Real Wheels

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

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, July 10, 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.


Silver Spring, Md.: Looking for a used not too expensive roadster to drive around as a second car. Price range $17-25K, 2005-2008. I have narrowed it down to a Mazda Miata, Z4, S2000, or Nissan 350Z convertible. How would you rank my choices and which would you choose overall and why.

Warren Brown: Good morning, Silver Spring. In your price range, I'd suggest the Miata (best for the money). I'll also offer two you should not overlook--the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, two good little roadsters that could be on their way toward becoming collectors' items.


Hagerstown: Warren, I read recently that Chrysler is starting up the factory that makes the Dodge Caliper, and Jeep Compass. Why would they do that since there is still a huge glut of unsold models already out there? After emerging from bankruptcy I had higher hopes that they would take the necessary steps to eliminate the totally mediocre models such as the Compass, Sebring, and Caliper - not build more of them!

Warren Brown: Not so fast, Hagerstown. Chrysler is now operating under the aegis of Fiat, which is fast becoming a master of flexible manufacturing under its leader, Sergio Marchionne. Before we judge, let's see what he actually rolls out of that factory.


Alexandria, Va.: Warren, I will miss your Car Culture opinions and hope you continue writing the car reviews, and having this chat, for a long, long time to come.

However, I was surprised to see in your final column a reference to "African-Americans On Wheels," "Latinos On Wheels," and "Asian-Americans On Wheels." Do you think that different ethnic groups drive differently or have different needs in cars? If so, as an Italian-American, I am hurt that my ethnic group was not represented. C'mon, Warren! Italian drivers are legendary! Especially with Fiat now owning Chrysler, isn't it time to have an "Italian-Americans On Wheels" edition??

From the bottom of my Italian heart, I wish you all the best in your sort-of retirement. Please let us know where we can find "Decisive" magazine, so we can continue reading your commentaries. The Post is definitely going to be the poorer for your absence.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Alexandria. Yes, I will continue writing the On Wheels column and holding these chats, I hope, for a long time to come. As for my 15 years of work with On Wheels, Inc., publisher of African Americans on Wheels, Asians on Wheels, Latinos on Wheels, which will now be rolled into Decisive Magazine, here's the hard truth:

. We at On Wheels, Inc. have found a wonderfully profitable niche. We've developed/exploited it, and will continue to do so.

. Why? Again the hard truth: People in this country talk about a post-racial America, especially with Obama in office. But the truth is, including in the general media, they do something else, which is to ignore minorities in various business and social segments.

Questions: Who are Ed Welburn and Ralph Gilles? What do they do? How have they influenced the industry? Who are the leading Asian and Latino automotive designers, engineers? Have you ever heard of Marion Luna Brem, one of the hottest automobile dealers in the nation?

Our readers know these people. We bring them to them. The general media generally doesn't.

We break it down for our readers. We look inside the industry to see what Asian Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans and Native Americans are doing and not doing. We closely track what they buy and don't buy. We ask "Why?" And we bring those answers and consumer insights back to an industry that is happy to receive and respond to them.

Heck, it's multi-ethnic market research.

It's not about civil rights. It's about business. It's about making people who generally are overlooked, or treated as an addendum to "diversity," treated with the importance--importance to society and the marketplace--they truly deserve.

It's not the fault of On Wheels that the general media has left that money on the table. As long as we can make our magazine's constituents feel good about being included, and do so profitably, we're going to continue to do it. We're black, brown, red and yellow. We're all Americans, and darned proud of it. But make no mistake, we're also deep-down, red-blooded CAPITALISTS.


Warren Brown: Here's my take on GM emerging from bankruptcy:

My opinion is doubtless heresy to conventional wisdom, which says that the government's salvation of GM represents a waste of money, which doubts that GM will ever do well enough to pay back the billions it borrowed, which believes that the new, smaller GM that emerged from bankruptcy this week won't make it. I say all of that is wrong. Here's why:

. Bankruptcy was the best thing that ever happened to GM. It accelerated a necessary reorganization that began 20 years ago, but was marred by a buddy-buddy, ease-the-pain corporate culture that postponed crucial decisions, including closing plants and getting rid of underperforming brands.

