washingtonpost.com
Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, June 26, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, June 26, 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.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Mr. Brown, my husband and I read your articles and enjoy both your knowledge and philosophy. My husband has a big birthday this year (60) and has yearned for a car that would draw looks. I am far more practical and he has followed my more conservative car choices. However, in honor of this birthday and because he continues to work so hard I thought I'd surprise him with a car. What are your top choices for a "hot" 4 door sedan that I could buy (preferably and probably slightly used) for about $35-40K? thank you

Warren Brown: Good morning, Silver Spring:

That amount could get you into a new Volkswagen CC, a car that both attracts looks--thus, pleasing your husband--and honors your more practical side.

And here's something you've never considered, probably.

Buick. Yes, Buick. Particularly the new Buick LaCrosse. It's better looking than the CC--probably the best-looking mid-full-size family sedan available. And it'll run against anything in its price category in terms of quality, reliability, safety and performance.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Say it isn't so, Warren! Your reviews are great, and the service you provide your readers, especially through this chat, is immeasurable. You are patient, kind, critical-thinking yet constructive, and a great writer to boot. If there is a new phase in your career, then I wish you happy motoring; if it means more time to do what you'd like, all the better. But you will be missed. Thank you.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Harrisburg. Thank you all. Not to worry. I'll continue On Wheels in The Post on contract. This Real Wheels chat line is likely to continue under the same contract (working that out).

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Washington, D.C.: Warren, the 2010 Equinox looks like a real winner for Chevy. Your thoughts?

Warren Brown: It took Chevrolet a while to get that one right--that's "right" in terms of being competitive with excellent small crossovers such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota Rav-4. But, yes, Chevy's got it, now. In terms of overall quality, performance and fuel economy--and exterior design--the new Equinox is a contender.

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State College, Pa.: Warren, my wife has been car shopping lately, and since she's not sure what type of vehicle she wants, we've test-driven both sedans and crossovers. I've experienced a problem in several vehicles of both types, and am wondering if I'm alone.

The problem is that the head restraint extends too far forward and pushes my head farther forward than I'd like. I've had the issue in both sedans and crossovers, but not all. And it isn't limited to any one brand. I think part of the problem is that I'm tall (6'3") and like to sit more upright than my wife. I end up having to recline the seat back more than I want... which means I have to move the seat up to comfortably reach the steering wheel... which means I'm too close to the pedals. I simply can't get comfortable.

Have you had this problem, or heard it from others? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Hello, State College:

That is a common problem, especially for tall motorists. It's because the design and functioning of vehicle safety components--such as air bags and anti-whiplash systems--are meant to meet an average body percentile (say, men 5'7" weighing 150 lbs.) where the component is estimated to offer the best range of protection. Needless to say, be we short or tall, some of us will fall out of that range.

In your case, you and your wife will have to shop for a car together and find a vehicle with an interior that suits both of you.

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20024: My car qualifies for CARS program. What economical cars do you favor when I just need a car to commute 30 miles each way alone?

Warren Brown: Honda Fit

Ford Focus

Chevrolet Cobalt (good deal there).

Chevrolet Aveo (really good deal there, fully loaded)

Toyota Corolla

Mazda3 (if you can find one)

Hyundai Elantra (good deal, great warranty)

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Kensington, Md.: A few weeks ago I asked about the attractiveness of a full size pickup truck consisting of Ford chassis, Cummins engine, and Allison transmission, the best of the U.S. best. Last Friday, Chrysler as part of the bankruptcy proceeding, rejected its contract with Cummins for the production of its new 5.0 liter light truck engine. Cummins says it will continue development of the engine and Ford emerges from its soured contract with Navistar for light truck diesel engines at the end of the year.

My point is this. The bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler may well be an opportunity for new combinations of high quality supplier components without the legacy issues associated with the old companies. When I look at the landscape of the automotive industry I see much of it being high tech highly engineered subsystems made by independent suppliers. With only 40,000 hourly employees GM is reduced to design, assembly, and marketing. Any comments on the potential for a non vertically integrated US auto industry going forward?

