Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, March 20, 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.

The transcript follows.

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Pelham, Ala.: My car was driving along fine, I pressed the gas to give more power, and it just died. The battery and all electrical worked fine. I could crank it afterwards and it would turn over but not fire or start. Could you give me some suggestions on what could be wrong? It has gas, has oil, has radiator fluid, oil change regular basis.

Warren Brown: Good morning, Pelham. I'll put this out there for our legion of knowledgeable techies. Here's hoping for a response.


Harrisburg, Pa. : First of all, thanks for the great chats and columns. The upcoming Consumer Reports auto issue will not recommend any Chrysler product. However, the magazine did state that the new Dodge Ram offers a ray of hope. I've read that the Dodge Journey is a step in the right direction. You've said that some Chrysler products have the most personality. Reliability, quality of materials and ergonomics seem to be the big issues. What's your take on this?

Warren Brown: Well, Harrisburg, I certainly like and would recommend the Dodge Journey as being one of the best crossover-utility vehicles available. But after spending two weeks in a base, four-cylinder Chrysler Sebring Touring sedan, I could see why Consumer Reports and consumers in general are not excited by some Chrysler products. It's a good mid-size sedan. But it's discernibly not the best in a category that includes the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.


Bethesda, Md.: I always enjoy reading your material, agree with some of what you write (especially about the need for a high gas tax) and disagree with some of what you write (especially w.r.t. the Prius), and read your points about diesels sold in Europe, none of which have really interested me until now.

But now there's a 7-seater diesel-minivan which gets 44mpg ... made by GM. What do we have to do to get these in this country (i.e., work through the diesel-regulations)? As someone with three kids, I want one to replace my 20mpg Sienna!

GM Europe has added a low emissions ecoFlex model to its compact Zafira MPV lineup that will allow buyers in many countries, including the UK, to pay lower registration fees. The new Zafira ecoFlex is powered by a new 1.7-liter turbo diesel engine that was recently introduced in the Astra ecoFlex. The new engine produces 110 hp and 192 lb-ft of torque. That's enough to move the Mazda5-sized Zafira to 60 mph in 12.6 seconds while getting 44.4 mpg (U.S.) combined on the EU test cycle. The carbon dioxide emissions are rated at 139 g/km. That's a mileage bump from the 39.2 mpg (U.). rating for the existing 1.9-liter diesel. The seven-passenger Zafira gets taller gear ratios and lower rolling resistance tires to further help mileage.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Baltimore.

Here's hoping that President Obama's automotive task force considers comments from people like you. You are right. GM Europe, via subsidiaries Vauxhall and Opel, has wonderful, fuel-efficient family haulers because the tax laws and, as a result, the consumers over there demand them.

As a result, the companies making those vehicles can sell them at a reasonable profit.

But in the United States, our energy policies for personal mobility mostly are tilted toward the manufacturers. When it comes to consumers, we behave like the affluent parents of teenagers. We don't want them to pay the real price of anything. We want them to have the best of all worlds--the most fuel-efficient vehicles, the safest vehicles, the most fun-to-drive vehicles, the most affordable vehicles and, best of all, the cheapest gasoline in the developed world.

It is a mindset that has made all car companies a bit chary about introducing their most fuel-efficient models in a market that might reject them if gasoline prices fall below $4 a gallon for regular unleaded.


Cheap electric cars: Warren, any chance we will see an all-electric car under $20,000 in next couple of years? Volt sounds good for the middle/upper class folks but I need a cheaper version. Thanks.

Warren Brown: There are a few small electric car companies working on such models. The cars in question are borderline strippers. But they get the job done, albeit slowly. Chrysler's GEM operation is pushing the notion of inexpensive all-electric models. There re others.


Suwanee, Ga.: Warren, here's a challenge for your vast auto knowledge: it's time to replace the '97 Sebring convertible my wife uses for her daily commute. We have reached the stage of life where we want the "comfort features" such as heated seats and power everything, but we also want something easy on fuel for all the geo-political reasons that have been discussed in this forum. It would also be nice if there were an element of "fun to drive." The problem seems to be that if one goes for the mileage you get a bare-bones econo-box and even the smaller luxury cars have 300hp turbo-charged engines. I guess what we really want is the Chevy Volt crossed with the Mini Cooper, maybe next time. So when we go to the Atlanta auto show tomorrow what should we be sure to see? My list includes the Mini, the Jetta TDI and hybrids.

Warren Brown: Great question, Suwanee.

Here's suggesting that you take a close look at the Volkswagen CC sedan or the VW Eos convertible. Both will meet most of what you want and need in your next car.


