Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, October 30, 2009; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, October 30, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the auto industry. Plus, he'll give purchase advice to readers. Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

The transcript follows.


Baltimore, Md.: When you reviewed the Hyundai Touring a few weeks ago, it came up as very inadequate. Now when you review the Mini Cooper wagon, you suddenly like the Touring! Is this a "make-up call" as we call it in sports? Did the car change that much?

Warren Brown: Both reviews were consistent, Baltimore. My complaints about the Hyundai Touring concerned its uphill performance and its overall performance at higher elevations, both of which were marginal/subpar. But at lower elevations, and certainly in the matter of utility, the Honda Touring, considering its pricing and overall quality, makesa a heck of a lot more sense than the Mini Cooper Clubman.

Life embraces continuous reality. What might be good at one time under one circumstance may not be good in another milieu.


Arlington, Va.: What are the chances for another "Cash for Clunkers" program? Should I wait a few months to see if Congress renews the program before buying a new car?

Warren Brown: Good Morning, Arlington:

From the perspective of automobile retailers, C4C was a major success. A number of them are reporting third quarter profits, their first quarterly profits in a year or so.

As expected, new-vehicle sales sharply turned south at the terminantion of the C4C program, indicating the possibility that car sales, at least for the time being, are unsustainable without federal assistance. We'll see how long this currrent slump lasts.

Car dealers constitute a potent lobbying group. If the current slump lasts long enough and runs deeply enough to threaten their businesses, look for them to grease up the lobbying machine for another C4C push, just in time to take advantage of congressional concerns about the 2010 election year.


Falls Church, Va.: I'd just like to comment on your review of the Mini Cooper Clubman in the Sunday Post this past Sunday. I am a 50ish-year-old woman, and I have owned a Mini Clubman S for over a year and could not disagree with your review more.Realizing it IS just your opinion, I'd like to suggest that you drive the S model and then perhaps write another review. I sold a 330 XI BMW and bought the Mini. There was a small learning curve involved, but I had driven several friends Mini's and test drove the Clubman S several times before I purchased one. It has turned out to be everything I dreamed it would be. I have taken several LONG road trips(over 1000 and 2000 miles) in it and cannot find one thing to be unhappy about. The rides were extremely comfortable, I had plenty of room for another passenger, bags and lots of "stuff", the gas mileage was over 37 mpg at 75 mph/avg speed in the mountains of NC and it was FUN to drive!!! The car handles superbly, quick, nimble responsive,and because of the torgue ratio has more pick up than my BMW had. I honestly couldn't believe what I was reading when I read your column, but then I realized you were driving a non S model. HUGE difference -- I can say that I did not feel the same way about the base model as I did the S when I drove it either. By the way, the passenger door on the right side is for safety reasons. They want the passengers to exit on the non-highway side of the road. Gotta love that German-English-Japanese engineering!!

Warren Brown: Thank you, Falls Church. You are right. My Clubman review reflected my opinion, which remains different from yours.

My wife, Mary Anne, and I are longtime Mini Cooper owners. We love the thing. But I drive everything out there, which leads me to see what makes sense and what, by comparison, makes less sense.

That said, in the matter of urban wagons, the Mini Cooper Clubman makes substantially less sense than the Hyundai Elantra Touring, despite the Touring's wimpishness in uphill travel. The Touring seats more people, five versus the Clubman's four. It has more cargo space. It has equal-to-better safety, especially when measured in terms of standard safety equipment. And it has a better sound system.

Put it all together and the Elantra Touring beats the heck out of the Clubman in terms of value for dollar, coming in at about $2,500 less than the Clubman in base prices.


Washington, DC: Hi, Warren. I went back and re-read your review of the 2008 Subaru Legacy 3.0R limited Sedan. I'm wondering if you've had the opportunity to drive a 2009 or 2010 and if so, what your assessment is. Thanks!

Warren Brown: Not only did I have the opportunity to drive the new Subaru Legacy models, Washington. I helped my oldest daughter, Binta, buy a 2009 Legacy wagon. She loves it. We love it. It drives nicely at higher elevations, a good thing for a resident of Cornwall, NY, where Binta lives. The Legacy's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system works well in the snow, another very good thing for Cornwall residents. And the Legacy wagon is a dog-lovers' delight. Our family's chocolate Labrador, Rosa Parks Brown, runs to jump into the rear cargo area every time daughter Binta, alone or with siblings and parents in tow, gets ready to take off.

Curiously, Parks, as we call our dog, doesn't do the same thing with every car, no matter how familiar she is with a visiting vehicle. We even tried driving new Legacy models, different from the one our daughter owns, to see what Parks would do.

The dog apparently loves Subaru. She runs and jumps into the rear cargo areas of new Legacy models, as well.


Takoma Park: My 2001 MPV was declared a total loss. I am only going to get about $4500 for it. I need a minivan (two kids, a dog, camping, fishing, soccer, etc), but I really don't have more than say $10-12k to spend.I am thinking of a late model MPV (one of the best minivans ever, IMHO. Perfect size. I was hoping the new VW van was going to have the same proportions...a warmed over Chrysler, WHY Volkswagen, WHY?) and the often forgotten Kia Sedona. What are your thoughts on both vehicles

Warren Brown: Hello, Takoma Park:

Frankly, considering your price range, the Kia Sedona makes perfect sense. It easily will accommodate your family and their recreational/service gear. It has excellent safety ratings from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Overall build quality is globally competitive. And it's priced right.


