Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, April 27, 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.


Clifton, Va.: Warren: About your advice last week to Miata owner to go with all seasons when he asked about snows. Even the best all season tires are really no season tires since they don't do anything really well. For the Miata owner I would get a set of steel wheels or the OEM allows. Narrow snow tires are better than wider ones so go with what ever wheel size the base Miata has. I have used snow tires in the DC area on a variety of cars from BMWs, VW Rabbits and GTIs to Honda Elements and snows beat no seasons any day in all types of winter driving conditions. My recommendation is to go with Michelin or Vredstein snow tires. They give the best dry and wet weather performance than Bridgestone and some other snow tire brands from Europe. Pirelli is pretty good but a step below Vredstein and Michelin. Avoid Goodyear tires of any type at all cost. Since the Miata owner lives in Baltimore I recommend Radial Tire in Silver Spring. I travel an hour from Centreville/Clifton to get there. They can balance your tires while they are on the car. No other tire shop in the area can do this. Having been buying tires there for 20 years now! Forget Tire Rack. Radial Tire beats there prices.

Warren next winter you need to do a test of snow tires and no seasons back to back. The difference is amazing. They even make a difference on Honda Elements and '07 Chevy Tahoes with four-wheel drive and BMWs and Subies w/all-wheel drive.

Warren Brown: Good morning, Clifton:

I and all of the people at Tire Rack agree that snow tires are best IF you are living in an area of multiple heavy snowfalls. But there is no real reason to put them on an itty-bitty Miata with an itty-bitty ground clearance in an area of generally light snow.

In heavy snow, that car, snow tires or not, is best left in the garage. But we seldom get heavy snow conditions in the Washington metro area. We mostly get wet, or lightly snowed roads. A good set of M+S tires -- and I'd go with Goodyear, Michelin, or Pirelli here, will get you through most Washington winters just fine. And they'll also serve you well in spring and summer.


Garrett Park, Md.: Hi, Warren. Regarding Cadillac: Is there any truth to the rumored Ultra Luxury Sedan (ULS)? What can we expect in terms of timetable, features, styling, pricing?


Warren Brown: Yes. It's the Bob Lutz Special (BLS)--not its official name, of course. But that's the driving spirit behind the project. The venerable Mr. Lutz, GM's product czar, has a thing for taking things to the max. He wanted to make the super Caddy a 16-cylinder runner. But the man is a Marine. He knows a thing or two about battle strategies, which means he knows it makes little sense to run a tank through a market swamped by rising fuel prices. So, it appears that 16 cylinders have been reduced to 12, probably with a cylinder deactivation protocol to help reduce fuel consumption at lower speeds and when the car is carrying little weight. I rather suspect it will be nicely done, as GM, under Lutz's product tutelage, seems to be doing things nowadays.


Silver Spring, Md.: Warren: This is my first ever question to your chat, so forgive me if you've covered this topic already. I'm in the market for a compact four-door sedan. Do you have any strong opinions, good or bad, about any of the following vehicles?

Volkswagen Jetta

Toyota Corolla

Saturn ION

Nissan Sentra

Mitsubishi Lancer

Kia Spectra

Hyundai Elantra

Honda Civic

Ford Focus

The cars on this list appear to have an MSRP of $16,000 to $18,000 with similar features. So I'm curious if you know of any key differences among the vehicles in terms of safety, performance, durability, etc. Also, are there any other comparable vehicles I should add to my list?

Thanks for your help.

Warren Brown: Thank you for joining us. If you can find a Hyundai Elantra with anti-lock brakes, I'd go with that, which offers better value than the current edition of the Toyota Corolla, which makes anti-lock brakes and so many other safety components--side air bags, for example -- optional. Off the top of my head, I'm not sure that the Elantra has stability control. I do know that Hyundai offers stability control on 73 percent of the models it sells in the U.S. If that includes the Elantra, that's a clincher.

The current generation Corolla has great reliability and good fuel economy. I suspect that the next generation, 2008, will offer more standard safety equipment. But Hyundai probably will match that at a lower price. Advantage: Hyundai.


Cadillac V12: Warren: Why doesn't GM try to do what it thinks it does best instead of wasting millions of dollars on a one off dream that no one will buy because it's an American product?

Warren Brown: Not a fair question, and here's why:

If you look at GM's current and immediate-future vehicle lineup, the company is competing and competing well in every single vehicle category and is leading in one--trucks.

I fail to see how anybody, for example, can look at the Saturn Aura midsize sedan, the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, the GM trio of crossovers--GMC Acadia, Saturn Outlook, Buick Enclave--or the smartly done Cadillac STS, and say that GM has not returned to producing good vehicles for the general public.

