Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, April 10, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online on Friday, April 10 at 11 a.m. ET. to answer your questions about every aspect of the automotive industry.


Anonymous: Mr. Brown, a comment that Mazda MX-5 in the Nut & Bolts last Sunday, 4/5, appears to be a great little car but I don't think we can live with a luggage capacity of 5.3 CUBIC INCHES.

Warren Brown: Who could? My apologies. Clearly, that should have been 5.3 cubic Feet.


Alexandria, Va.: Fusion and Malibu--Hi - I would like to buy a new mid-size sedan. I'm originally from Detroit and have had family members in the auto industry, so I really want an American car right now. Do you have an opinion on the Fusion versus the Malibu? Thanks very much.

Warren Brown: Both are excellent mid-size sedans, Alexandria. The Malibu is my emotional favorite, because it proves that Chevrolet can turn out good cars. But, wow! The new Ford Fusion Hybrid is an excellent piece of work, a mid-size sedan that actually delivers 41 mpg using regular, and that also offers good road performance and handling and overall globally competitive build quality.


Arlington, Va.: I've been thinking about GM. I think some of their problems can be summed up by looking at the Saturn Astra. I drove an Opel Astra hatchback in Europe five years ago and thought it was a great car. GM finally brought it to the U.S., but saddled it with a terrible engine - underpowered and noisy. I wanted to buy one, but I wouldn't buy it after I took it for a test drive.

Warren Brown: Hello, Arlington:

I suspect that the Opel Astra hatchback you drove in Europe was equipped with a GM diesel--good, lots of torque even with relatively small displacement. The 1.8-liter inline 4 cylinder engine--gasoline--sold in the U.S. is a good engine for purposes of fuel economy--27 mpg for a compact wagon. But its no great shakes on torque or power.


Herndon, Va.: The UAW and the unions killed Detroit automakers. But it was a slow death, like having carbon monoxide in your home. $150,000 a year for a GED assembly line worker?

Warren Brown: That's baloney. The UAW and the unions largely are responsible for pulling generations of Americans into the middle class, and largely are responsible for helping this nation when it needed that help most--in our World Wars. Were there excesses? Yes. Just as there were excesses in banking, finance, real estate, small businesses and any number of enterprises where the human tendency toward greed and selfishness supplants common sense.

As for the UAW, the biggest mistake it made was failing to organize GM's foreign rivals. And, frankly, I wouldn't volunteer to do the work of an assembly line worker--not even for your bias-tainted, mythical pay of $150,000. Frankly, with your attitude, I'd doubt you'd last one hour on one of those lines.


Reston, Va.: Hello Warren,

Ref: the future federal incentive (max 5K) of turning in the old car for a new more fuel efficient car.

If I'm in the market to buy a new car and do not have an old jalopy, wouldn't it make financial sense for me to get an 1979 Impala from EBay (say $100) and use that as a trade in?

Warren Brown: No, Reston, that won't work.


Gary, In.: I have this theory that in the past 10 years car quality has gone through the roof. So we're all ok holding onto our old cars for a few years without really needing to buy new ones. Furthermore, I think a lot of repair shops are going to see increased business because people will wise up to pay for a $1,000 repair, rather than start car payments all over again.

Warren Brown: You are right, Gary. Car quality is tops. Credit remains a problem for new-car and used-car purchases, although not as much as a problem as we've been led to believe. If you you have a good car and don't have to buy, yeah, you can wait. The average age of cars on the road in the U.S is now 9.4 years, up from 9.2 years in 2006 and 8.3 years, I think, in 2000. You have a point.


GM's current state of confusion: Warren, I guess with the whirl of changes going on up there, we probably won't see the diesel cars, or the Camaro, which will probably be shelved for now.

Warren Brown: You'll see the Camaro. But, diesel, with our current gasoline prices and GM's financial straits? Probably not anytime soon.


Staunton, Va.: I might be in the market for a commuter car (40 miles one way). What are a couple good used and new choices? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Check Hyundai, Staunton. And think Elantra. Also check the Chevrolet Cobalt for commuter value. And there are the usual suspects, a used Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic.


Clifton, Va.: Great move by President Obama to pick the director of MADD to head the NHTSA. MADD is one the least flexible nut groups out there. Drunk driving is a crime and the laws need to be enforced and the penalties harsh for repeat offenders but old enough to fight and die for this country old enough to have a beer in an enlisted person's club! MADD and its bullying tactics has been losing support for years. And now Obama puts this person in charge of auto safety. Not good for the auto industry.