Bonifay, Fl.: There is a light at the end of the tunnel, reference "Folsom Prison Blues." Seriously, there's nothing out there that I'm tempted to buy, until "the wheels fall off" what I'm driving now. The only non-PU stuff carrier that gets good mileage is the non-dependable Sprinter. It need to carry a 48"Lx36"Hx24"W dog cage and these "pretty" vehicles with the sloping roofs don't cut it. In addition, while I understand that you can sell me $5,000 worth of "bling" for $3,500 when it is standard in every vehicle, I don't need or want it. Answer?

Warren Brown: Well, Bonifay, I suppose it all depends on what you call "good mileage," especially considering work demanded (payload and towing capacity, for example) for energy consumed. I frankly don't see how you would consider the Daimler-derived Dodge Sprinter a good-mileage vehicle in that category.

The GM quartet--Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia, Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave--offer decent mileage, 24 mpg highway, and excellent utility. Ditto the Toyota Highlander and several others.


Kidville: Hi Warren, have you had a look at the VW Routan yet? What do you think? I miss my Golf, will it make me pine any less for it?

Warren Brown: Hello, Kidville:

I haven't yet driven the Routan, but intend to do so, soon. My hunch is that much of the Routan was derived from the Chrysler Town & Country in one of those corporate technology swaps. I could be wrong....but, were I you, I'd closely comparison shop those models before making a decision.


Alexandria, Va.: A follow-up to Suwannee, Ga.'s question: My husband and I have a 2000 Nissan Maxima and a 2005 Nissan Z roadster. He drives the Max, I drive the Z and like it a lot. We have been getting promotional material from Infiniti re the upcoming G convertible. What would you think about the G convertible as a replacement for the Z? More comfortable for two people rounding the curve into their 60's? Is the rear seat likely to actually be usable for adults? Or would you recommend the Volkswagen EOS over the G?

Warren Brown: Hello, Alexandria.

The G is a great compromise. Fun, but more comfortable for two than the Z.


Lake Ridge, Va.: Regenerative braking -- your findings?

Warren Brown: Oh. so much information and controversy there. Allow me to direct you to, an auto blog on alternatively fueled vehicles by my good friend, Lou Ann Hammond. At my request, she thoroughly researched the issue for us. The results, I think, currently are posted on her


Reston, Va.: Warren, I wanted to hear your take on the bill that's being written up to provide consumers with up to a $5,000 credit towards the purchase of a new vehicle if they get rid of their current car; as long as it gets worse fuel economy and is at least eight years old.

Warren Brown: I like the Idea, Reston. It seems to b working in Germany. It does two things--takes the most egregiously consumptive vehicles off the road and provides immediate stimulus for an uptick badly needed showroom traffic.


Re: Pelham, Al.: Sounds like a fuel pump to me.

Warren Brown: Many thanks.


Loudoun, Va.: Hi Warren, what's a good-bet in the family vehicle line up that will commute well (30 miles plus a day), and be good on long winter trips (Christmas in Wisconsin). The more budget friendly the better, but we'd really like some decent interior comfort too.

Warren Brown: Hello, Loudon:

Looks like you are I crossover-utility territory.

. Chevrolet Traverse all-wheel-drive, great in snow and carries eight.

. Mazda CX-9.

. Toyota Sienna


Burke, Va.: Neither my wife nor I have driven a minivan before but we feel we need one so we can on occasion carry five to six people comfortably along with our two kids. (Our current car in theory fits five but it isn't really practical with our car seats). We like the Toyota Sienna but we are worried we will have difficulty parking it (lots of shopping centers have tiny spots). Is there a car that can seat five to six people and is able to park in tight spots? (We tried the Mazda 5 and do not like it).

Warren Brown: Take a look at the new, FULL-SIZE Ford Taurus--seriously.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Have you seen any of the incentives car makers and their dealers are using to drive business? I received an offer to trade-in my less than year old BMW for a 2009 with incentives to keep my payments about the same or a little more if I upgrade.

Warren Brown: Hello, Philadelphia:

The best incentive program Is Hyundai Assurance Plus, because it speaks to things currently bugging consumers--fear of job loss, salary cuts, those sorts of things.

Hyundai Assurance Plus will pay the car note for three months during the first year of purchase, if the buyer loses job/significant pay through no fault of his or her own. If the job situation is corrected within those three months, there is no need for the buyer to repay what essentially is a transition loan from Hyundai. If the job situation isn't fixed, the buyer can return the purchased vehicle without penalty. Simply brilliant. So far, I haven't seen any incentive program that beats it.


Warren Brown: Thank you for joining us today. Please come back next week. Hats off to my wonderful producers. Time to eat lunch, Ria,


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