Warren Brown: Dear Kensington:

The U.S. automobile industry--the global automobile industry, in fact--is non-vertically integrated. It's been that way for decades. First-tier suppliers (Cummins is an example)increasingly are taking more responsibilities for component engineering and design. Plant assembly processes, be they for domestic or foreign car companies, routinely involve a kind of plug-and-play assembly of entire pre-assembled components such as instrument panels, safety-restraint systems, lighting systems. That kind of vehicle development, design and assembly will become more rather than less the case for all car companies in the future.

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Bristow, Va.: The President signed the CARS bill on June 24th, when will the program be up and running?

Warren Brown: Hello, Bristow.

Best estimate for actual launch of CARS program is fall 2009.

Most car company web sites are putting up info bulletins detailing how the bill is likely to affect the purchase prices of models they offer.

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Hawley-Smoot: Good Morning Warren, congratulations on your semi-retirement. I will miss reading your car culture column. We are in the market for a new vehicle and are interested in a sedan. We have looked a Saturn Aura and Saab 9-3. The Fusion/Milan Hybrid (Is there any difference) sounds intriguing. We prefer to stay under $30,000. Not really interested in a status symbol so all things being equal we would buy domestic. Could you recommend a vehicle that has the most value for the money?

Warren Brown: I'd go with the Fusion Hybrid, which is the Milan Hybrid at a lower price. It hands-down is one of the best family hybrids available. But don't take my word for it. Drive both the Toyota Prius and Camry hybrids. Then, drive the Fusion Hybrid. I think the experience will speak for itself.

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Arlington, Va.: Any thoughts on the Nissan Cube? I dig the funky looks, and the CVT is supposedly good. I haven't decided what I think about Nissan overall just yet. Thanks.

Warren Brown: I'm driving it, now. Love it! Love it! It's as much art as it is car in both exterior and interior styling and overall sensory experience (one of the best vehicle sound systems at any price). I've got to put more miles on it to see if that INITIAL assessment holds up. But so far, so good.

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Mini Cooper: Mr. Brown, I'm sorry to see you take the buyout package... as I've always thought you were one of the Post's best - and most useful - reporters. Enjoy yourself.

Here's my question - is it true that the D.C.- area Mini Cooper dealers are all, er, lousy? I've heard this and that, coupled with how inconvenient they are if you live in D.C., is really weighing against my purchase of a Mini, which is what I'd like to buy as it seems to offer the best combo of good gas mileage and handling/quality interior. Other ideas? (and I've looked at Ford's vehicles - too long for my garage! I need under 185 inches).

Warren Brown: I'm rather chary about saying area Mini dealers are "lousy." I will say that a few of them need to take some courses in customer-friendly handling. There's a certain arrogance--probably because the Mini is one of the few cars selling well nowadays. I've seen this before, when Honda and Toyota were super-hot. But the Mini is an excellent combination of size, safety, fuel economy, road performance and fun. Hard to beat. Others? VW Jetta Tdi is one of my favorites. Good "city" size. Great performance and fuel economy.

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CARS: I have researched this and I think very few people/cars will qualify for this program. I hope the previous poster realizes that to participate the trade in car must have an official combined MPG of 18 or less - and very few cars do, unless they are high performance vehicles. I explored the government site quite a bit trying to find cars that were eligible and it was very few. My car did not, despite the fact that I have always gotten fewer than 15 mpg, despite driving a 5-speed carefully. Your views?

Warren Brown: You're right. That's why I lost my initial enthusiasm for the plan after studying it carefully. I think it will be of limited value in boosting new-car sales, and even less value in reducing fuel consumption in this country.

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Germantown: Not knowing when Fiat will start marketing it's vehicles in the States, will Fiat be competition for the Smart Car (which I like) or the Honda Fit, or...?

