Real Wheels

Warren Brown takes the $109,000 electric-powered Tesla Roadster for a spin. Read his story here.
Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, February 6, 2009; 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.

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The transcript follows.


Alexandria, Va.: Warren: My husband and I are interested in buying a second car for our family. We are torn: we could buy a new Passat wagon with 0% financing or we could buy a Jetta Sportwagen TDI, which does not come with a 0% financing option and costs about the same as the entry level Passats. Saving money never hurts, right? But we know (and hope) that gas won't stay cheap forever and that the TDI has a great resale value. We don't put many miles on our one car--a 6 year old Jetta Wagon just hit 52k. What's a family to do?

Warren Brown: Good Morning, Alexandria:

I'd skip the 0-percent financing and go with the diesel--the VW Tdi sportwagon. We won't have $2 unleaded gasoline forever. Probably will disappear late spring. You're going to want good mileage. The TDI will give you that...and better residual value.


Little Compton, R.I.: Warren, my family of 4 does okay with 2 car seats and 2 adults in our VW Golf. We're a touch squished, but generally have enough room for heavy weekly grocery trips and daily mom+kids about town adventures. For larger items, the family shops together and then I drive back to the store with my small sedan and pick up whatever is required. I'm anticipating for the summer, camping and vacation trips will require more space than is safely available, requiring an extra 1/4 gal of gas for the 2nd trip. Notwithstanding the need to stimulate the auto industry, would it be better to trade up the golf for a larger vehicle, or just make do for half-dozen or so trips that require more room with rentals/roof rack?

Warren Brown: Aren't you lucky, Little Compton? VW has something called the Routan, essentially a version of the Chrysler Town & Country (from the old Daimler-Chrysler relationship). It's quite well done and extremely family friendly and, in the current depressed retail environment, available for a deal, if not quite a steal. Great for camping and long-distance runs. I'd take a look at that.


Annapolis, Md.: Why is it I never see you recommend a Ford Edge to someone looking for a CUV? We've had an AWD for two years and really enjoy traveling in it. It's powerful, smooth, very comfortable and handles beautifully. It gets 19/24 and has had no problems -- zero -- after 20K+ miles. Are we being delusional?

Warren Brown: Because, Annapolis, It just slipped off the edge of my sometimes nawwow mind. You are right, of course. That is a good crossover. Although, I prefer the, to me, much more likeable and enjoyable Ford Flex. That one, I love!


Montgomery County: The D.C. auto show has suffered from from being (dare I say it) pedestrian in past years, with automakers refusing to bring their best concepts cars to our humble city. But now that we have what they want (billions of dollars) and they have a horrible public image, they seem happy to show us their brightest ideas. Will this new-found respect last longer than the bailout funds?

Warren Brown: That's an unfair criticism of auto exhibitor intent.

The truth is that the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, the show's sponsor, has been working hard the past five years to make the DC show a first-tier exhibit. WANADA reps have traveled worldwide begging, cajoling global car companies to upgrade their exhibits. Their efforts began to yield positive results a year or so ago. It's just a coincidence that some of the best stuff has come in the year of the bailout. As for the new policy orientation of the show, I'm happy to say that yours truly had a lot to do with that.


Alexandria, Va.: Warren- With the economy liable to leave consumers having little ability or desire to buy relatively expensive plug-in hybrids that the auto manufacturers all seem to be feverishly developing, why haven't we heard much instead about expanding "mild" hybrids into the lower cost lines and brands? While able to make a significant contribution to improving fuel mileage and emissions, their simpler and cheaper technology would appear to be better able to make a convincing case for car company financial viability.

Warren Brown: Good point, Alexandria.

The problem is the media's rather sophomoric grasp of what actually is taking place on those fronts. Here's a brief rundown:

. By 2010, we'll be seeing plug-in electrics, sold with the help of $7,500 fed tax rebates.

. But we're going to see a plethora of more affordable, high-mileage, traditional internal combustion engine cars--Ford Fiesta, smaller Toyota models, et cetera

. Expect a breakthrough in gas-electric hybrids, especially in the family sedan category, improved Toyota Camry hybrid and an exceptionally well done Ford Fusion hybrid (41 mpg)

. Diesels will start rolling in in multiple categories

. Want cleaner, more efficient work trucks? Compressed natural gas will make a comeback, for real, in that segment

. There will be mild hybrids aplenty


Alexandria, Va.: Hello, Warren. Maybe this is a question for Goss's Garage, but I thought I'd give you a shot here since it is more of a purchasing/certified used car question. I have a certified used Lexus and paid the premium for the that "certified" badge. Sadly, I backed into a slightly elevated root-filled patch of earth by the side of the road which banged into the bottom of my car -- specifically the exhaust pipe. The dealer's mechanic raised the car on the lift and said the exhaust system wasn't "theirs," but they didn't find any leaks--I merely bent a pipe. However, they explained many of the pipes were replaced, welded together and not Lexus spec. I tried to ask if it was up to Lexus standards and, therefore, ok to be on a certified used car, but the mechanic and supervisor looked skeptical, raised their eyebrows and said, "you should call your salesperson." I called, left a message, waited for weeks, but never received a call back.

I understand a used car may not have all new parts (in fact, it had new tires and maybe other things not readily visible), but I'm concerned it was not up to it standard, was overlooked and may cause problems in the future. On the other hand, maybe it was noted and approved. Thanks for any tips on approaching a dealership regarding a problem that may or may not exist--I certainly don't want it to be adversarial.

