Real Wheels

Warren Brown
Washington Post columnist
Friday, February 19, 2010; 11:00 AM

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown was online Friday, February 19, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the auto industry. Plus, he gave purchase advice to readers. Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

The transcript follows.


Fairfax, Va.: I'm looking to buy a used wagon or crossover vehicle; my priority is balancing safety with fuel efficiency. I'm drawn to the Subaru Outback, but what else should I be looking at? Thanks!

Warren Brown: Hello, Fairfax: Subaru first comes to mind--the Forester and Outback. Also the Kia Sportage.


Vienna, Va.: Very much enjoy your column. I'd consider myself an avid car guy, but I'm not loyal to one brand or maker. I've owned everything from a Ford to a BMW and a Honda over the years. While I have no doubt that Toyota has some issues with defects, I'm very distrubed by how they are being crucified by congress. Have you ever seen something like this in your career? I've seen numerous referrals to Audi's "unintended acceleration", which largely proved to be the result of operator error. I can't help but think this is a convenient way for the govt. to try and help domestic manufactures at the expense of Toyota.

Warren Brown: Hello, Vienna.

Toyota crucified? Not by any stretch of the imagination. They're barely getting a little bit of what the media and Congress have given domestic automobile manufacturers over the years. Heck, GM and Ford would love to be getting the treatment Toyota is getting. The bottom line:

Congress and the media were right to pummel the domestics when they made mistaks. But they went overboard. The domestics were never as bad as claimed. Toyota was never good as claimed, as anyone familiar with Toyota's "service bulletins" knows.


Volkswagen hybrid: Mr. Brown, I am a VW fan (I drive a 1998 Passat GLX 5 speed at present) and am planning on buying a new car sometime in the next year. The Jetta TDI doesn't do much for me (it felt cramped and I do almost exclusively city driving so the electric/gas hybrid would be a better choice for me), the Lexus is too ugly and expensive, and the Prius - well, I was thinking about buying a Prius if I need to buy a new car before something else I prefer comes out. But I've just seen pictures and articles about the hybrid concept coupe VW unveiled at the Detroit auto show and I am in love! Any word on if it will indeed be built - and sold in the U.S.? Sometime soon? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Yes, a hybrid VW will be built. It's not what VW wanted to do. The thinking in Germany was that the Americans were going nuts. Why build two drive systems (gas and electric) when one (diesel, for example) will do as well. if not better? Oh well, sometimes selling cars means honoring hype.


Arlington, Va.: Warren,

I've liked Hyundai cars for about 5+ years now, when it seemed they started emphasizing quality a lot more.

Seriously considered Hyundai a couple of times during those years, but in the end what swayed me at the time against the Sonata was its noticeably lower resale value relative to the Japanese brands. I don't drive my cars into the ground, so it was an important factor.

Have you noticed any changes in perceptions about Hyundai as you travel around the country and are the resale values gaining ground?

Warren Brown: Hello, Arlington: Resale value is a function of perception as much as it's one of reality. In the 1980s, Hyundai deservedly had a "cheap" reputation. The 1980s are long gone. Today's Hyundai is seen as a smart choice--excellent quality at a lower cost... for time being. GM and Ford erroneously continue to be seen as losers. Toyota's "golden" quality reputation finally has caught up with what many of us knew for a very long time. Toyota is human. Toyota makes mistakes, too.


Virginia: Warren, I'm taking a hard look at the Honda Fit. Is the Fit Sport worth the extra money or should I just stick with the base model? Thanks very much. Love the column and chats.

Warren Brown: I like the Honda Fit Sport, Virginia. It's one of my favorite little cars--tightly built, well-balanced on th road, fuel efficient, good utility for a small car. But not everyone will like it. Americans tend to price cars by size, as opposed to quality. But it might make more sense to buy a base Fit as opposed to a Sport, if you're saving money. But I can always rationalize a reason for getting something that makes me smile. The Fit Sport surely does that.


Bowie, Md.: What do you think of the Honda FCX Clarity? Any idea when they'll be available in the D.C. area?

Warren Brown: The Honda FCX Clarity is an electric car, albeit an electric hydrogen fuel cell car. I applaud Honda for pursuing this one. The conventional wisdom is that fuel cells are dead, or next to dead. They're not. They hold great promise for clean, fuel-efficient motoring. When will it be ready? I hope it's not ready until its really ready. Science is not a half-time show. It takes time.


Potomac, Md.: I know this thread is about recalls, but I've got two questions I was wondering about:

1. Given all the improvement in diesel technology, why isn't our government trying to help push those? I've read several writeups about BMW diesels in Europe - the 320d is rated at something like mid-40 mpg on their combined city/highway cycle (sure not 100% comparable to our EPA loop, but still 30-40% better than gas version). I recently drove a friend's VW TDI Jetta and was shocked at how un-diesel it was.