But GM IS a global company competing for global market share. And, like it or not, that means competing for super-upscale dollars, too.

I find it interesting that no one questions Lexus for introducing comparable upscale concepts at the recent auto shows, or suggests that BMW is off the mark by reaching downscale with its little 1-Series models or that Mercedes-Benz is doing something silly with its A-Class cars or its Smart ForTwo, or that allegedly greener-than-thou Toyota is anti-environment for going after GM with its big-horsepower, fuel-consumptive Toyota CrewMax giant-size pickup truck.

All of those companies are pursuing every single market niche available. Why pick on GM for doing the same thing?


'08 Hyundai: Warren: What do you hear about the new Hyundai sports sedan that's supposed to take on the BMW 3-series?

Warren Brown: The Genesis, that's the name. It was on display at the New York Auto show this year. If it drives as well as it looks--and it looks hot!--BMW is going to have something to worry about. And for people who laugh at the idea of Hyundai challenging BMW, I humbly suggest you spend some quality time with South Koreans. These folks want to win. They already have proved that they can win. And they are working night and day to win in every vehicle segment they enter. Laugh at your own risk.


Herndon, Va.: Warren: We talked on the radio show a few weeks, back but my question has changed a little. My wife, an artist, wants a vehicle to replace our 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee, but wants something with even more vertical room for her large canvases, and doesn't want a van or huge SUV. I was thinking a Honda Element, but how is it on long trips, and hauling fairly heavy loads?

Warren Brown: Ah, Herndon, the Element certainly has the vertical room. It comes with a 2.4-liter, 166-horsepower, four-cylinder engine--decent enough for hauling canvasses and other art equipment. You can get it with front, or all-wheel-drive, a five-speed manual, or a five-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel-drive+manual tranny will give you better fuel economy. Choose all-wheel-drive if you plan to move about in wet climates, or run on gravel and dirt roads. I'm not to impressed with the Element's five-speed automatic, which seems to sap more power. But, for your purposes, the front-wheel-drive model with manual transmission should serve you well.

Program note: "On Wheels With Warren Brown," produced by On Wheels Inc. communications company, moves to WMET World Radio, 1160 AM on your dial, on your laptop, Tuesday, May 8, noon to 1p.m. All are welcome.


Silver Spring, Md.: I have a 1993 Toyota Camry. What is the recommended air pressure for the tires?

Warren Brown: The best thing I can tell you is to consult the tire pressure label on the driver's side pillar, or on the front-door frame. The correct pressure recommendation should be there. Or, look in your glove box. Betcha there is an owner's manual in there that hasn't ever been opened. Open it.


Ashburn, Va.: Warren: I test drove an Infiniti G35 the other day. Really enjoyed the ride. Would you recommend it?

Warren Brown: Easily. It's one of the best sports sedans available at any price. Can't wait to get my hands on the upcoming G37, which should be even better.


Waldorf, Md.: Warren: I love reading these chats and thanks for taking my question I have two part question. The first is what do you think of the 2007 Sonata (especially the one with the four-cylinder if you've tested it). I currently have a Santa Fe that I bought on your advice, which I really like. However the gas mileage is not that good, and it's starting to take a big bite out of my wallet (but not to the point of putting me in financial jeopardy). The second part of the question is, in your opinion does it make more sense financially to keep a car with higher monthly payments, and lower mpg (that you owe $10,000 on) or trade in for a new car where the payments would be much lower, the mpg higher, more safety features, but that you would owe more on (about $17,000). I'd either keep the truck or go new (I have really terrible luck with used cars. I'm attracted to the lemons, but also want as many safety features as I can find to protect my new little one.)

Warren Brown: Thanks for writing, Waldorf.

The Hyundai Sonata mid-size sedan gets high marks from everybody. The 2.4-liter, 162-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- the base engine -- is both adequate and fuel-efficient. If fuel-efficiency is what you really want, don't get suckered into buying the Sonata with the 3.3-liter, 234-horsepower V-6 -- which drinks a lot more gasoline.

Frankly, I'd keep the Santa Fe. Here's why: Assuming that American consumers and their permissive politicians conspire to keep gasoline prices low, it'll be a long while before you recover the costs of buying new -- purchase price, sales taxes, property taxes, finance costs, insurance, and other fees -- at the gasoline pump. Advantage: Stay in what you are driving. Consolidate trips, if possible. Drive at lower speeds. Judicious use of that accelerator pedal can save you a bundle at the pump.