. That GM was forced to do all of those things and do them quickly under pressure from the government and the eyes of a federal bankruptcy court is a good thing.

. GM's problems in the last decade stem not form product quality. It stemmed from costs, lousy marketing, and being on the wrong side of a consumer perception gap.

. By focusing solely on its core brands, three of them (Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac) global, GM now has the opportunity to prove what those of us who have long followed the company know to be true: GM makes darned good, globally competitive automobiles.

. GMC, the remaining truly domestic division, makes good trucks. It has long been a winner in its own right.

. Here's betting that the new General Motors Company will be able to take advantage of pent-up demand in the marketplace, compete with and beat most rivals in the marketplace, and pay back the billions it borrowed from the government a lot more quickly than critics believe.


Vero Beach, Fla.: Pontiac Solstice has to be collectible. I had several hours to admire one while purchasing a Vibe.

Warren Brown: Yeah, Vero Beach. I think that will be a collectible along with the Saturn Sky.


6th and E.: Warren, with GM's emergence from bankruptcy, what changes will be most tangible to the consumer, in regards to the way that business is done at GM? And, going forward, how will New GM avoid the miss-steps of the very recent past (e.g., the Solstice's trash can plastic interior, Pontiac G3, and the four years it's taken to get the Spark/Beat concept to market).

Warren Brown: Hello 6th and E:

The new GM will be more focused. Let's face it: It doesn't make much sense to sell essentially the same vehicles through multiple outlets that require their own marketing and other business arrangements. That money could go into better products, better materials. And as I've just finished telling German television ( which is why I was absent for a bit), the new GM will be a global GM. Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac already are global brands. They will remain so. I'll say it again: Bankruptcy is the best thing that ever happened to GM.


Haymarket, Va.: What is with these "active head restraints?" I have passed up buying several new cars (e.g., BMW) because the head restraints push your head so far forward that they prevent your shoulder blades from touching the seat back. I find that really uncomfortable, and I know many others feel the same way.

Warren Brown: Hello, Haymarket:

Your complaint is becoming legion. The problem is that we live in a world of tradeoffs. Many of those old "comfortable" head rests were doing a lousy job of preventing or reducing neck injuries, such as whiplash, especially in rear-end crashes. To improve neck safety, car companies and their suppliers (led by Saab and Volvo, if memory serves correctly) redesigned headrests into substantially more effective (and obviously less comfortable) head restraints.

Without embracing flippancy, I ask: Which would you prefer, a safe neck or a more comfortable place to rest your head? I get it. You want both. Point taken. The company that delivers both will be the company that wins.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Warren, I'm looking to buy a new car (either an Accord or a Camry), and am curious about some of the car buying services offered through AAA and various credit unions. How effective are these compared to negotiating the purchase yourself?

Warren Brown: They are all good, Washington. I call them "anxiety relief services." My favorite is the one operated by Washington Consumers Checkbook, The Center for the Study of Services. The Checkbook people have an excellent take on the Washington-area auto retail market. Google them and follow up. You won't be sorry.


Anonymous: Hi Warren, am curious to know if the new Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrains are twins to the current Saturn Vue, or are they radically different? Any thoughts on how they differ and which one do you recommend? Thanks!

Warren Brown: As you probably know, Anonymous, those three rides were developed on the same platform with various product-specific changes via computer-assisted design. So it comes down, once again, to the problem of marketing. Chevy and GMC have the historical clout there. Saturn doesn't, which is why Saturn and its marketing and other business maintenance costs are going away...from GM, at least. That should free up GM to put even better stuff in the already much-improved Equinox, for example.


Alexandria, Va.: Frustrated by GM/Chevy. They sell a version of their pickups Silverado/Sierra with a hybrid engine.

Of course, according to their websites, there isn't 1 in stock within 100 miles.

Warren Brown: Good point, Alexandria. The problem is batteries. The hybrid batteries, mostly nickel-metal hydride, are slow coming in. That's putting pressure on hybrid availability for many car companies. Also, keep in mind that during the current unhappiness, lots of Chevy dealers were cut and others were holding back on orders awaiting the outcome of the bankruptcy matter.