2. Seems to me like Toyota is doing a reasonably good job with the recall issue. I can't recall a domestic manufacturer ceasing building new cars to deal with a defect. Have you ever seen this?

Warren Brown: Hello, Potomac:

1. Why no diesels in meaningful U.S. numbers? From my perspective: The U.S. government has no real energy policy. Our policy is based on cheap gasoline, which has proven to be 30-percent less efficient than diesel. But diesel still has a smelly, smudgy history in the United States. Diesel prices have moved downward recently. But few are the car manufacturers who are willing to trust the American psyche when it comes to diesel.

2. Let's see. Toyota has taken three to four years to get moving on an alleged defect that allegedly killed 34 people. Toyota waited for the domestic manufacturers to mass-install air bags, mass-install anti-lock brakes, mass-install enhanced steering safety systems, et cetera. It WOULD BE NICE if the American media finally woke up.

Most of our mass-produced safety systems were installed by domestic manufacturers, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. HONDA decided to break the Japanese habit of waiting for the Americans to put in new safety systems-- often, but by no means always done, under government duress. Why? Because the Japanese were smart enough to understand that no good deed in Washington goes unpunished. To wit: GM mass installs antilock brakes as a safety measure, latrgely because Congress, the Center for Auto Safety and seemingly everyone else hammered GM to do it.

Japanese car companies waited to see if GM's fancy new brakes would lead to more lawsuits. But the brakes worked. After which the Japanese became enthusiastic about antilock brakes. Guess who got the credit?

Certainly not those sleazy American car companies "who are always fighting everything." Geez. I could write a book. I think I will.


McLean, Va.: Hiya Warren, have you seen or driven the Nissan Leaf? How does it compare (on paper or on the street) to the Chevrolet Volt and the Ford Fusion hybrid? I drove a Fusion hybrid a while back, and it was great. I have a short commute of 5 miles each way, but I need to bring more stuff to work than is possible on a bike. I am wondering whether I should wait for the Leaf/Volt/Other or go with the Fusion right away. Any insights would be appreciated. Thanks!

Warren Brown: I haven't driven a Leaf, yet. But one should soon blow into my highway. My hunch is that it's a neighborhood, short-commute electric. We'll see and let you know.


Chantilly, Va.: My wife currently drives a 2001 Subaru Forester ; she's thinking of trading it in for a new vehicle, but the newer Foresters are much larger cars. Any suggestions on a wagon that's about the same size as the old Forester? We've got no brand loyalty -- but we want to avoid VW. Thanks!

Warren Brown: Try the Kia Sportage, or the Hyundai equivalent.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Warren,

Toyota is now installing brake override software on its current year models. Others do it already. The thing that struck me was that GM said it's not required on most of their cars, save the Corvette and Escalade series, because the brakes are powerful enough to stop the car in an over rev situation.

Boy, talk about daring fate to bite ya!

Warren Brown: Ah, you'd better check that, Pittsburgh. GM and Ford equip their current vehicles with antilock brakes, electronic brake distribution systems, and acceleration override systems. Ask a dealer.


Houston, Texas.: What's the status on the Volt? Is GM still committed to shipping it this year?

Warren Brown: The Volt is coming out this year. GM says it wants to get it absolutely right. I've driven several prototypes. Great car. But here's the problem. If GM get's it out on time--with an error--the company will be egged unmercifully. If Nissan steals the Volt's thunder with its new electric Leaf--same bad press for GM. Bottom line: GM had better get it right and get it out as quickly as possible.


Resale Value of R Design: I'm looking at the Volvo XC60 and I was wondering if the resale value is affected going with a base model vs. a limited edition R design.

Warren Brown: The resale value will be affected simply because Volvo has been sold off by Ford.


Baltimore, Md.: I drive an '08 Pontiac Vibe - which I purchased precisely because it was on the same platform as the Toyota Matrix but I wanted to buy American. No recall announced as of yet (though the '09 and '10 models have been). Should I be worried?

Warren Brown: I think you should check, seriously. I've been scratching around on that one myslf. Did GM and Toyota use the same suppliers for those brake and brake widgets? We need an answer on that one from Toyota and GM.


Hyundai, Values: One thing affecting their values is HMA's agressive fleet sales. There have been times, at least in my area, it seemed like every new car dealer was selling "nearly new" Sonata's.

They may be over producing to keep Seoul happy but it kills the residuals.

