Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, June 5, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, June 5, 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.


Rockville: Do you know what the real story is on Jack Fitzgerald? Why would so many of his dealerships be targeted for closure? Do the manufacturers dislike him? If he were as successful as he appears to be why would they close so many (7?) of his dealerships?

Warren Brown: Good morning, Rockville:

The real story on Jack Fitzgerald is that he's one of the most customer-friendly dealers in the nation. It's truly puzzling to me why so many of his domestic dealerships have been marked for closure in the current economic environment. Some of his colleagues are suggesting political payback, although there is little concrete proof of that. What is known is that Fitzgerald has been one of the harshest critics of the domestic automobile companies, constantly pointing out their often low quality rankings in Consumer Reports surveys. Here's hoping that GM and Chrysler aren't silly and petty enough to use their bankruptcies to get back at Fitzgerald. Here's hoping...

_______________________ For Car Dealers, the Hardest Sell Is on the Hill (Post, Thursday, June 4, 2009 )

Warren Brown: Check out this Post piece for more on Fitzgerald.


Columbia, Md.: I really hope you post my question today.

Anyway my question had to do with the role of the car salesmen at the dealerships. I keep hearing about great deals (also in your chat of last week) and how "they are giving cars away," but in my husband and son's experience, they've not been able to get any good deals. They've been looking for a truck for several weeks now. They bring in newspaper ads, and are told, "Oh, no, we don't have that vehicle." Kind of a bait and switch deal. They were told on Memorial weekend to go home and have a cold drink. (Also dealers typically are not open on Sundays, and that held true for Memorial weekend, which appeared in the papers to be a great sale weekend.)

Dealing with salesmen at auto dealerships has never been a pleasant thing in our experience, and it does not seem to have changed. What are we doing wrong? Are we the only ones to experience this phenomenon? I realize that one has to be very educated in the true cost of the car and know what you want and what you are willing to spend. Still, the dealers do not seem willing to deal (and there does not appear to be a lot of buying from their observation either), and it is contrary to what we hear all over the news.

Please explain. I wish buying a new car were not such a painful experience.

Warren Brown: Hello, Columbia:

Any dealer who dismisses you with an invitation to "go home and have a cold drink" isn't worthy of your business. That kind of dumb behavior in today's retail environment is hard to fathom.

As for good deals, there are many of them. Some Chrysler dealers who have received termination letters are offering as much as 40-percent off certain models. Car sales in general, and truck sales in particular are down everywhere, prompting many retail discounts.


Go to a library or newsstand and get a copy of Automotive News. Turn to the rear section of that journal, where there usually are tables listing customer and dealer incentives on specific models, as well as vehicle production numbers and available manufacturer inventories--the latter often listed in terms of days' supplies.

A normal supply is 60 days. But things haven't been normal in the automobile industry for quite some time. Most car companies nowadays have been exceeding 60 days' supply by quite a bit. That's bad for the manufacturers and their dealers, but good for you.


Avoid schadenfreude, laughing at or gleefully trying to take advantage of someone's ill fortune on the premise that the unfortunate soul is getting his or her due.

Schadenfreude seldom brings out the best in people. Go for the best deal you can get. But be generous of spirit in the process.


McHenry, Ill.: Warren, wondered if you have had a chance to drive a new Ford Escape or Merc Mariner with the I4 engine. I was hesitant to buy a 4, but find with my new Merc that the superb 6-speed trans compensates well. Aside from a bit of engine buzz, the 4WD vehicle gets gas mileage in the mid-20's and runs well at 70 mph. Excellent quality and competitive pricing from these Detroit products.

Warren Brown: I've driven both and find myself generally in agreement with your assessment. That engine buzz usually occurs at higher speeds--annoying, but not disastrously so. Thank goodness that Ford has now gone to more efficient six-speed automatic transmissions. They make a big, favorable difference in fuel economy and driving feel.


Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Brown, Mazda 3 or Subaru Impreza? Or Mazda 3 HB or Subaru Impreza HB?

Warren Brown: Hello, Gaithersburg:

If you don't need wheel, go with the Mazda3, which generally is more fun to drive than Subaru's all-wheel-drive Impreza.


Springfield, Va.: Warren, does Penske's purchase of Saturn now mean we can expect to see more diesel-powered models in their lineup? Seriously, what direction is the company's product line apt to take?

