Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, October 9, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, October 9, 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.


Anonymous: I am ready to buy a Honda, is it a good idea to pay for an undercoat, or is it already protected?

Warren Brown: Good morning:

Forget the undercoat. Honda cars are coated, sealed and re-sealed at least 11 times before leaving the factory. Aftermarket undercoating is a waste of money.


McLean: I thought you were taking early retirement and riding off into the sunset?

Warren Brown: Nope, McLean. I took the buyout because, as my wife pointed out, the money was too good to pass up and might not be offered again, ever. But several days before accepting the buyout, I signed a freelance contract with The Washington Post. God bless American capitalism! God bless The Post!


Merrifield, Va.: Earlier this week, another Post columnist stated that you shouldn't focus on the age of a potential ride because the region it's from is more important than age. Do you agree?

Warren Brown: I disagree. Age and use matter more than region--unless the vehicle is coming from a recently or frequently flooded area. Check Carfax--that's Carfax, the vehicle title/damage research company--as opposed to CarMax, the auto retail company. A well-maintained, never-flooded vehicle coming out of Louisiana is just as good as one of similar vintage coming from California. Ditto a well-maintained, let's say, Subaru coming out of snowy Vermont versus one coming out of Arizona.

Simple fact is that today's vehicles are thoroughly tested in multiple environments before they are brought to market. I was lucky enough to participate in one of those tests--driving Mercedes-Benz Bluetec diesels from Paris to Beijing in all kinds of weather on all kinds of roads. And driving them again all over the United States. Climate didn't stop them. Good maintenance kept them going.


Washington, D.C.: My husband and I are looking to replace our Jeep Cherokee. What would you recommend as a safe, cost effective mid-size SUV? We have considered the Honda CR-V and the Toyota Rav 4. I definitely want stability control technology on the vehicle. Thank you!

Warren Brown: Hello, Washington:

You have many choices, including the two mentioned. But you'd also be wise to check out the Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Borrego, the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain, Ford Escape. Seriously. I think you'll be very pleasantly surprised at how competitive that compact SUV segment has become. Mid-size is a tad larger. But the competition, including foreign and domestic models, is super-tight there, too.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Mr. Brown: Thanks for doing these chats. My wife wants to replace her 1995 Dodge Grand Caravan with another Dodge, as the fold-down back seats are very important to her. Three quick questions:

1. Do you have any concerns about buying Chrysler products in general, given their recent problems? Their reliability never has been the best, and I'm wondering if that has declined lately.

2. Do you think the newer 4.0 Liter engine is worth the extra $700 or so over the 3.8 liter?

3. She is inclined to get rust proofing, as we have a cold climate with a lot of road salt. I think it would be a waste and could be counter-productive. What do you think?


Warren Brown: Good morning, Minneapolis:

My Chrysler concerns are easing. Credit Chrysler's people, who seem more determined than ever to prove that they can compete with anyone. Proof of that spirit is in the latest iterations of Chrysler/Dodge minivans--impeccable fit and finish, better interior materials (Yeh! It's about time.), lots of innovation (easy stowaway seats, multiple storage compartments, safe-mount family tables, terrific infotainment systems). Fiat, Chrysler's new parent company, seems determined to keep that progress going. So:

1. No, I have no concerns about buying Chrysler/Dodge minivans. Nor do I have any at all about buying Dodge trucks.

2. The new 4.0-liter V-6 offers a welcome boost in power without a commensurate increase in fuel consumption. I'd certainly consider it.

3. NO. NO. NO. Aftermarket rust-proofing/undercoating is a waste of money. I've been to many car factories. I've seen how much rust proofing and paint-sealing is done to vehicles before they leave the plants. It makes little sense to me to follow that up with expensive aftermarket undercoating that may or may not be applied correctly.


Vienna, Va.: Need to get out of my 2008 Acura MDX, greatly underestimated the need for "magic doors" of a minivan. Objective is a 2010 Toyota Sienna XLE with Op package #4, Silver or Grey. Finding dealers seem to have very few (like 1) or 0 cars on lot that match what I want so I start at a disadvantage to negotiate price. One dealer said that low inventory is here to stay and that you have to plunk down a deposit to get model, color, options you want then wait and hope it shows up in their allocation. Two years ago when I got the MDX dealers had 10 or more of each model I considered. When will the 2010s be on the lot in force? Did C4C really wipe out inventory? I can wait 3 to 6 months. How do you play this market?