Warren Brown: Good point. Can we FINALLY get an answer on this one, Hyundai.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Warren,

You gave me advice, a couple of years ago about what car to get (Mazda3), and you were spot on, so I'd like your advice again. My spouse and I have one car (Mazda3), but are thinking about having kids. While one car works okay right now (with some struggle), I think we'll need two when kids come into the picture. I'd like something a little bigger than a sedan -- maybe a small SUV? We'll probably buy used. Thoughts? Thanks for your help, I really appreciate it.

Warren Brown: Quick thought from Mazda lane: Mazda 7.


Montgomery Village, Md.: Warren, a couple of weeks ago you were kind enough to answer my question about a replacement of my 2005 TL with a Maza 3 or Jetta TDI, instead of a TSX. Since then I read a long term report in either C&D or R&T about lack of acceleratiion/lag with the 2009 diesel. Was that your experience as well? Would a Jetta GLI be better? Thanks.

Warren Brown: I can't believe an automotive writer wrote that without explanation. Most diesel models have low-end torque. Gasoline models, by comparison, often have high-end torque. Typical American male, I guess. Gasoline starts fast and burns out quickly--often can't sustain output at higher speeds. Diesel, on the other hand, is a European lover. It starts slow, builds massive power (torque) and keeps going. I think diesel gives you a much better time.


Dumfries, Va.: Is it true that alien anti-gravity technology really exists and that the oil companies are conspiring with the government to keep it out of the hands of everyday Americans? Is it also true that our political leaders are in fact aliens in disguise who want to have us burn a lot of hydrocarbons so the earth heats up and becomes one vast ocean they can live in? Also, are the aliens the ones who make Toyotas accelerate unintentinally into a wall?

Warren Brown: C'mon...


Van Ness, D.C.: I need an answer to this question from someone knowledgeable in cars, but not trying to sell me anything: the tires on my 2004 Santa Fe have plenty of tread on them, but are five and a half years old and have 50,000 miles on them. I plan on doing three 1,00 mile drives (each way) this summer. Should I replace them before those trips, or is that not necessary?


Warren Brown: The truth is that I'd get my tires checked by a professional.


FFX, Va.: I currently own a last century model Civic. Looking at replacements I was narrowing onto Mazda 3 or Honda Insight. Mazda 3 for good price/performance ratio based on reviews and Honda Insight as a hybrid (fuel efficiency offsetting the higher cost). Civic -- not in favor because it seems to have become the older Accord (bigger and pricier). What do you think of the choices. Are these the right ones or one or the other is not? My driving is mostly in the suburbs with occasional highway driving and 10 miles on an average day.

Warren Brown: Mazda3. It's just so much fun to drive. And it'll match anything in its class in fit and finish.


Raleigh, N.C.: 'Morning, Warren. I'll say in advance that I'm not trying to rile you up. We all know that Toyota is having a boat load of problems come to the surface rather publicly. Most of us also recognize that they have been the media's teflon-coated automotive darling. The news that has come out recently would have crippled most other car companies.

Question: Do you think this will be a large blip on Toyota's record, or do you think this will prove as an opportunity for other car companies' products to get the recognition they deserve? I'm not bashing Toyota, but other makers are producing some cars that are better than Toyota's -- and yet get no love. Thanks.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Raleigh. And neither am I bashing Toyota. Nor am I defending the domestic companies. I'm simply calling for fair treatment. Why is it so darned difficult for the general media to examine the record?

Who first mass-installed air bags in the U.S.? Antilock brakes? Enhanced steering? What about frontal and side-impact crashes? Were you more likely to die in a Corolla or a Cavalier?

Is it true or not true that, certainly through the 1980s, the Japanese car companies routinely WAITED for the Americans to install safety items, either voluntarily or by fiat?

Why? Because the Japanes car companies were loathe to install a new safety device that would get them sued in litigation happy America. It was better--and smarter--instead to let the Americans take all of the bad publicity hits, law suits, reveal all of the research in our open court system, and then, perhaps, come up with something that is hailed as being better. What is the difference between GM and Toyota in the matter of recalls?

GM is a domestic company. And it get's walloped when it has a safety defect or emissions-control defect. Toyota is based in Japan. Suing Toyota means spending lots of time and money overseas. Easier to clobber GM. And: Toyota has long mastered the hidden recall--aka "service bulletins" and "consumer satisfaction campaigns" to fix what was broken. GM hasn't.


Takoma Park: The domestics were never as bad as claimed. Toyota was never good as claimed, as anyone familiar with Toyota's "service bulletins" knows.

Here! Here! Honda mechanics have been telling me about brake and auto transmission problems with Hondas for years.

I am glad the lights are finally on regarding the reliability of Honda and Toyota.

Can you imaging if this had happened to GM or Ford? There would be calls for the CEO to resign.

Warren Brown: I know. You know. Now, we all know.


Warren Brown: Thanks for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thanks Sakina. Eat lunch, Ria.


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