Washington, D.C.: Warren: Hi and have a great weekend (early). I have the 2004 Toyota Solara that I am very happy with even though it is a dressed up Camry (maybe that's why I'm happy with it!). Anyway, I like to drive my cars until they die, which usually means at least 125,000 miles on them. But this thing has the pulling to the left problem that no one, not the dealer nor anyone else can fix. Apparently from the boards it is a common problem, though it somehow is not affecting alignment and tire wear. So my question: in your travels, research and reviews, have you heard of this? If so, is there a fix?

Warren Brown: Thanks for writing, D.C.: No, I haven't heard of this particular problem with the Solara. But let's put it out there. Lots of experts in our audience. Maybe, they can help. Hey, Clifton, get on the keyboard, why dontcha?


Arlington, Va.: Warren: Looking for a new car that would be a weekend grocery getter and road trip car for the wife and 50 lb dog. Was thinking about a small SUV aka big wagon. One question, though, how is the air conditioning/ventilation in the "wayback" section of those things where we'd plan to put the dog during road trips? Will Fido be cool enough back there in the summer?

Warren Brown: Hello, Arlington: Consider these:

Honda Element -- lots of air room for Fido in the rear, and you can was the thing out if Fido gets messy. Good fuel economy. Decent for grocery shopping and modest road-trips.

Saturn Outlook -- bigger, more powerful, more expensive, lots of room for Fido, simply wonderful on long road trips. Ditto the GMC Acadia and the Buick Enclave.

Honda CR-V--wonderful wagon. Drop rear seats and Fido should have no problems in the wayback.

Toyota RAV-4 -- also nice. But shop for price against the others.

Hope this helps.


Genesis: Great name, for a new beginning at Hyundai! As a 6'5" 290-lb. driver who likes cars, not trucks, one of the things I appreciate about the Germans is the headroom and legroom ... they seem to grasp that we're getting bigger and taller, where the Nissans and Toyotas are reducing the driver's space.

Any sense of where the Genesis will fall in this comparison?

Warren Brown: Hyundai is going after the Japanese and the Germans; and the company has an uncanny knack for figuring out the Americans. You'll fit in the Genesis.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Warren. if you could only marry one, would you choose GM or Hyundai? And how would you possibly live yourself hiding your love for the other. Heartbreaking.

Also, I can't wait to see whether GM or Hyundai knocks off the 3 series. Poor BMW must be quaking it its driving loafers!

Warren Brown: I'd choose GM. But I certainly would not mind having Hyundai as a next-door neighbor.


Ashburn, Va.: Warren -- I'm a budding environmentalist. I am starting to look at cars that have less of an impact on the environment (so ethanol-fueled cars don't really help me). Right now only hybrids are main stream. But should I hold off for the near future to see what else comes out? Do you know of any with promise that are coming out in the relative future?

Warren Brown: Dear Ashburn and other environmentalists, budding or otherwise:

Accept reality.

Movement requires energy.

Expenditures of energy yield waste--human sweat, exhalation of carbon dioxide, the end results of eating and drinking, water vapor from hydrogen fuel cells, hydrocarbon emissions form gas-electrics, battery disposal from gas-electrics, diesel particulate matter, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The only way to eliminate the waste products of energy expenditure is to stop moving. Usually, that means death -- the untimely occurrence of which most of us are trying to avoid.

There is not now, has never been, will never be a waste-free expenditure of energy. The question is how best to limit, handle, police that waste to minimize its detrimental environmental effects. There are many answers, many of them complementary in that they all contribute in some measure to approaching a solution -- better, a mitigation -- of an inherently insoluble problem.

But the answer, to me, is quite simple: That which is physical has an ultimate expiration date. We can delay arrival at that date. But we cannot and will not avoid it. There is no such thing as eternal physical life -- not for our environment, not for any single one of us, not for our world.

Accept that, live and love well, do your best.


Element as Dogmobile: We looked at the Element for our next dogmobile, but the rear passenger windows didn't open! How can Brutus stick his giant head out and watch the traffic if the window doesn't open? (Not to mention that sometimes your dog makes it advisable to, um, air out the cabin.)

Warren Brown: Geez, shows you what I know about dogs. Thanks.


Columbus, Ohio: Hi, Warren. I went to look at the Ford Fusion today. Why is it so cheap looking on the inside as compared with Honda Civic at the same price?

Warren Brown: Better interior materials in terms of tactile appeal.


Warren Brown: Okay, good folks. Thanks for joining me today. And, oh, I'm serious about those test-drives with you all. Just fell behind getting things in order, thanks to all that has to be done for launching the new radio show -- now scheduled to start May 8, Tuesday, noon to 1 p.m., on WMET World Radio, 1160 AM on your dial, on your laptop.

Anyway, I'll present a ride-along schedule to you all in two weeks. Promise. Ria will see to that. Yeah, Ria, I know. We'll talk about it, later. Eat lunch, woman.


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