Warren Brown: Chuck Hurley, the person President Obama picked to run NHTSA, is not as inflexible as you think, Clifton. The enviros don't like him because he refused to go along with CAFE laws that he thought might compromise vehicle safety and integrity. Hurley is a thinker, not an ideologue. Frankly, I endorse his nomination. He'll do lots of good there.


Re: unions: Warren, unions are a thing of the past. If you have 10 workers at a site, and 8 of them work hard for you, while 2 of them just coast, why should all of them get the same raise?

Warren Brown: Why don't you man-up, or woman-up, and identify yourself, at least by location? I'd like to know where all of this bias is coming from? Unions are no more a thing of the past than corporations. If companies can set prices, why can't labor? Your comments assume that unions are somehow inherently less fair than corporate or small-business bosses. Our national history, particularly that of the South, puts the lie to that assertion.


Washington, D.C.: Just a comment: following today's Washington Post story about Chevy Chase Cars in Bethesda dropping Chevy in favor of Nissans, one person's sole comment in the accompanying "discussion" was, "Acuras suck." Another's sole comment was, "Japanese cars are much better than American cars." Neither said anything substantive to justify what they said, just simply inane statements. That's no different than saying blondes are better women, horseshoe pitchers are better Americans, or that classical music (or rap) sucks. Whether you like or dislike "American" cars, or "foreign" cars, what is important to read in the story is the dealership saying, "We believe that Chevrolet produces a world-class line-up of vehicles. Unfortunately, our client base is very import-minded and we need to satisfy that base." And, for every new Chevy it sold, it would sell three new Acuras, according to dealership representatives.

Warren Brown: I am rapidly losing faith in the ability of the general media to get anything right when it comes to reporting on the automobile industry. It might have been wise, in that story, to cite R.L. Polk numbers on vehicle registrations in the Washington metro area. Had the story done that, it would have shown that, for about the past two decades, "import" brands outsold "domestic" brands in the Washington area 65 percent to 35 percent, or thereabouts.

That sales ratio also has more to do with a sense of style than it does any real assessment of quality. And had the story bothered to look at that angle, a survey of recall and service-bulletin stats, available at, might've helped.

But in our age of go-go, populist, twitterer journalism, we tend to go for the sound bite: "Acura's suck" or "Japanese cars are so much better than American cars." Silly.


Washington, D.C.: I recently purchased a Subaru Outback and have been disappointed to find I only get 19-20 mpg around town. This is a 4-cylinder engine, can't we do better? It doesn't seem like we've made any improvements in mpg on standard engines in the last 30 years.

Warren Brown: Your new Subaru, assuming it is new; in fact, almost any new vehicle is going to get considerably lower mileage than advertised. Valves haven't seated properly, for one thing. Clifton and the techies can provide more info on this phenomenon.


Silver Spring, Md.: It is tough for people to get a car loan now and they aren't feeling confident, although the majority of workers still have their jobs and are making as much money as they did three years ago. Things will get better -- we still love our cars. I am reminded of a Michelle Singletary column from the boom years when she noted why some people bought new cars: They were still making payments on their car but it needed major repairs. It was very hard to come up of with $1,000 to fix the old car, but dealers would put you in a new car with no money down and would rollover your old loan. Crazy, bad days. Did I read that U.S. sales are so bad, that China has become the biggest market in the world in terms of units per month? This seems like a big transition.

Warren Brown: Ah, Silver Spring. You raise so many good points. The easy credit days spoiled both the car and real estate industries, spoiled a lot of things when you consider the ancillary damage done by credit-card debt. Things will get better. As for China, I'm not as worried abut their putative leadership in vehicle units produced as I am by a prophecy made to me several years ago by an engineering student in Shanghai: "You guys in the West own the old car industry, the one propelled by gasoline. We in the East will own the new car industry, the one propelled by electricity and hydrogen and newer fuels."


Berkeley, Ca.: Good Morning Mr. Brown, I'm finishing an article in the NY Times re: Ford's decision to borrow billions from the government back in 2006, and I was wondering if you remember how you reacted to the decision back then, and what your thoughts are on that decision now. Thanks.

Warren Brown: Good Morning, Berkeley.