Warren Brown: Hello, Vienna:

Lower inventory is NOT here to stay. Current low inventory has been caused by:

1. Recession--Manufacturers decreasing production to meet deeply curtailed consumer demand; banks cutting off dealer financing, thereby reducing inventory dealers can carry; dealers growing more cautious in ordering inventory.

2. Cash for Clunkers drought. C4C pulled forward lots of sales and practically wiped out what inventory existed.


Manufacturers, especially Toyota, are now increasing inventory, which should be reflected on dealers' lots by the end of October, certainly by mid-November.

If you can wait 3 to 6 months, wait. Study inventory (easily done by stopping by your local library and pulling out a copy of Automotive News.)

Frankly, I think you'll be in luck in getting a deal on the Toyota Sienna XLE minivan (a highly competitive choice in the minivan segment).


Minivans as a group have fallen in popularity. An image thing. That means better deals for adults who are more concerned about safely, comfortably hauling their families than they are worried about how they look doing so.


Fairfax, Va.: Warren,

In the nuts and bolts section, it always says "unleaded regular fuel", or "unleaded premium fuel". I didn't know leaded fuel was still available. Why don't we just knock off the unleaded part of that. We're not idiots. That goes also for spelling out rpm. Geeeez.

Warren Brown: Good point, Fairfax. Anal retentiveness on my part. I'll try to change in the next two weeks. Thanks.


Mobile, Ala.: Hi Warren! We just had a second child and it looks like we'll need to give our beloved 2000 Outback Legacy to my husband and get a bigger vehicle for me to drive the kids around. He's pushing for one with a double row of rear seating for when they get older. Would you recommend the Tribeca? I love my Subaru and would love to stay in the Subaru family.

Warren Brown: Hello, Mobile!

I love the latest versions of the Tribeca. It's a great family hauler. But even there, be careful about who sits in those rearmost seats. My best advice--PLEASE FOLLOW--is that you check with your local fire department and police department about how best to use those rearmost seats. Public safety and emergency services people know what happens to occupants of those seats in crashes, especially unbuckled occupants. Please, please follow their advice.


Rockville, Md.: Any suggestions on an affordable car for our teenage daughter who will be getting her license soon? I'm wondering if Kia might be what Toyota and Honda used to be: A quality car without the quality price. It seems Toyotas and Honda, even used, are priced very high.

Warren Brown: Hyundai and Kia, Hyundai's subsidiary, offer excellent quality and safety at an excellent price. Your daughter would do well in a Hyundai Elantra or, my favorite, the Kia Forte.

H O W E V E R:

If you are going to go through the expense of getting the kid a new car, you should pony up a few more bucks for a good defensive driving course. I'd recommend checking with the people at Potomac AAA or at Summit Point Raceway in Summit Point, West Virginia.

Defensive driving courses save lives, which is why state police, Secret Service and other national security officers take them. Such courses also reduce the chances of your daughter being in a fatal or injurious crash, regardless of the car she's driving.


Glassboro, N.J.: After reading the political news and worse yet, analysis of same, it is always good to go to your autos chat. With Saturn being cut out, is GM still looking to get product from Opel Germany?

Warren Brown: Yes, Glassboro, which is why GM retains a 35-percent interest in Opel. But, politics being politics, what comes from Opel won't be called Opel in the United States.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Warren,

I think GM should have gone 10/100 instead of this dumb return policy. It would have made a much bolder statement about how good they say/think their cars are. BTW, my 85-year-old father just bought his first foreign car, over all the mess with Chrysler and GM and I'm sure he's not alone.

Warren Brown: Fair enough. I'll post for GM's perusal. Who knows?


Chinatown: Hi Warren,

Being that it seems to be a slower day for you I figured I would ask a different sort of question. Being a huge fan of BBC Top Gear a number of friends and I were thinking of doing our own cheap car challenge. Putting aside issues like registration and insurance, do you think it is possible to find a quality car under $1,000? If so should I stick strictly to Japanese models or are there some deceptively good vehicles I could consider (preferably American)?

