washingtonpost.com
Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, January 15, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, January 15, 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.

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Anonymous:

It seems like Toyota and Honda are the U.S.'s two top automakers based on perceptions of quality, though for Toyota, that reputation has taken quite a beating as of late. How much of a beating would it need to take to adversely affect new car sales/resale values?

Also, I read the "Yugo" book review article recently here in the Post, and found it very interesting. I hadn't realized that Toyota and Honda moved into larger cars beyond the Civics and Corollas because of their desire to make more money once they began voluntarily self-imposed import quotas in the 80's. Had there been no anti-Japanese sentiment and therefore no self-imposed quotas, do you think that could have slowed Japanese entry into mid-sized sedans and similarly, the American automaker's decline in the same market?

Warren Brown: Toyota and Honda largely are diven by the same motives powering GM and Ford -- make as much money in as many automotive segments as possible, gobble up as much market share as possible, and somehow try to manage it all as a result, all four companies can make some serious istaks, as all four have on occasion. There's nothing permanent in the auto industry. First today easily can become last tomorrow.

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Bethesda, Md.: Mr. Brown, if you don't mind a question off the topic of the Auto Show: the Enclave/Acadia/Outlook family is selling pretty well, correct? So should we expect little in the way of wheeling and dealing? Is the added expense and decreased fuel economy of AWD worth it, in your opinion (other than during the odd 24" snowstorm)? Many thanks for your insights.

Warren Brown: Good morning, Bethesda:

Yes, the Acadia/Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse are selling well. The Outlook is part of GM's now-defunct Saturn division. There are about 250 Saturn dealers in the U.S. still closing up shop. They don't have much inventory left. But if an Outlook is among what's left, you are likely to get a pretty good deal there. But in terms of your general question, yes, there are some incentives worth considering on the Acadai/Enclave, Traverse. Check www.automotivenews.com, edmunds.com, or cars.com, the latter being an affiliate of The Washington Post.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Hi Warren, what do you think of the Acura RSX? I am thinking of getting one (used, obviously) as my first car.

Warren Brown: Hello, Indianapolis:

Not a bad choice used. Check Honda division equivalent. What else are you considering?

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Alexandria, Va.: What's new with hybrids and alternate energy? I am in the market for a new car in the next year or so, but wondered what is coming out that might be worth looking for, or even waiting another year or more for.

Warren Brown: All hybrids, pure electrics, plug-in hybrids, et cetera now make up less than 2 percent of the automotive market. But a just released market study by Ernst & Young cites considerable consumer interest in the electric/alternative fuel segment -- 10 percent of all consumers surveyed in the study. That certainly would indicate a potentially robust market. As evidenced by what is going on at the various auto shows, including the currenly running North American International auto show in Detroit, the global automotive industry is taking electrics seriously. The Detroit show has an impressive display segment called Electric Avenue with many market-ready vehicles.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think the success of Ford will continue into this new year? Any thoughts on the new Focus?

Warren Brown: Short answers:

Ford's successs will continue for some time to come, assuming it continues to be led by tough, smart people such as its current ceo, Alan Mulally.

The new Focus, both the sedan and hatchbacks, are absolute knockouts capable of taking on and beating any rival in the compact market segment. They were two of the most admired, most photographed cars by the international media during press days this week at the Detroit show.

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Maryland: My husband has what we call "car infidelity" and so now that we own the car free and clear, he is ready to trade it in for something new. Whatever. I've lost this fight, Warren! But that's okay.

So what's new, hot, fun, fast, and not that expensive? We're replacing a Mustang GT and looking for something of the same fun level with good performance. I've heard great things about the Camaro, but I'm leery of buying from GM.

Warren Brown: You shouldn't be leery of buying from GM. Eventually, the high-quality products coming from that company, including the Camaro, will change that poor-quality image. But I'd buy another Mustang. The new models are hot!

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South Riding, Va.: Hi Warren, I recently drove my husband's manual transmission Mazda5, and I hadn't had that much fun driving since my BMW F650 motorcycle. What family cars with an automatic transmission would be equally fun to drive?

Warren Brown: The Mazda3.

