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Warren Brown
Warren Brown
(The Post)
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Real Wheels
Hosted by Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, April 2, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

Warren Brown is back to talk about all your automobile issues! He has been covering the automobile industry for The Washington Post since 1982. Brown, who joined the newspaper in 1976, has what many people think is a particularly cool job: He gets to test drive all manner of cars, from top-of-the-line Mercedes sedans and the newest sports cars to Volkswagen Beetles and SUVs. His auto reviews are lively, detailed accounts of a car's good and bad points, addressing everything from a car's highway performance to its "head-turning" factor and sound system.

He regularly comes online Wednesdays at 11 a.m. ET to answer your questions on every aspect of the automotive industry -- from buying your dream car to the future of the internal combustion engine.

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Washington, D.C.: Hello Warren,
My friend is considering trading his Lexus IS300 for a new Ford Thunderbird. Have dealers started asking reasonable prices (MSRP) for the T-bird yet or are people still getting clipped when they buy one?

Warren Brown: Dear Washington:
Sales are down.
The T-Bird has not turned out to be a hot-seller.
Dealers will deal.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Warren,
I think the Honda Element is a good idea (even if it looks kind of weird), but why has Honda not offered some sort of AWD capability? It seems that for the mission they advertise the vehicle for AWD would be a given.

Warren Brown: Don't worry. AWD is coming to the Element. Probably by fall.

Hybrid questions: Are the Honda and Toyota hybrids immediately available or are there still long waits?

Consumer Reports said mileage on these vehicles was much less than advertised. Is anyone else reporting the same? After all, it's one of the main draws of the cars.

Warren Brown: First. Toyota Prius models available. Check with dealers. Ditto Civic Hybrids.
On mileage: I've been saying for some time now that the real-world mileage of the hybrids is not substantially better than the most fuel-efficient traditional internal combustion engine cars.
Until the hybrids get substantially better mileage without compromising performance or other things that people want in cars, they will continue to play second fiddle to ICE models. To some people, that is heresy. But I look at the sales numbers, where I find truth.

Midwest: I hope I'm not paraphrasing your previous comments in here incorrectly but here goes.

In the past, you've stated that American car quality is more or less up to the standards of most imports. And yet, the April auto edition of CR really jumped out at me in terms of all the rather average to worse than average ratings for a ton of American cars. And yet, when you hit brands like Nissan and Toyota, suddenly it's nice little red dots everywhere.

It would appear there is some disconnect between your perception of American auto quality/reliability and CR's perception. Could you elaborate on the whole issue?

That being said, my 1985 Honda Prelude (bought new) wasn't a particularly reliable car, it had constant front end problems and power steering issues during its 180K life. OTOH, my 1993 Ford Explorer (bought new and still have, 131K on it) has been the most rock solid vehicle I've ever owned....until I bought my 1999 Celica (new) which has hummed along perfectly the last 3 years.

Warren Brown: Dear Midwest:
Consumer Reports is neither the Bible, Torah, nor Koran. It does many things right. Others, such as its surveys of its own self-selected readers, are suspect. I think this is the case with CR's quality and reliability ratings.
In the late 1960s-through-1980s, U>S> vehicle quality was awful. We all know that. The U.S. car companies know that. Japanese cars back then were killing people left and right in auto crashes. But when they weren't crashing, they were reliable, economical--the kind of cars CR readers like.
There developed an understandable bias against American metal.
But, perception lags reality.
The reality is that American cars are now world competitive.
Yes, they still have problems.
Everyone has problems.
Ask the Toyota Sienna owners with sludge in their tanks, or the legions of VW owners waiting for the right parts.

Seattle: Do you know if GM is offering that $3000 cash/0.0 APR on Saab? What are the best sporty/luxury GM offerings in the $25K-$30K range?

Warren Brown: Hello, Seattle:
GM aggressively is pushing incentives, placing 0 percent financing on the widest range of vehicles ever. I'm not sure that includes Saab, especially the new 9-3 models which don't seem to have too many problems moving off the lots on their own. Check with cars.com, edmunds.com, or www.thecarconnection.com for the latest available incentive info.
Best sporty luxury offerings from GM in the $25K-$30k range include the 2004 Pontiac GTP, Cadillac CTS (there is a recall, check), Saab 9-3.

Alexandria, Va.: Regarding hybrid mileage...a guy I work with has TWO Priuses (for him and his spouse). He said that it turns out that the -tires- come subinflated from Toyota and Prius owners have discovered that inflating to a higher (but within spec) psi yields low to mid-50s mpg.

Warren Brown: Thanks, Alexandria. But, question. Is he running those tires at higher Psi during summer?

