Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post auto critic
Friday, May 29, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, May 29, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the auto industry and offer purchase advice to readers. Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

The transcript follows


New York, N.Y.: Good morning Warren,

I received what appears to be a viral email from one of my old college classmates this morning with the below warning:

Please do not turn on A/C immediately as soon as you enter the car. Open the windows after you enter your car and turn ON the air-conditioning after a couple of minutes.

Here's why: According to research, the car dashboard, seats and air freshener emit benzene, a cancer causing toxin. In addition to causing cancer, benzene poisons your bones, causes anemia and reduces white blood cells. Prolonged exposure will cause leukemia, increasing the risk of cancer and may also cause miscarriage. Acceptable Benzene level indoors is 50 mg per sq. ft. A car parked indoors with windows closed will contain 400-800 mg of Benzene. If parked outdoors under the sun at a temperature above 60 degrees F, the benzene level goes up to 2000-4000 mg, 40 times the acceptable level. People who get into the car, keeping windows closed will inevitably inhale, in quick succession excessive amounts of the toxin. Benzene is a toxin that affects your kidney and liver. What's worse, it is extremely difficult for your body to expel this toxic stuff. So friends, please open the windows and door of your car -- give time for interior to air out -- dispel the deadly stuff -- before you enter. Is this true or just another urban legend? Love the show! Keep up the good work.

Warren Brown: I don't know much about the benzene angle. But I do know that many AC systems, automotive an otherwise, accumulate mold and other impurities during seasons of disuse. For that reason, and because I'm woefully allergic to nasty stuff like mold, I always open my personal car's windows and let the AC run for a while before closing the windows to enjoy chilled goodness in hot weather.


Reston, Va.: It appears Saturn will be discontinued.

Would this cause the demand for the Saturn products decrease?

Does that mean prices will be lowered as needed to attract buyers.... possibly $1500 or so.. or whatever the free market decides to pay?

Warren Brown: Saturn will be discontinued, perhaps as early as the 2010 model year. That does not mean Saturn will disappear.

In the interim:

Prices have been lowered.


The next 50 to 60 days represent the most buyer-favorable shopping season in the history of the U.S. automotive retail industry. Nearly all car companies ave been whacked by the global recession. Nearly all car companies have inventories well in excess of the 60-day norm for stock on hand. That means deals galore -- especially true for GM and Chrysler, but also true for Toyota and (to a lesser extent) Honda. If you have the money/credit and you either need or want to buy a new vehicle, now is the time to buy. It is not likely to get better than it is now for car buyers anytime soon.

Here's why:

In "adjusting" production to meet pathetically weak demand, nearly all car companies have cut production. For most of the summer, GM and Chrysler have stopped production. Bottom line is that, probably by October, production will be in sync with demand, which means that prices will stabilize...and then start rising.

Back to Saturn:

Here's hoping that the Penske Group takes over Saturn. Penske knows how to make things work.


Wash, D.C.: If benzine from car air conditioners was toxic enough to kill us, a lot more people would die earlier than they do.

I'm just not too worried about it. I'm more worried about driving defensively, which is something I can control.

Warren Brown: Thank you, D.C.


Minneapolis: My parents got a Toyota Avalon a couple of years ago and love it. They're looking for something to haul golf clubs, etc. and are looking at the Venza. What do you think of it?

Warren Brown: Good Morning, Minneapolis:

I frankly think they'll be much happier getting another Avalon. The Venza rides harder. It's also somewhat confused in its transportation mission -- a vehicle rushed out in response to Nissan's success with the compact crossover Rogue.


Washington, D.C.: I am planning to buy a new car in the near future and am considering the Honda Fit and the Toyota Matrix. Of these, or similar cars by other manufacturers, which do you favor and why?

Warren Brown: The Fit, particularly the Fit Sport. It's a subcompact that fits (no pun intended) perfectly in the city while, at the same time, offering as much utility as the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, small wagons -- good little wagons -- that differ in name only (which means that if you buy any one of those, it makes more sense to take advantage of GM's problems and get a price break on the Vibe.)


Arlington: I read your column last Sunday. I must admit that I am thoroughly confused by diesel prices. A few months ago after I read some positive reviews of the Jetta diesel I checked the diesel prices near my house. I found that diesel was so much more expensive than gas that any savings on mileage would be eaten by paying more for fuel. After reading your Sunday column, I noticed that one station near my house was charging $2.49 for regular but diesel was now actually lower at $2.32. So, this would be a good time to own that Jetta -- unless diesel prices spike again. Do you have any predictions going forward?