Always enjoy the blog Warren!!

Warren Brown: Hello, Chinatown:

1. No on finding a quality car under $1,000, unless it's coming from a family member who loves you.

2. Japanese hegemony over car quality is ended. You can find competitive quality from the Koreans, Germans, or the Americans.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Warren - Prius or Insight? Also, in a related question, it is my understanding that the Insight base model lacks traction control -- is this an important safety feature that is worth $1500 more? Thanks.

Warren Brown: The new Insight is more my style, feels more like a car than the Prius and offers equally good fuel economy for the way I drive. But, yes, I'd spend extra money to get the electronic stability control. I prefer having that safety device in my cars.


Alexandria: Did that D.C. lady just call a Honda CR-V a mid sized SUV? It's a Honda Civic station wagon with no ground clearance and no 4-wheel-drive. I laugh my head off when I see one of these tonka toys try to tailgate my GMC truck on 95.

Warren Brown: I know, Alexandria. But the lady is not alone in calling those wagons SUVs.


Manhattan, Kan.: Hi Warren, any thoughts on how to solve the following? We have an 09 Vibe which we love but are expecting our 3rd in December. With today's child seats, there is no way to get 3 across in the back. Unfortunately, because of Pontiac's demise & their attempt to sell everything quickly & cheaply, the value of the Vibe has plummeted so we're basically owing more than it's worth. We'd like to purchase a vehicle big enough for the expanding family & want to do this as fiscally prudent as possible. Almost forgot, we're still trying to be a one car family. Thanks!

Warren Brown: Hello, Manhattan, Kan.:

Switch to the Chevrolet Traverse. Take your Vibe to CarMax and sell separately. While you're at CarMax, you might want to inquire if there's a used Traverse available.


Chinatown: So I was driving to work this morning and I found myself behind a Taurus that was a mid-size SUV. The head-turning factor was nonexistent but the car made me wonder why a carmaker would use the name of a discontinued model for a car that is nothing like the original.

Warren Brown: There are several versions of the new Taurus, which is no longer a mid-size vehicle. It's now full-size.

There's that wagon-like thing you saw.

And there are the new very hot Taurus Sedans, including the highly demanded Taurus SHO.

Do this. Take a test drive in the new Taurus sedan, the SHO version if you can. I'm more than willing to bet that the new Taurus is nothing like the original.


Hyundai Azera seat belts: I'm the one who had the tangled/twisted seat belt last week. I went to the dealer and they fixed it, though not easily. They just used brute strength to untwist the belt in its glider (or whatever it's called; the thing that slides up and down the belt so you can connect the two ends of the belt). I'm sure there are techs out there who could some up with a better system, but maybe the automakers just all use the same basic design. I'll give the winner the Nobel Piece Prize.

Warren Brown: Hey, I'm glad you wrote. The Hyundai factory people have been bugging me for your name and address. They want to take a look at those belts. Please send me your particulars to my e-mail address, I'll pass it on to them, assuming that's okay with you.


Mt. Rainier, Md.: Warren, thanks for the chat. We're in the market for a new econo car. Mileage is very important, safety is very important. Carrying capacity (cargo mostly, dog now and then) is next. Is the Honda Fit still big on your hit parade? What else should we look at?

Warren Brown: Yep!

I love that Fit.

Also check out the Hyundai Elantra Touring. I wish it had a tad more mower. But it's fuel-efficient and has enough space to comfortably carry the world's greatest chocolate Labrador, Rosa Parks Brown.


Washington, D.C.: Seeking info about electronic stability control -- how important is this? Specifically looking at 2009 Mazda5 (doesn't have it) v. 2010 Mazda5 (will have it). Is it worth waiting to get the 2010? I'm thinking the 2009 model will have crazy incentives but I don't want to risk safety for a couple thousand dollars.

Warren Brown: It's very important, Washington. It literally can save your life. Wait for the 2010 Mazda 5 and buy it. I would not buy a vehicle that did not have electronic stability control.


Warren Brown: Thank you all for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thanks for another fine production, Sakina. And remember that the Godfather's name should show up somewhere in the baby's name. Good luck!

Eat lunch, Lady Ria.


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