Warren Brown: Fiat, if my guess is correct, will use Chrysler to compete in every segment of the U.S. market, including pickup trucks. The Fiat-Chrysler merger isn't just about small cars in a country where trucks, even in this weak economy, still consume a healthy share of the market.

Remember, you heard it here first:

Fiat will use Chrysler to move into pickups.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Warren, if you had to choose between getting a Genesis Coupe or a Camaro, which would you pick and why?

Thanks!

Warren Brown: Bethesda, you've just proved a point I'm making in this Sunday's "On Wheels" column:

The Genesis Coupe is much more a Camaro than it is a Genesis--a member of Hyundai's new luxury group. Better still, the Genesis Coupe is the best Tiburon coupe Hyundai ever made. But it doesn't beat the Camaro. Drive both. You'll see what I mean. My hunch is that you'll buy the Camaro.

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Scranton, Pa.: Mr. Brown, I hope you will address this: Why isn't this "Cars for Clunkers" program really called "Cars for 10-year old SUVs" program? My 15-year-old Ford Taurus is TOO fuel efficient to qualify. This is baffling to me. Please help me to understand.

Warren Brown: It seems to me, Scranton, that you understand perfectly. It's another piece of legislation authored by people who have little understanding of the U.S. vehicle market.

Practically, the only vehicles that meet the 18 mpg (combined city/highway) trigger level are SUVs, pickup trucks and high-performance vehicles.

So, what? We're going to turn in an 18-mpg SUV for a new one that gets 20 mpg? Big whoop!

How many people are going to trade-in SUVs for Prius Hybrids. Not many. Not likely.

How many will ditch their Aston Martin, Corvette, and Porsche cars for, hmm, Honda Civics? Not many. Not likely.

CARS is wishful thinking translated into a $1-billion bill for U.S. taxpayers.

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Silver Spring, Md: Cash for Clunkers (aka CARS) See www.cars.gov for details. Here's a clip from the actual law:

"(A) GENERAL PERIOD OF ELIGIBILITY- A voucher issued under the Program shall be used only in connection with the purchase or qualifying lease of new fuel efficient automobiles that occur between July 1, 2009 and November 1, 2009."

The rules will take a couple months to be finalized but the vouchers will apply to purchases on July 1 and later. Not good news for salesmen trying to reach their June targets but July should be a very good month!

Warren Brown: Thank you, Silver Spring.

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Centreville, Va.: Mr. Brown, appreciate your insightful chats and columns. I'm a 24- year-old working professional with a little bit of money saved up. Time for me to move on from my 2003 Corolla. I want to spend between $25-30K on an entry-level (used with low mileage) luxury car.

I have looked at the Acura TL and Lexus IS. Is one better than the other? And any other cars I should consider? Thanks!

Warren Brown: Go with the Acura TL. Best bang for the buck.

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20024 again don't forget the Scion xB or xD: Great deals on the xD. I love mine even after 26,000 miles, and yes I did try the Fit. I don't know why you keep overlooking the Scion models in the chats!

20024: My car qualifies for CARS program. What economical cars do you favor when I just need a car to commute 30 miles each way alone?

Warren Brown: Honda Fit Ford Focus Chevrolet Cobalt (good deal there). Chevrolet Aveo (really good deal there, fully loaded) Toyota Corolla Mazda3 (if you can find one) Hyundai Elantra (good deal, great warranty)

Warren Brown: You're right, absolutely right. My problem? It's hard for my brain to pronounce "Scion." But, yes, you're right. And I thank you for the heads-up. Or, was that a knock on the head? Thanks anyway.

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Phila, Pa.: With your upcoming semi-retirement, who will remind Ria to eat lunch!

Good luck and enjoy!

Warren Brown: I will. Ria will continue to work with me in my contract phase with the Post.

Thank you all for joining us today. Please come back next week. We'll be here.

Thanks for producing today, Sakina Rangwala.

Eat lunch, Ria.

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