Warren Brown: Good morning, Arlington:

Here's the deal:

Recessions and/or depressions don't last forever. Recovery usually is accompanied by an increase in long-distance truck traffic.

Why is that important:

In the United States, 18-wheelers and other commercial over-the-road carriers constitute the single largest customer base for diesel. Trucks transport roughly 90 percent of the stuff U.S. consumers and businesses buy.

In a recession/depression, we don't buy much. That means fewer trucks rolling, fewer trucks drinking diesel fuel. That means lower diesel prices.

As the economy improves, more big trucks get back on the road. More drink more diesel. Diesel prices rise.

Too bad, we don't apply Europe's common sense on fuel taxes. To wit:

Diesel is 30 to 35-percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline in vehicle engines. Most European countries therefore tax diesel at a much lower rate than they tax less-efficient gasoline. But you can't get any stateside politician to even consider messing with fuel taxes.


Clifton, Va.: You should run your AC in the winter months for several minutes just to keep everything lubed up. Saves big time repair bills. It does work.

Interiors off gasing has been around for years. The VOCS do dissipate after several months of this.

Not sure its that big of a deal.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Clifton. Translation: VOCs means "volatile organic compounds." Think paint vapors or, hopefully outside the car, gasoline vapors.


Mold Central, Fla.: Hey, you might also want to make sure your air filter (the one for the cabin) is replaced pretty frequently. DC has enough humidity and heat to clog those things up pretty easily.

Warren Brown: Many thanks, Florida. "Mold Central." Ha! That's the entire Gulf Coast, isn't it?


Manhattan, KS: Hi Warren, we're expecting our 3rd kiddo which unfortunately means 3 rows to get all the car seats to fit. Barring the Mazda5, what is the most economical vehicle that offers 3 rows? Thanks!

Warren Brown: Dear Manhattan:

Congrats on Kid 3.

Now, suck it up and buy a minivan.

In order of best value (because most minivans nowaays offer good quality and safety):

. Hyundai Entourage***sold with Hyundai Assurance Plus

. Dodge Caravan***going at distressed prices

. Chrysler Town & Country***going at distressed prics

. Honda Odyssey***excellent quality, higher prices

. Toyota Sienna***Toyota lost $7.7 billion last quarter. It lost $4.4 billion for the fiscal year ended March 2009. It is likely to lose $5.5 billion for the fiscal year ending March 2010. Bottom line: Toyota is slashing prices.

I'm not recommending the Volkswagen Routan. Read my Sunday "On Wheels" column in The Washington Post to find out why.


Clifton, Va.: Penske wants to import cars from South Korea. Boo, hiss. If Penske gets any taxpayer dollars then he needs to establish production here just like GM, Ford and Chrysler. Roger isn't doing this country or Saturn any favors. Shame on Roger for scamming the U.S. tax payer!

Warren Brown: You really don't know, Penske, do you? Yeah, he'll probably import some cars from South Korea. But Saturn is being sold with an assembly plant, too. Penske knows better than anyone how to roll attractive vehicles off assembly lines. That Saturn plant, by the way, is in Tennessee, not Korea.


Arlington, Va.: OK, so given that the next 60 days are going to be the optimal time to purchase a new car, what is your recommendation for the best value in a family car that can transport 5 adults/teenagers comfortably and is not necessarily a minivan?

Warren Brown: Would you settle for a crossover utility? If so, it's well worth your while to check out the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Flex. At Toyota, you mightfind a surpising deal on the Highlander.


Fairfax, Va.: Hi, I'm trying to figure out what car to buy this summer, and am a little frustated that not many companies make a small station wagon. They either make a sporty hatchback (too small) or an SUV (too large). Can you recommend a small wagon, in a mid-level price range?

Warren Brown: Hello Fairfax. Take a look at the Nissan Rogue, Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe, Honda CR-V (which is really a wagon pretending to be a little SUV), and the Toyota Rav4 (mirrors the CR-V). My hunch, from that bunch, you'll fall in love with and choose the Honda CR-V.


Springfield, Va.: Warren- For Manhattan KS 3-row needs, what about the Kia Rondo. Likely to be the least expensive, with good safety features and a great warranty.