Annapolis, Md.: I want to buy a Jetta TDI Sportswagon, manual transmission. Any cautionary notes that you want to offer? Two reviewers at panned its air conditioning as totally inadequate in the face of the humid heat on the eastern seaboard. What is your experience or what have you heard? Thanks.

Warren Brown: I'll get slapped for this, but here goes:

German cars, in general, have subpar heating, ventillation and air conditioning systems, particularly for use in wet East Coast climates. The same, alas, is true for the Jetta TDI Sportwagon, which, like many of its German peers, tends to fog up in damp weather. In that one and other German cars, you'll push the "defrost" button...a lot.

Other than that, the Jetta TDI Sportwagon is a joy -- lots of torque, superb hanling and acceleration, and 30-percent more fuel-efficient than any comparable gasoline model.


Alexandria: Hello! What is the best way to decide which car to keep? We have a 1997 Volvo 850 and a 2002 Ford Focus. Both need work, the Volvo more than the Focus. We are fine getting rid of one just so that we aren't paying serious repair costs on two cars, but we don't know how to make the decision on which car to sell. Thanks!

Warren Brown: I'd sell the Volvo 850 and keep the 2002 Ford Focus. Here's why: Early signs are that we're beginning to exit the recession. So, if the economy improves, energy consumption is likely to increase. Increased energy consumption usually means higher fuel prices. Higher fuel prices mean higher value, both in terms of daily use and eventual sale, for your Focus.


C4C = $24K: Did you see the Edmunds report showing statistically that the incremental cars sold under the Clunkers program cost tax payers $24,000 each? Nice. And GM is still going under. At what point does the administration treat its union buddies the way it's treating the rest of us and pull the plug already?

Warren Brown: GM isn't "still going under." It has greatly reduced debt. It has world-class products. It leads sales in China, potentially the world's biggest car market. And it still has at least 19-percent of the lucrative U.S. market, more than any of its competitors domestic or foreign. How is that "going under"?


Sterling, Va.: Warren, my father is looking to buy a new car. He is 78 years old and figures this will most likely be his last car. He is interested in the Toyota Avalon, the Chevy Malibu or the Buick Lacrosse. Though he has owned American cars most of his life, he is now concerned about their quality/reliability. What would be your recommendation between these three, or any others comparable?

Warren Brown: The Buick LaCrosse.

But don't just take my word for it.

Drive the Avalon. AFTERWARDS, drive the LaCrosse.

I think the LaCrosse beats the Avalon hands down. And I'm reasonably certain that, after your comparison test drives, you will agree.

Your father can drive the LaCrosse for up to 60 days. If he does not like it, he can return it and get all, or most of his money back.

He can't do that with the Avalon.


RE: TDI air conditioning: You haven't seen how inadequate German air conditioning systems are until you've tried owning them down here in Houston. My previous A4 and current Jetta TDI can't handle our summers. Great cars otherwise.

Warren Brown: I've driven German cars all over the Deep South with the same complaint about their HVAC systems.


McLean: Warren, did you mean to write "Outback" instead of "Legacy" wagon? I thought Subaru consolidated all its wagons within the Outback line a couple of years ago.

Warren Brown: Outback Legacy. Pretty much the same thing.


Seattle: Warren, I have had four BMWs, two used, last two new. There seems to be a progressive emphasis on more complicated electronics (many failures) and less road feel. The current one, a new 535xi, requires a degree in computers to make everything (which I don't need) to work. It also has more squeaks and rattles than any previous models. Have you witnessed a decline in build quality BMWs? Thank you

Warren Brown: No, Seattle. To me, BMW build quality remains robust. But I agree with you on BMW's electronics. Totally nuts! Unneccessarily anti-intuitive, like something devised by an anti-social geek. Take, for example, the typical BMW radio. You've got to go through various "menus" to get what you want. Crazy! How difficult is it to produce an easily operated radio?


Arlington, Va.: We are looking to buy a small "commuter" car (good gas mileage, low maintenance, etc.) and don't have a lot of money. What do you recommend?

Warren Brown: Hyundai Elantra. First choice, best value for dollar.

Chevrolet Aveo. Second. Good value for dollar.

Honda Fit Sport. Third. Excellent quality. Most fun-to-drive. But could be pricey.


McLean, Va.: Warren, I'm trying to decide between the 2010 Mazda CX-7, 2010 Subaru Outback, 2009 Toyota RAV-4 (and Venza) and the 2009 Hyundai Santa Fe. Any thoughts? I don't need AWD, just the utility and versatility of a crossover/small SUV. I like the updates to the 2010 Santa Fe, but they don't appear headed to our market for a few months. Any thoughts? Thanks!

Warren Brown: Then go with the Mazda 7. I just took delivery of one. Impressive.


Queens, NY: Good morning, Warren. My fiance and I are in the market for a great used (2004 to 2008) automobile. We have done our research and we have narrowed our choices down to three models: a Mazda 6s, a VW Jetta 2.5L and a Mitsubishi Galant GTS. I read your chats and columns religiously and our passionate decisions aside, we would greatly appreciate your opinion.

Warren Brown: Out of that group, the Mazda 6 wins. Excellent quality and reliability at a reasonably fair price.


Warren Brown: Thanks for joining us today. Please come back next wek. And, yes, I still plan to find a way to answer your questions throughout the week.

Thanks for another fine production, Delece.

Welcome home, Ria. Eat lunch. And call me. Our review roster has grown quite crowded.


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