Ford was lucky. Several years ago, we in the media, in our usual regicidal fervor, were predicting a Ford bankruptcy. But then came Alan Mullaly from Boeing. Smart man. Tough man. Started cutting--Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, all gone. Made many other strategic cuts. But Mullaly isn't silly enough to believe that you can cut your way to success. He literally put Ford in hock. Borrowed billions and invested the money in the improvement of Ford-badged products, such as the new Ford Fusion Hybrid. And he did it all...just before the global economy collapsed. Lucky. Shrewd. Mullaly is the best thing to happen to Ford in modern history.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Warren, what was the one innovation/improvement that the Big 3 came up with before any other maker? Seems we're always a year or two behind in innovations, where we were once on the leading edge. Was the last one the Tucker?

Warren Brown: The list is so long, Pittsburgh, beginning with the assembly line. The automatic transmission. Numerous safety advances. I'll have to pull out my tech history books to be more specific.


Kensington, Md.: Warren, thanks for your review of the Mazda MX-5 Miata last Sunday. This incremental version of the current model (NC in the Mazda scheme), is the subject of much discussion on the Miata forum that I read. People generally like the upgrades to the interior, engine and suspension, but the majority dislike the wider, happier grill. I'm perfectly happy with my 2006 NC so I don't plan to test drive a new one. Based on experience with my car, I agree with most of your comments. It's a great car for escaping, and serves pretty well day-to-day. Thanks for supporting this class of cars.

Warren Brown: It's a wonderful roadster, Kensington. But, like most roadsters, its enjoyment requires a state of mind. If you approach it expecting super-car performance or luxury car amenities, you will be disappointed.


Midwest: Good morning. Any suggestion for a minivan that looks, well, not like a minivan? I really don't want to trade in what's left of any cool I might still have. The Nissan Quest is better-looking than most; what do you think of that? Is there anything else I should think about? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Mazda CX9, or if more space is needed, the Chevrolet Traverse


Rockville, Md.: Hi, I'd appreciate your opinion on something. Our Toyota minivan will be 10 years old in the next year. We keep up maintenance and follow the manufacturer's service schedule. How long do you think this minivan will last? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Easily another 50,000 miles or so, Rockville.


Falls Church, Va.: We're starting a family this year and it's time for me to upgrade my 11-year-old's "single girl" car. We're interested in the smaller, crossover SUVs and currently are thinking RAV-4 (Limited) or a CR-V. Most concerned about safety, gas mileage, and yes, a bit sporty would be nice. Not looking to spend 40K, though. I value your opinion so any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Warren Brown: You are okay in the RAV-4/CRV class, Falls Church. And congrats on the start of your new family.


Washington, D.C.: I'd like to order a Volt, but no one wants to take the order. I'd like to think that they'd be gearing up for people like me, who have been buying nothing but foreign cars since the 1970s but are willing to be "converted" to help save the economy. I went to Ourisman Chevrolet in P.G. on Sunday. They were closed. I thought they were in the car business. By the way, Most of the cars on the lot were huge gas guzzlers. I might consider an FFV, but IMHO, if dealerships sell FFV cars and trucks, they should have to guarantee that there will be access to E85. That may mean dealers should install pumps, to build in a be-back.

Warren Brown: Ah, Washington. No one is going to take the order until the car is production ready--which it isn't, yet.


Washington, D.C.: Warren, I like how you consider folks with opinions on the unions "biased." Rather than address the poster's question about why coasters should get raises, you chided him for being cowardly with his post location? Your responses really come across as an old, prejudiced man who swings his cane at young children.

Warren Brown: I also swing my cane at idiots. The poster is biased. From where comes the assumption that one of the union employees might be "coasting"? But, what, we have no small business bosses who coast, no corporate leaders who coast, no financial masters of the universe who coast, which is why, I suppose, we've coasted into global economic collapse?

A bad employee is a bad employee, union or non-union, just as a bad boss is a bad boss. Fire them all.


Tampa, Fl.: What is your opinion of the Mini Cooper and its great gas mileage? I have one, and can get up to 44 miles to a gallon on the highway for a long trip. Do you think more of these Mini's on the road can have an impact by helping to lower the gas consumption? Or do you think the electric cars are better overall?

Warren Brown: We still love ours.


Warren Brown: Thanks for joining us today. Please come back next week. My thanks to my wonderful producers. Eat lunch, Ria.


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