Oregon: We are looking to trade in our clunker for a new SUV. We'd like to keep our cost under $25K, and need to get at least 17 mpg out of the new SUV. Currently looking at Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda CRV. Any other models you'd suggest checking out?

Warren Brown: Hello, Oregon:

In that case, go with the best value--defined as the amount of good for the amount of money spent. That would be the Hyundai Santa Fe.


New York : This is something that has bothered me for years. Have you ever looked for your car in a lot and wondered why there was such a degree of sameness to all car designs? Look at the cars we loved in the old days: the fancy chrome and beautiful design touches they used in the 50's made those cars classics for all time. I know that the next wave of cars that GM comes out with has to be very aerodynamic, and that tailfins aren't coming back any time soon, but don't you think that there is a niche here that the US car companies could exploit: make the cars look distinctive, with unique designs that are visually striking, and not rounded masses of plastic and metal that look vaguely like Camrys and Accords?

Warren Brown: Yes, New York, I do wish we had more strikingly different designs. But I suspect that we are well along the road to aerodynamically generic auto body sculpture. The reasons are many. Not the least among them are government mandates worldwide that car companies deliver more miles per gallon. Arrows do a much better job of meeting those mandates than do blocks or other elaborately sculpted bodies with fins.


Washington, D.C.: With the hype and interest over plug-in hybrids or fully electric cars, what are the plans to address the infrastructure to support such cars for those who do not live in single-family homes? (You can't drag an extension cord across the parking lot of an apartment or condominium complex, or hang them out of the windows of high-rise residences, can you?)

And doesn't electricity just shift the petroleum based energy use directly from the car to the electric company? What is the overall benefit?

Warren Brown: Hello, Washington:

The overall benefit is a reduction in mobile-source pollution and, maybe, our dangerously chronic need for foreign oil.

My caveat speaks to your concerns.

1. Yes, we're just shifting pollution and fossil fuel usage to another source--power plants, most of which are powered by oil and coal.

2. If you live in what was once the beautiful mountain state of West Virginia, you wouldn't like that. Seeing once glorious mountains scraped into obscurity in the pursuit of coal to power power plants to power plug-in cars and other devices does something to the soul.

3. The problem is that the laws of thermodynamics are never put on hold. It is impossible to use energy without creating some kind of pollution (energy transformed from useful to spent) somehow, somewhere. The only way to stop that process is to embrace entropy. Death. The end of movement. That's not something most of us want to do.


Reston, Va.: Warren: Will GM let Chevy build cars (only cars) and let GMC build all the trucks (including Silverado and Taho)? Otherwise, what does GMC buy me other than shinier Chevy trucks.

Warren Brown: Good question, Reston.

But my hunch is that shutting down Chevy Trucks won't happen anytime soon. The reason is that Chevy Trucks has a strong, very loyal buyer base. Ditto GMC, which, oddly, has beat-you-down loyalists in the construction industry. As long as both divisions can be operated profitably, they'll be around.


Reston, Va.: Warren, what's your take on the new 2019 Legacy/Outback? As a Subaru fan, it's been amazing to me that they've been able to post a sales increase (though meager) on the year, while most have been looking at more than 20% losses.

Warren Brown: I'm guessing you mean 2010, because 2019 is a long time away in the auto world. Subaru is going more mainstream in design. That will please some and turn away others. But Subaru will continue to do well as long as it continues to do what it does, which is to build reasonably priced, excellently designed all-wheel-drive cars and wagons that serve well buyers living in snowy areas and on or near rough terrains.


Springfield, Va.: Warren- and what role in GM's recovery do you see the extensively engineered but exorbitantly priced Volt? Will it prove to be an albatross in a market where more conventional but affordable hybrids are apt to be more market-friendly?

Warren Brown: Well, Springfield:

The Volt is important to the media and, as a result, to GM publicists. But the cars that will boost GM's sales are the upcoming Chevy Cruze, the continuously improving Chevy Malibu, the Chevrolet Camaro, and the beat-anything-comparable-from Toyota Buick LaCrosse.

