current crossover models--Mazda CX-7 and CX-9, Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Veracruz, et cetera. They tend to get fairly decent mileage in hauling loads of people and stuff.


Rockville, Md.:"Think of it as a guy making love without much energy or emotion."

OK. But my Mazda puts very little weight on the rear wheels. I have had people tell me when my rear tire was nearly flat -- never noticed it driving.

Warren Brown: What can I say, Rockville? Some people pay more attention to certain things than do others. But, trust me, if you try to turn sharply on a deflated run-flat, you will know. The normal weight shifts of your car will become more dramatic, more unwieldy.


"The excess fat is in the SX4's three-way ...": Warren: I don't understand the purpose of the lock four-wheel drive. Can you expand on that?

Warren Brown: Using a differential to lock all four wheels makes no sense in a vehicle as small as the Suzuki SX4. I mean, you're not going to drive the thing off-road, where four-wheel-lock greatly aids traction. And it doesn't matter how much traction a car has in snow if the snowfall is substantially higher than the car's ground clearance, which can happen easily in the little SX4. So, it all strikes me as unnecessary technology adding unnecessary weight in what essentially is an economy vehicle.


Anonymous: Warren: You said buy the base model and I realized that my question needs more work. What I remember was the story in college of a guy who bought the lowest cost Cadillac he could find -- and the dealer wanted to get rid of it and got a real buy. Lots of goodies even on that model.

OK, to be more exact: which brand gives the most value in its base model? And I know they are all not the same, but some ought to stand out? Or do they? I dunno.

Warren Brown: Hyundai, hands-down.


McLean, Va.: Hiya, Warren. Thanks for your columns and for having these chats. They are like putting the top down on an otherwise gray day. I'm hoping you have some concrete advice. My old Camry is on its last leg, and I want to get a car that is the most environmentally-friendly. I usually keep my cars until they need to be hauled away to the scrap heap. I like the Prius, but I don't know what to expect from the batteries after five or more years. I had an old diesel Mercedes, and I am happy with diesels. What would be the greenest car for someone who wants to keep it for ten plus years?

Thanks a lot!

Warren Brown: Hello, McLean:

I'd pick the Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI, one of the best diesels ever made by any company anywhere.


Capitol Hill, D.C.: Hi, Warren. At the N.Y. Auto show last week, did you see anything that knocked your socks off? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Yes.

The AutoMotion Parking Systems completely automated parking garage at 123 Baxter Street in Chinatown, which is a bit away from the auto show at the Javits Convention Center. I write about that garage--its environmental and land-use implications--in this Sunday's Car Culture column.


Arlington, Va.: I test drove the Infiniti G35 last weekend and am considering buying one. What do you think of it and what other models should I consider?

Warren Brown: My short answer is to go ahead and buy the G35, unless you want to wait for the even finer G37.


Washington, D.C.: From : A Hip, youngish 40 plus lady

To: A Cool , youngish (fill in the blanks) gentleman.

Warren, do you think BMW's are overpriced? If so, why?

Am looking to buy a new car and they definitely have my attention.

Warren Brown:59-year-old gentleman.

And, yes, I believe BMW is overpriced.

Why is it priced so high?

Because it's BMW. It has panache. Panache draws cash.


Honolulu, Hawaii: Aloha, Warren. Enjoy your column. What can you share with us about the Smartcar ForTwo? Like a lot of people, I've sent in my deposit (no guarantee that I will be allocated one) to put my name in to purchase one next year. So far, I like what I'm reading, but wonder if it will be a fad. The Mini Cooper has exceeded expectations, so I'm hoping the ForTwo will be the same. For a small place with lots of cars, we certainly can use more cars like these.

Warren Brown: Hello, Honolulu: Coming in 2008.

If Congress does nothing to make consumers pay more of the real cost of the gasoline they use, yes, the exceptionally fuel-efficient Smart ForTwo will become a fad.

Are you listening, Sen. Boxer?

Remember that note I sent in response to your kind letter stating that Democrats are indeed different from Republicans?

Increased technical fuel-efficiency+cheap fuel = lower driving costs>increased vehicle miles traveled>increased consumer demand for more horsepower and speed>overall increased fuel consumption>the elimination of any gains from increased technical fuel efficiency.

Very simple, Senator. Very simple. If the Democrats REALLY want to be different, they need to do something to change that equation.


Warren Brown: I'll use this space to address a matter of importance to our great nation. It concerns how we get along with one another. Actually, it deals with how we don't.

It has nothing to do with cars. But, inasmuch as some of you have phoned me and asked, here's my answer:

I am an ardent, passionate defender of free speech. I believe that all asses have an equal right to bray. That right extends to Don Imus.

As the very proud father of two stunningly brilliant and beautiful black daughters, I found Mr. Imus' on-air remarks about the Rutgers basketball team racially and sexually abhorrent.

Yet, I steadfastly defend his right to make such remarks. And I find it more than a little hypocritical that CBS and NBC chose to fire him.

Mr. Imus, for the past three decades, has engaged in outrageous, outlandish commentary, much of it dealing with race and gender. In the process, he has generated millions of dollars for the employers who heard him, applauded him, paid him, but who now choose to disown him in convenient response to public outcry.

It is nothing short of hypocritical.

Equally hypocritical is the response of many of the nation's black leaders, including my friend, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Why?

Because there has been relatively little outcry from black leaders about the constantly degrading lyrics aimed at black women in way too many rap songs and similar music.

That is not to say, as some whites have commented, that if some black men degrade their women, it's okay for Imus to do so. It isn't right for anyone to degrade anyone because of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference. It's silly. It's wrong. It should stop.

But it will not stop by silencing or firing anyone who engages in such unkind rhetoric. It will stop only if we talk about it, discuss it freely and openly.

I am greatly concerned about the tendency in our nation to silence anyone who says something disagreeable. Our all-too-passionate embrace of political correctness eventually will lead to the silencing of everyone. I don't want that for my America. I'd rather have Imus on the air. At least, that way, I get to talk back to him.

Thanks for joining me today.

I hope you all will join me next week.

Eat lunch, Ria.


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