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Fairfax, Va.: Warren, I love your chats and I can rely on you to always say a supportive word about the U.S. car industry, particularly GM, but today I am driving a rented Chevy Aveo and must strongly disagree with you. Without a doubt, this Aveo is the worst car I have ever driven in terms of design, construction, ergonomics, everything! I understand that this is Chevy's entry level vehicle, but I'll take a Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa over this car any day. I can hardly believe what a bad car this is!

Warren Brown: You are driving a longtime GM marketing error -- the company's lingering tendency to put its bottom-level cars in rental fleets for quick sales. That's stopping, and none too soon. That said, the Honda Fit ( and not the Toyota Yaris) is a better car in that subcompact segment.

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Rockville, Md.: Warren, Given the vanilla copy-cat versions of average size sedans(Accords, Camry, Legacy, Fusion, etc. ...), was there anything introduced that's "new" in this category? I presume they stay pretty vanilla in this category to appeal to masses, but was there anything you saw that was like 'wow' that's pretty nice for $25k. thanks

Warren Brown: Be careful of what you ask for. The Honda Accord, chasing lucrative crossover utility vehicle sales, has morphed into the Honda Accord Crosstour. The Acura TSX, seeking the same crossover sales genie, has spawned the Acura ZDX--two vehicles with wagon-like, small-SUV-like utility that might make vanilla taste like gourmet ice cream.

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Washington, D.C.: What do you think about the Toyota Venza? I like it, but it's almost under the radar, even though it's been on some car writers top ten list for 2010. Does this model have staying power, or might it go the way of the Celica, MR2 and other orphaned models?

Warren Brown: The Venza is under the radar because it's surrounded by high-quality competition, including the Kia Sorento, which I'd take over the nice, but by comparison, lower value per dollar Venza.

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Sterling, Va.: Do you know where I can buy Castro 10W60 motor oil other than from the BMW dealership?

Warren Brown: Google Castro motor oil/sales.

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Anonymous: What's onthe horizon for Chrysler? it seems via TV commercial, the American auto makers are still into trucks and SUVs. I do like the ford Fusion.

Warren Brown: Of course, American manufacturers will still do trucks and SUVs. So will the Europeans and Asians. Fiat didn't buy into Chrysler to sell small cars in the United States. Fiat bought into Chrysler to expand its truck business, which is why it has established "Ram" as a stand alone division. (No more Dodge Ram, see? By calling it just "Ram," it easily becomes Fiat's Ram.) Anybody with any common sense in the automobile business knows that trucks aren't going away. The all-around best selling vehicle in the U.S, even in the currently lousy economic environment, remains the Ford F-Series truck -- with the Chevrolet Silverado not terribly far behind.

Small cars and four-cylinder engines will continue to grow in response to government pressure worldwide to produce more fuel-efficient, clean-burning automobiles. Europe and Asia, which have more sensible fuel-pricing policies than we have here in America, will continue to lead in that regard.

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Washington, D.C.: The Honda Oddyssey has become the top selling minivan nameplate. However, how many of the Dodge Caravan sales have actually been "lost" to the Chrysler Town and Country rather than the Honda Oddyssey? From what I've read, the T and C has increased its market share and Chrysler still has a larger pie of the total market with the "twins."

Warren Brown: Chasing "best sllers" by nameplates is an outmoded marketing ruse favored by auto marketing divisions and sucked up by lazy journalists. You are right. It is better to judge vehicle sales by platforms, if we're going to be honest. Chrysler minivans combined (nameplates ignored) equal or beat the Honda Odyssey in total sales numbers. (I think a check of latest available 2009 sales numbers will prove that.)

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Columbia, Md.: I was wondering if you could explain to me what the difference is between a timing belt and a timing chain, I've been told a timing belt will need to be replaced every 80-100k miles while a chain will never need replacing.

Warren Brown: Clifton, my brother, I need your help on this one. Help!

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re 10W60: Might have better luck googling "Castrol"?

Warren Brown: Thank you. Did I write "Castro?" Show's you where my mind is. My apologies for the error. Thanks for the correction.

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Waldorf, Md.: Warren, I purchased the Buick Lacross CXS. I traded in my BMW 528I for it. I am totally happy with this purchase. The best part is the maintence and no premium fuel. Why are they not talking about this car more? I am glad I decided to come back thanks for helping to make that happen Warren.