Warren Brown: Geez, Alexandria. This happens a lot with "certified" used vehicles. Best I can suggest is to go back to point of purchase, particularly if that place was a Lexus dealership. Lexus "certified" purchased from a Lexus dealer should mean Lexus or Lexus/equivalent/approved parts. Comments from the community are sought here.


Washington, D.C.: Any word on GM's congressionally mandated restructuring?

Warren Brown: Yes.

If the members of Congress who approved GM's loan had been more interested in truth than they were in showboating, they would have known that GM, Ford and Chrysler have been engaged in aggressive restructuring the past five years. GM, for example, has gone quite far in the reorganization of its entire global structure, eliminating a multitude of redundancies in product design, development and supplier sourcing. Product quality has improved and continues dramatic improvement.

More, of course, needs to be done. GM will have to figure out what to do with Saturn, a division that was started by the late Roger Smith primarily to shock GM's middle management into doing the right thing--focusing on product quality and customer service.

Saturn has accomplished that goal. It, in many ways, has now become redundant, especially with the product improvement at Chevrolet.

What's happening to the industry now has less to do with corporate management than it does with global mismanagement of the economy.

We have a global recession.

Car companies all over the world have appealed to their respective governments for transitional assistance in the form of government loans.

Toyota, for goodness sake, is posting the equivalent of a $4 billion US equivalent loss for the fiscal year ending in March.

That means Toyota, like GM, is "restructuring" too.


New York, N.Y.: Hi Warren. Longtime reader here. I'm in favor of proposed legislation to buy back emissions-spewing clunkers and provide incentives to consumers to buy more efficient vehicles. However, as a car nut, I'm concerned the law will lead to a lot of (potentially valuable automobiles getting turned into dense cubes of metal. For a preservationist, it's a serious issue, and I'm wondering where you stand. Possibly make the law apply only to cars built within the last 20 years? (Anything older than that, if running at all, would be deemed as 'antique' and not eligible for a rebate.) By the way, I'm aware this issue might sound frivolous in the currently dire economic climate, but it keeps my mind off a potential layoff that could come next week.)

Warren Brown: Hello, New York.

The cash for clunkers program has value. But I'm trying to figure out who actually gains from it.

If I have a clunker because all I can afford is a clunker, which is worth a clunker's fee or less on sale, how much money will I have to buy a new, cleaner car? Presumably, if all I can afford is a clunker in the first place, I didn't have the credit rating to borrow money to get something better.

But if a clunker just happened to be among the cars in my fleet, well, junking it for a fee could be as good for my pocket as it is for the environment.

Frankly, all of those various schemes--cash for clunkers, allowing the Confederate States of California to set their on mileage/emissions rules, Corporate Average Fuel Economy--could be obviated with a federal motor fuels tax that drove the buying public to more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

That way, you could keep your beloved motorized relic. But your daily driver would be something that caused you less pain at the pump.


Clifton, Va.: Little Compton Ri Try an Element. More reliable and better resale than the VW Routan. And way better dealer service.

Warren Brown: Worthy suggestion, Clifton. As always, my thanks.


Clifton VA - the other one: Hi Warren, who can we write to in Congress to push for the hike in gas tax we need to ensure that the automotive industry go green all the way?

Warren Brown: We can start with our Virginia reps. It's time to raise the heat on this one, Clifton. Congress is about to waste more of our time and money pursuing "green" remedies that, somehow, require no participation from the people who actually consume the fuel--the consumers. More dumb, ineffective, scapegoating, vote-hustling politics.


Certified Used Cars: Warren, I went to a certain Volvo dealer in Fairfax looking for a car. After driving/looking at a few, I decided on the car I wanted. I took the car down to my Volvo Specialist for a thorough inspection. It was a short inspection after he pointed out the 3 bent wheels on the car. I told him that was enough and I took the car back to the dealer. Ultimately, the car I did buy, not from the dealer mind you, was not "certified", but I've had it 4 years now and I'm totally happy. Beware the Certified Cars!!

Warren Brown: Yup!


Washington, D.C.: Warren, thanks for your time. I've only owned two cars in my life, both imports. In the not-to-distant past, I would have never considered a domestic brand because they just didn't make anything interesting to a relatively young guy. While I'm not-quite-there yet with regard to making the switch, I'm much closer now than ever. GM and Ford are making great strides to convince me that their products are worth looking at and my hope is that they actually DO contract brands and models and focus on building great cars that people want. Am I wrong to hope for contraction?

Warren Brown: Wrong? Not at all, Washington.

Look, Detroit screwed up in the late 1960s through the late 1980s. They made shoddy products from the standpoint of fit and finish and overall reliability, and sometimes (but not nearly as much as the Japanese in that period) from the point of crash safety. It's understandable that they would lose face and market share with that kind of behavior.

But that truly is history.

I've been covering this industry day in and day out since 1982. I've seen the changes in attitude, management and product. And they've all been for the better.

Frankly, I was embarrassed by the profound ignorance of our lawmakers in last year's showboat drubbing of Detroit's executives on Capitol Hill. But more embarrassing was that Detroit's executives were naive enough to think that they were dealing with people who understood their business. It was dumbness on all sides.


Warren Brown: Okay, good people. It's a short one today. Meeting pending. But please come back next week.

Thanks Sakina, Amy, Delece.

Eat lunch, Ria. I'm on the way.


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