Washington, D.C.: Can you explain to me why SUV regulations cannot be as follows? All personal vehicles that cannot achieve and average of 20 mpg will be taxed an annual gas guzzler fee of the equivalent of 10% of the vehicles' current blue book value. This would deter consumers from buying vehicles that they do not need. Once revenues are affected, manufacturers would be forced to release or research more efficient engines. I am not an environmentalist at all but I do feel it's important to pay for the damage that one causes to the environment that, in the end, affects everyone else. I would exclude any pickups and/or vehicles that are used for commercial use. This would however include any luxury sports cars, any SUVs and anything that cannot achieve this MPG average. The logic behind this is that people that can afford these fast or large vehicles in the first place, should be able to afford the taxation.

Warren Brown: Well, Washington, let's see.
First this business about deterring consumers from buying vehicles "they don't need." Who determines that? You? A local committee, state legislature, Congress? How will they determine that? Will consumers be asked to fill out a needs assessment form for all vehicle purchases? If it turns out that they need an SUV, will they still have to pay your proposed tax? After all, you are implying that need would be a mitigating factor.
Second, what are the chances of passing that kind of tax in a country that goes crazy every time someone suggests a penny increase in gasoline taxes? Frankly, I think gasoline taxes should be higher, and that the revenue from those taxes should be used to fund alternative fuel development and fix roads.
But this needs assessment business to compensate for supposed externalities related to the use of SUVs? Hmmm. Can we use the same system for taxing houses, clothing, or big-screen TVs?

Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for this auto program!

My beau is contemplating buying a GM car, because he used a GM credit card that will give him a discount.

He is looking at Pontiac Vibes vs. Saturns. Do you have a strong opinion either way about which you would recommend he buy?

Warren Brown: Dear Silver Spring:
A Pontiac Vibe is a small, crossover SUV/wagon.
Saturns include coupes, sedans, wagons and the VUE SUV.
Does he want a sedan or a crossover wagon/SUV? Better still, what do you want? He might as well get used to it--if you two get married. YOU always will be the determining factor (if he has any sense).

Bethesda, Md.: Warren,

Do you know anything about the soon to be released Acura TSX? Looks nice, but why only a 4 cylinder?

Warren Brown: Don't know about the 4-cylinder bit. Buta TSX is on the spring test list. I will drive, study, research and let you know.

Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Brown,

Love your stuff (you make my "Top Ten People I'd Love to Have to Dinner Party List").

Anyway, based on lurking on this chat and research on nice cars that come in manual and can deal with snow, despite rwd, I got a BMW 330i manual trans. LOVE IT. It is truly an amazing, elegant car. I cannot find something to complain about, really. Thanks for your input (even though it was not directly to me, it was to other posters about BMWs).

Stay healthy!

Warren Brown: Geez, Alexandria. Many thanks. I'd love to go to the party. I'm okay with chicken, red snapper, trout, and bass. Can't eat shellfish. Iodine allergy. You won't have to buy much booze. I'm a lifetime designated driver.

Ballston, Va.: There are problems with the Toyota Sienna? Our '89 Corolla wagon (210,000 miles) is finally on its last wheels. We are limping it along while starting to think about a replacement. I love Toyotas, but don't necessarily want a CUV/SUV just to get extra room. -I know the answer, but WHY don't they still make wagons!?].

I was working on my husband (slowly) to accept the idea of even LOOKING at a Minivan. But, if the Sienna is problematic, I'll lose him to a Highlander!

Warren Brown: Dear Ballston:
The current Sienna models are okay. But Toyota needs to step up to the plate and get serious about helping people with earlier model Sienna minivans that have sludge problems. Toyota needs to stop blaming the victims in this case and do what's right. Period.
As for your husband, c'mon. I know how you wives work. I have one. The Woman From Texas doesn't suggest anything.
"I want this," she says, and walks away.
I get it and shut up.

Washington, D.C.: Warren,
Thank you for putting that "needs based" tax nut into his place. When will people ever stop trying to penalize other just for working hard and being successful. I feel buying a Maybach should be no different than buying a Insight.

Warren Brown: Oh, Washington. I wouldn't call him or anyone a nut. I'm too nutty myself to do that. But I agree with your larger sentiment, this business about judging people for exercising their right to choose in the marketplace, and then trying to justify that judgment by saying, "Well, everything we do affects someone else. Choices have external costs. I don't like your choice. This is what I want you to pay."
Imagine what we can do with that thinking:
. Churches should lose their tax-exempt status. Taxes not paid by churches are borne by someone else, including non-believers.
. Homeowners should lose their tax benefits. Taxes not paid by them are carried by renters, who don't receive the same benefits.
. Home sizes should be restricted to only that square footage that is needed to house a family of four. After all, who needs a family of five?