Warren Brown: GM is talking about the LaCrosse, but doing so quite stupidly -- a dumb TV commercial that tells us everything the LaCrosse is not. Dumb! Dumb to the max dumb!

Emphasize what the LaCrosse IS, GM! And get rid of those marketing boobs who apparently don't understand the difference.

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Midwest: Warren, I want to replace my VW Passat with a commuter car that gets fuel economy more like my MB320E CDI, and is (hopefully) cheap to keep. I am looking at the Ford Fusion/Focus. Diesel, hybrid, plain vanilla. Not too small, either (no Fit or Smart). What is your opinion?

Warren Brown: Check out the Ford Fusion Hybrid. It's nobody's sex machine. But it is a high-quality, very efficient, pleasant midsize sedan. Classic versus sexy lines.

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Line Jack, Mo.: Good morning, Warren.

Saw some ads and pictures for the aforementioned Honda Accord Crosstour. Wow. I know Honda thinks they need something in this niche to compete with TOY Venza but to me they have 'jumped the shark'. Like Icarus, are they flying too close to the sun? Thanks. Keep up the excellence!

Warren Brown: Check out my upcoming (Jan. 17) "On Wheels" review this Sunday in The Washington Post.

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Bonifay, Fla.: Are there any "intermediate" vans? I miss the Chevy Astro, which I thought was a good compromise. Diesels? Did I miss your thoughts on the Transit Connect, or do you still owe me one?

Warren Brown: I still owe you one on the Transit Connect, Bonifay. Ford assures me that I will have this intermediate commercial hauler, soon. Again, look for Fiat to go hard after this segment via its current ownership of Chrysler. Toyota also is expected to join that fray. And GM had better get off of its butt on this one, as evidenced by all the attention Ford is getting via the U.S. introduction of its Euro-style intermediate Transit Connect.

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Clifton, Va.: First with a timing belt always do it early. Belts break and result is often fatal to both your checkbook and the engine.

Timing chains go longer but do need changing. My Element requires a new chain at 120k. Important when changing a belt or chain is to replace the tensioners if needed.

Also in many cars like BMWs when you replace the belt you also do the waterpump because why pay for the same labor twice. Waterpumps are cheap usually under a $100.

Chains do last longer but lifetime I wouldn't go that far. Just like lifetime coolant its marketing. I replace lifetime coolant at about 60k. Cheap insurance.

Warren Brown: As always, thanks, Clifton. And all happiness to you and yours in the aging New Year.

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GM Bias: Warren: My long standing bias against GM is based on the fact that I rent cars frequently due to job travel. The GM cars I rent are cheaply turned out, have baffling ergonomics or user interface or whatever you call it, and overall just make Ford and Chryler products look much much better. Car manufacturers should realize that a rental is another way to do an extended test drive. You can talk all you want about quality improvements, but based on my experience -- no way, GM!

Warren Brown: Well, I can't and won't argue with your assessment of GM rental-car fleets. But the truth is, that's changing. As for overall GM automotive quality, the indisputable truth is that GM is much back in the game. And woe to any business rival foolish to think otherwise. Nothing -- good or bad -- is static in this business.

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Columbia, Md.: I've been thinking about purchasing a 07-08 Forester, but find it hard-pressed to find a manual transmission model. Is the automatic transmission fun to drive? I've had a manual transmission car for over 15 years.

Warren Brown: I think you will find, Columbia, that the "fun-to-drive" shiboleth of manual transmissions is pretty much that -- shiboleth, old-school fantasy, which is why "true manuals" occupy a constantly decreasing share of the market -- about 10 percfent of all vehicles sold in this country, I think. The reason? Increasingly sophisticated automatics, which can save as much or more fuel than manuals thanks to computers. And let us not forget the steady emergence of "fun-to-drive" manumatics, which can be operated automatically or manually.

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Manual vs. Automatic: Manual transmission = driving fun. Automatic = boring, but will get me from point A to point B. And then there's those automatics you can shift...puhleeeze, what a joke!

Warren Brown: Baloney. See above response.

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Warren Brown: Thank you for joining us today. Please accept my apologies for the late start. Poor planning on my part. Better planning and on-time start next week. I promise.

Thanks to my life-saving production staff for another fine production.

Okay, Lady Ria, eat lunch.

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