Warren Brown: That's all true, Springfield.


Silver Spring: Bare bones Camry or high-end Sonata? Looks like they're priced the same but have much different specs.

Warren Brown: High-end Hyundai Sonata, which, as I'm taking a quick look at the spec sheet, has more standard safety equipment and a much better warranty than the Camry.


Minneapolis, Minn.: No need to run A/C in the winter. If you run defrost ever in the winter (which we need to do around here every day) your car is also running the A/C system. It runs all through the winter in addition to the summer. (Perceived negative benefit of the cool air coming from the A/C is outweighed by the postive benefit of the air being dried by the A/C.)

Warren Brown: Thank you, Minneapolis.


Manhattan, KS: Oops, I should've written "fuel-efficient vehicle with 3 rows." We're trying to avoid the ol' minivan & have looked at the RAV-4 with 3rd row, ditto for the Highlander but it seems that all have pretty dismal (including the minivans) mpgs.

Warren Brown: Here's why I prefer a minivan with three rows: In a minivan, there usually is much more crash-crush space between the third-row seat and the rear door. Try to avoid getting any vehicle in which the third-row seat is right up against, or otherwise very close to that rear door.


Silver Spring: Ditto - good value on a small commuting sedan, not an econobox but not lux either?

Warren Brown: The Chevrolet Cobalt. No kidding. Good quality. Good reliability. Good Mpg. And right now being sold at a heck of a good price.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Brown,

Do you know of any websites (or maginzines) in which you can get info regarding the history of cars and their "weak" spots or problems areas of cars?

Warren Brown: Consumer Reports. Cross-check with


Alexandria, Va.: for Manhattan, KS: How about a Mazda CX-9 too?

Warren Brown: Yes, that one slipped my mind. It's also among the better-looking of the bunch.


Takoma Park: What is up with the "Chrysler" Routan? What is VW thinking?

Warren Brown: I don't know what VW was thinking. Simply goofy. Makes even less sense than the VW Phaeton. Geez!


Sykesville, Md.: Most modern vehicles (re: last 15 years), run the A/C compressor when you run your defrost as the compressor takes out moisture from inside the car. If you run your defroster in the winter, you are running the A/C compressor

Warren Brown: Thank you, Sykesville. The things you learn in this chat! Thanks.


Springfield, Va.: Hi - Love your column! What do you think about the Mazda CX-9? I've grown tired of the minivan and would like a more sporty car that still retains the 3rd row.

I'm looking for a good 2008 used you think now is a good time to buy Mazda given the car inventory overload?

Warren Brown: Yes, Springfield:

The CX9 is one of my favorite crossovers. Good ride and handling. Excellent build quality and styling. And Mazda is cutting deals, too.


Falls Church, Va.: I am considering buying either a Rabbit or Civic. Any comments or suggestions? Thanks!

Warren Brown: Shop for price. Both are high-quality subcompacts. Shop for price and servicing convenience.


RE: Your alert to new Car buyers: Warren,

I pay off my current car literally next month. The plan was to wait a little while and enjoy not having a car payment, maybe save a little money, and get a new car in a year or two.

When you say things like "Best situation for buyers in US History," I can't help but feel like acting now might be a better option than waiting.

What's your professional opinion? I.E. just how good is the situation for buyers now compared to what it will be in, say, 2 years?

Warren Brown: We should be well along the road to economic recovery in two years, according to many of the economists who helped us slide into the current mess. But, assuming that they know what they're talking about this time: Automotive production and demand should be in sync, or falling out of sync in a way unfavorable to consumers. Here's what I mean:

Cars are getting older on U.S. roads, now an average 9.4 years versus 9.2 years in 2006 and something like 8.3 years in 2000. Scrappage rates are increasing. Car manufacturers are becoming much more cautious about ramping up production. It all speaks to a possible explosion of consumer pent-up demand, which, if it happens, speaks to higher prices.


Alexandria, Va.: You are suggesting that people take advantage of the price opportunity by buying GM.

Should I be concerned about someone honoring the warranty and servicing the vehicle?

Warren Brown: Your warranty will be honored -- first via federal guarantees and, secondly, via the New General Motors (NGM).


Warren Brown: So many questions. So litle time. I'm saving the ones I didn't answer in preparation via answer y blog. Stay tuned. Thanks Delece and Amy for another great production.

Eat lunch, Ria.


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