Frankly, I think most fuel-misers, hybrids or otherwise, will continue to hold a minority share of the U.S. market as long as our political leaders keep their heads in the sand on the matter of pricing gasoline. Fuel-efficient cars have taken a much bigger hit than less-efficient models in the current recession.


Arlington, Va.: I just wanted to highlight a huge problem with the auto industry. I saw one of their chief psychologists interviewed on 60 Minutes. He talked about the reptilian instinct -- basically what drives us to buy giant, tank-like cars. What bull!

Case in point: My father has basic 1992 Chevy pickup with over 300K miles (no 4 wheel drive, no extended cab, etc.) He went to a dealer to buy a new truck. He asked: "replace that truck." No one had anything comparable. Everything was decked out with lots of extra junk. Needless to say, dad is still driving his old pickup.

I don't know where the industry conducted market research, but it sure was not in my old neighborhood.

Warren Brown: H'mmm....

I live in Arlington. I can take your Dad to at least five dealers in our area (and Alexandria) who carry front-wheel-drive trucks and a few who carry traditional single cabs. Don't blame the industry for the dearth of single cabs. Blame the market. Truth is, single cabs from all makers have been passed over in the market, rendering them unprofitable to develop and produce. Car companies aren't any dumber than the rest of us. They are not going to produce what people have demonstrated they aren't going to buy.


Clifton, Va.: Sorry Warren, Chrysler is not operating on the aegis of Fiat but rather the Obama's car czar and other political flunkies who know nothing about the car business w/the UAW having a big say.

Both GM and Chrysler should have filed Chap 11 w/o any assistance from the govt both companies would have had a better chance of survival since they could have 86'd their union contracts and health and pension liabilities.

Chrysler's chance of surviving 5 years maybe 10% and GM maybe 25%. Reason govt and union will not let the companies do what they need to do to survive and produce the vehicles we want to buy. Instead our wonderful govt controlled by Ivy league lawyers will produce green vehicles that will not sell in flyover country where GM and Chrysler sell the bulk of their vehicles.

I work w/govt lawyers on a daily basis and they don't have a clue about real life and folks outside major urban areas.

Warren Brown: I am happy, Clifton, that you are not running anybody's car company. Were you in charge, I'd believe your grim estimates for survival.

But the facts are, like it or not, that Fiat is running Chrysler and the government and the unions aren't telling GM what to build anymore than they've done so in the past.

Like it or not, governments the world over set safety and environmental standards for cars and trucks, effectively affecting what ultimately is brought to market.


NW Washington: Warren -- Help! My wife wants to buy a car dealing only with a salespersons over the internet; her sister just did so in Texas and got a great deal. I have never done this, never needed a car before, and I am at a loss. Can you tell me how something like this would work?

Warren Brown: Your wife, NW Washington, is ahead of you on this particular curve. Trust me, by the time she actually shows up at a dealership to collect her car, she'll know everything there is to know about the model chosen, the available financing, her credit rating, prices charged by competing dealers, available discounts and insurance costs. Any dealer who tries to mess with a woman armed with that kind of information is a fool. There aren't many fools out there. If your wife happens runs into one, she won't deal. Period. My advice: Be quiet. Leave the woman alone. And let her do what she is doing.


North Potomac, Md.: Read the article the other day on GM and the Malibu. I know as a former employee of an OEM that GM and Ford are making significantly improved products. I have a brother who never owned an American car in his life (owns a Morgan) gives you an idea of where his head is at. He rented one on business and told me how impressed he was with the vehicle. It will simply take a grass roots word of mouth campaign to change the perception. Advertising may not convince anyone that GM has better quality products. The proof is in the pudding.

By the way good luck on all your future endeavors... however I know you will still be around for me on Sunday mornings I look forward to coffee and an auto review.

Warren Brown: Many thanks, North Potomac. Points well taken, with the exception of any concurrence on comments about your brother. I'll stay out of that. You're right. Consistent quality and word of mouth about that quality is what will build the new GM.


Warren Brown: Thanks for joining us today. Thanks for a great production, Sakina and Rocci. My apologies for breaking of from you for German TV. Please come back next week. Hey, Ria, lady it's way past time to eat lunch.


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