Herndon, Va.: Mr. B: With all the discussions on emissions, AWD versus front wheel, etc., let me use a bad word for many, FUN! Yes, my wife and I bought a 2000 BMW 323i with 25,000 miles on it, and let me tell you, it is fun!! I totally enjoy driving it - when I can tear my wife's hands off the steering wheel. And, for the fogies - it gets in the mid-20s on mileage (albeit with premium fuel). So, all I can repeat is . . . FUN, FUN, FUN. Do you hear me, FUN!!!

Warren Brown: Oh, Herndon, I love you! Fun! Fun! FUN! Yes. TWT demanded her MINI instead of a minivan because the woman wants to have FUN! I like to drive because driving for me is FUN even in heavy traffic. So, okay, I'm weird. But being weird is FUN.

Why can't we all just get along and have some FUN? Imagine if Saddam Hussein and George Bush had a sense of humor. Maybe, we'd be trading jokes instead of bullets.

Van Ness, D.C.: Warren, I must differ with you. Spouses only pick the car until there are children. Most of my friends now drive vehicles (especially SUVs) picked by 8-year olds.

Warren Brown: Well, Van Ness, there is biblical precedent for the wisdom of 8 year-olds choosing SUVs, isn't there?
How does that verse go? "From the mouths of children...truth" or something like that. Yes, they are wise beyond their years. Perhaps, adults with a knee-jerk hatred of SUVs, or anything or anyone else, should listen to them.

Bethesda, Md.: Warren,
Saab 9-5 Aero or Infiniti G35?

Warren Brown: No contest. Infiniti G35. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more willing V-6 engine anywhere.

Washington, D.C.: Warren,
Hi. With all of the CAFE statements posted in the past few weeks in mind, I have to admit that you do have a point. Though I still think that SUV drivers are selfish (as long as I'm safe, I don't care who I hit) and participating in America's addiction to foreign oil, I agree with you that I find even more odious the notion of surrendering our liberties. The idea that a group of people can dictate to anyone else what s/he can drive is wrong. And, unfortunately, I have been one who has engaged in such behavior recently. Thanks for making me think!

Warren Brown: You make me think as well, Washington.
Here's a riddle:
If Citizen A owns three vehicles--an econocar, a compact sedan, an SUV--when is he selfish?
(a) When he's driving the SUV.
(b) When he's driving the econocar.
(c) When he's driving the luxury sedan.

Here's another one:
Let us stipulate that the reason U.S. oil barons go overseas for oil is because they can get their oil at a substantially lower price from foreign markets. Inasmuch as that is the case, what will happen if demand for petroleum falls in the United States?
(a) They will begin pulling oil from the ground and waters of the United States, where extraction is substantially more expensive.
(b) They will increase imports of less expensive foreign oil.
(c) They will decrease foreign oil imports.

Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Brown--I see you have learned your lesson about women.

I have test driven the Vibe and it rides great but I don't like the small back window. I tend to trust Toyotas and think it might be the better car than a Saturn (we've been looking at Ions.)

I have not yet driven any Saturns, but my friends who own them love them.

So Vibe vs. Ion3, which would you pick?

Warren Brown: I prefer the little Ion. You can park it anywhere. It doesn't use much fuel. And, heck, I think it's cute. Also, based on years of experience with Saturn customers and dealers, I have every reason to believe that if I have ANY problem, Saturn will take care of it without giving me grief.

Silver Spring, Md.: From what I have read and learned of the Acura TSX, the answer to why it doesn't have a V6 is that it is based on the Euro/Japanese-market Accord....which is smaller than the U.S. version and doesn't have enough clearance under the hood for any of Honda's V6 designs. This may not be a bad feature for sportiness....my experience is that 4-cylinder turbos FEEL stronger than many normally aspirated V6's even with similiar HP and torque ratings....don't ask me why,

Warren Brown: Thank you, Silver Spring.

Alexandria, Va.: Warren,

I'm dying for a Mercedes C230 Kompressor Coupe! I saw one on the street a few weeks ago. It was love at first sight! Have you ever driven one. What do you think? Would it be a barrel of fun?

Warren Brown: We own one. OOps! I mean our lawyer daughter Binta owns one--a red C230 Kompressor, if you can imagine. She's had it for a year. (Her first car was a Cadillac Catera. What can I say? The lady is doing well.) Anyway, this is her take: "I always will buy Mercedes-Benz. I love this car."