Warren Brown: Hello, Springfield:

Let's make that Penske's "proposed purchase." As yet, there's no final agreement on that matter. Assuming a confirmed deal takes place, look for a Penske Saturn to source cars worldwide. And that means, yes, there will be diesels.


Charlotte, N.C.: We rescue Alaskan malamutes, very large dogs also prone to hip dysplasia. Right now we have a Toyota Highlander and use a ramp to get the dogs unable to jump up into the vehicle. We have been thinking about trading for a Sienna, as the dogs would be able simply to walk into the vehicle, and we could take out the seats for more room and for crates during rescue transports. Unfortunately, a new one is probably out of the question. Do Siennas hold their value? We don't need fancy, just reliable. How recent a model do we need to be looking at to ensure-to the degree possible with a used car-that it will last us a few years?

Warren Brown: Hello, Charlotte:

You have a great idea. I'm sure that most local Toyota dealers will be happy to work with you. A smart dealer would use the opportunity to advertise his or her business on your Sienna, something like: "Charlotte Toyota Working to Save Man's Best Friend." Seriously. Tell the prospective dealer how you intend to use your Sienna (a really good cause, yours). That dealer might give you an extra discount in return for display advertisement on your new ride.

Otherwise, not much to worry about. There are published discounts on the Sienna. It's one of the best minivans available. It will hold its value. A base or near-base model will fit your needs.


Portsmouth, Va.: Warren, With Pontiac going away and the G8 being such a great car, might we se it rebadged as a Chevy?


Warren Brown: Yes. Something called the Camaro SS, I think.


Sale of European Operations: Mr. Brown: I thought that GM actually had reasonable profits/success from their European operations. If that's correct (and please correct me if it isn't), then what does GM gain by selling a profitable foreign unit?

Warren Brown: Yes, mostly, Opel and Vauxhall have done well for GM in Europe, which is why they are attractive buys. GM needs cash. It doesn't really need Opel and Vauxhall. The reason: GM's remaining car brands--Buick, Chevrolet and Cadillac--have all gone global--successfully.


Takoma Park: As a long time VW fan, I cannot say how disappointed I am with the "new" VW Van. VW blew a real opportunity, the U.S. market is ripe for a smaller minivan. The old Mazda MPV was popular because it was not as large as an Odyssey, or Town and Country. The new Mazda 5 is too small (the third row is a joke). I was hoping that VW's offering would fill the void. They really were short sighted on this one.

Warren Brown: I could not have said it better, Takoma Park. VW, what were you thinking? The Routan? Get real.


Penske?: Mr. Brown: what is your insight on Penske's proposed purchase of Saturn? The Captain has a remarkably successful track record (other than as a race driver -- but even then he was smart enough to step aside and put the right people in the right jobs).

But it seems odd to think that GM would supply cars to a company that is a competitor. (Although I guess they will be doing that under the terms of the Hummer deal, too).

Warren Brown: Truth is, the automobile industry is an interdependent beast. One portion feeds another. One section lives off the other.

Assuming that a Penske-Saturn deal is confirmed, look for Penske to use components or vehicle platforms from Opel, just as Chevrolet used Opel to beget its current Malibu. Penske, in turn, might use Saturn to turn out special products for GM.

Bottom line is that competition isn't always what it appears to be in the automobile industry, which is why the Toyota Matrix is also (was also) the Pontiac Vibe, and why the Chrysler Town & Country is also the VW Routan. Hint: Buy the Town & Country. It is what it is, especially with the "Swivel 'n' Go" seating option.


Hackensack : Warren, my Honda Fit's gas mileage estimate is always 5-7 MPG optimistic. What's up with that? Common across brands? I take it a little personally that my car lies to me...

Warren Brown: Ah, Hackensack:

Mileage estimates are exactly that--estimates. And estimates, up and down, are affected by many factors, including: traffic patterns, road surfaces (or, in your area, the lack thereof), personal driving styles and skills, tire inflation (or lack thereof), weather.


Naperville, Ill.: Warren,

One common theme regarding the Big Three that comes from both the government and the press is that they need to move away from trucks and SUVs to smaller vehicles.

But last year the #1 model sold in the US was the Ford F series. The Chevy Silverado was in the top 10, and would be #1 if they included the GMC sales. Dodge's full size truck was in the top 10 as well. There's been a full size trucks in the top 10 for years, along with SUVs.

I drive a full size truck as my personal vehicle, as do many of my friends and colleagues. While I know a number of people who have downsized, they usually move down to a mid-size SUV. If you own a Suburban to haul around 3 teenagers, or to pull a camper, a Prius or Volt or Camary isn't a realistic option.

If Ford or Chevy is selling more full size trucks than small cars, and they are making more money on full size trucks, why the big push for smaller cars?

Warren Brown: Ah, Naperville. You live in Naperville. Washington does not understand you. It really doesn't. The media don't understand you. We really don't. Washington and the media, especially that portion of the media ensconced in the mid-Atlantic region, the Northeast, and Hollywood, believe the world should reflect their view of the world.

To wit: Do you really believe that people who spend much of their personal transport time in yellow cabs, limousines and subway cars understand your need or affection for trucks?

I assure you, they don't.

Our version of work is sitting in front of computers manufacturing policies, stories, words, laws and regulations.

Your idea of work is hauling things, building things, planting things, the kind of things that often require the assistance of trucks. That is why trucks such as the Ford F-Class are the nation's top selling vehicles. It's because most of America, when America is working, does the kind of work you good folks do in Naperville.

We don't really understand that here in Washington. Most of the people with jobs in Washington worked their tails off--in colleges most Americans could not afford to attend--to avoid ever having to work with their hands again. They hate trucks. Too bad.

Maybe, if they had more respect for trucks and the people trucks represent, they would have paid more attention to money made the old-fashioned way--through manufacturing, planting, building.

Instead, they fell in love with money generated from money generated from building or making nothing at all. So, here we are in a collapsed economy that our genius leaders want to back together again with, ahm, Toyota Priuses.

Here's wishing them good luck with that.


Houston, Texas: Re: Columbia. I have always made a point about being as educated as possible on the "numbers"--there are a ton of sources out there. Second, I have had great success lately with dealing with the internet sales people at the dealership. Some auto insurance companies (i.e., USAA) even will give you a contact for this. Basically I took care of everything over the phone. They even sent me emails with the sticker from the car I was interested in. Just got a 2009 Toyota Corolla Le with several options for my daughter for 14.9K out the door. They basically give you a price usually just over/under the invoice--you tell them yes or no and it's done!

Warren Brown: Thanks, Houston!


Columbia, Md.: Me again! Thank you so much for answering my question with good advice, and we'll be sure to pick up Automotive News.

I was puzzled by, though the "Hint," - mention of "Schadenfreude." Perhaps you thought we were opportunistic and trying to squeeze a deal for all it's worth. Not true. Just looking for straight answers and a fair price which seemed to be elusive. I'm sorry you felt the need for that lecture.

Warren Brown: Not at all, Columbia. I'm just referring to the general environment in which consumer opportunism of the less-than-respectful sort has been rearing its ugly head on a lot of showroom floors, prompting all-too--human responses from some dealers. I wasn't pointing a finger at you.


Reston, Va.: Warren, just a suggestion to your friends at GM, The body style that they originally had for the Chevy Volt, put a hybrid 4 cylinder into that body and sell that car. It looked great and with the styling of that body it would definitely sell a lot of cars.

Warren Brown: Posted. Thank you, Reston.


Boston, Mass.: Hi Warren, saw that question on the Impreza, which reminded me to drop you a line of thanks. I asked about a WRX a few months ago in one of these chats, and ended up picking one up partially based on your agreement regarding how it matched my criteria. It has been a blast to drive, and the AWD was quite useful this Boston winter in the snow. Although, I have to say that my insurance company disagrees about the car being ugly. Sigh. Thanks again! ;)

Warren Brown: Always happy to help, Boston.


Dealership Closings: The dealership closings have created a dilemma for marketers like me:

On the one hand, anyone who's ever bought a car from a dealer probably has a story of poor treatment, high-pressure tactics, failure to follow through, and so on--which makes it pretty hard to work up sympathy for these guys.

On the other hand, the president's willingness to abrogate legally valid contracts (not just in the car business) has the makings of a "I didn't speak up, then there was no one left to speak up for me" situation.

Am I missing something?

Warren Brown: No, you aren't. I don't like the idea of a government stepping in to abrogate otherwise legally binding private business contract.


Warren Brown: Thank you all for joining us today. Please, please come back next week. Thanks for producing, Sakina. Eat lunch, Ria.


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