Washington, D.C.: Regardless of if General Motors does purchase the remaining shares of Fiat Auto, I have read the Alfas will be sold in the United States in 2005. Do you think that they will be a big seller? Industry publications hint that they will be sold through Saab dealerships. Given Saab's future model lineup do you think they will be competing against each other?

Warren Brown: Dear Washington:
This is my take. I think GM is so fed up with Fiat and Italian politics that it isn't likely to increase its financial stake in the company. Yet, if Fiat does bring Alas to the U.S., as currently planned, it probably will be through a low-risk (to GM) joint venture using GM's distribution network, maybe in combo with Saab.

Herndon, Va.: Mr. B: I love you too, in a platonic, manly way, of course. Let me add one comment besides "fun" - if the federal and state governments want to tax cars which are gas "guzzlers," that certainly can be done. HOWEVER, what we really need is a comprehensive policy on the use of energy, including gasoline powered vehicles - and I just don't see anyone in a leadership position willing to take the lead on this.

Warren Brown: Amen on that, Herndon. We need a real energy policy in this country as opposed to a dysfunctional, irrational, and proven unworkable CAFE formula.
A real energy policy would include the following:
a. A genuine federal/industry effort for developing alternative fuels and alternative mobile propulsion systems.
b. A dedicated gasoline tax.
c. An architectural policy. Yes. Some buildings are more energy efficient than others. What about a best practices approach?
d. A market-driven approach to the sale of fuel-efficient cars. That means you can't ask car companies tio build them if you aren't going to do a darned thing--either through tax incentives or fuel-tax penalties--to encourage consumers to buy them.

Silver Spring, Md.: Why all of this Consumer Reports bashing?.....Their reliability ratings approximate what many other studies have found....including other magazines like Car and Driver, Road and Track, Motor Trend, Autoweek, etc.....and the experience of the public in general.....that Toyota/Lexus and Honda/Acura lead the industry in product quality and reliability. It IS true, however, that the average American-designed product is improving.....but so are the Japanese (Mitsubishi excepted). Perhaps the biggest surprise of all in recent years has been the dramatically worsening record of Mercedes-Benz products....I don't know why. Anybody out these have any suggestions?

Warren Brown: Silver Spring:
When is disagreement bashing? I have praised CR in this and other vebnues. I have complained about them, too. I think it's fair to point out that their surveys come from a self-selected, demographically specific group. And I disagree with you that their reliability reports are universally accepted. I also disagree with you on Mitsubishi's current quality status. The company now is turning out very competitive products.
Down one day does not mean down forever. Companies that want to improve often do. Heck, look at CR's praise of Hyundai. (And tell me, do you REALLY beilieve that Hyundai is more reliable, has higher quality than Mercedes-Benz? )

Vienna, Va.: While Consumer Reports, true, is not perfect, there are reasons (good reasons) WHY Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, Subaru, Mazda and Nissan/Infiniti products have many more red dots in the reliability columns. As an auto consultant, I rely on much of this data myself in recommending new-car purchases to others. CR, unlike other magazines, has a huge database of readers and car owners nationwide and a very large input of data. These people, for the most part are NOT auto enthusiasts with any particular affiliation for any particular brand, so they generally can be objective. Also, CR does not accept any advertising so it is not beholden to any manufacturer. I have found, not only by reading CR, but by my own experience in test-drives, ownership, auto shows, shopping with others, etc.... the AVERAGE Japanese car IS assembled more carefully than the AVERAGE Detroit nameplate. The average American-designed Chevy, Pontiac, Dodge, etc.....has cheap interior parts, squeaks/rattles, sub-standard paint jobs, etc....where the average Toyota and Honda simply doesn't. The problem is that much of the American public simply can't (or won't) accept this...they don't want to open their eyes and accept the truth. So instead of looking at the truth they choose to attack the magazine instead. When a patient has cancer, you don't cure it by just sitting there and pretending it doesn't exist....you have to give a strong dose of chemotherapy. Sometimes the truth hurts, but it's like a little kid that has to learn to take his medicine and vitamins and that he/she can't live on candy alone.

Warren Brown: Points taken.

Tampa, Fla.: Any idea how long will the drive train of a fuel cell automobile will last?
Many Thanks,
Sunny in Florida

Warren Brown: Nope. It's still a work in progress.

Takoma Park, Md.: Hi Warren,
I'm sure this is too late to get posted but wanted to thank you for information last week regarding buying a new car. Well, I bought a new Honda Element and believe I got a great price. Please tell everyone it really pays to do research INCLUDING research on how much your trade in is worth. And, bring print outs with you! I was able to get the Element EX AWD with remote keyless entry for about $400.00 below invoice, not MSRP!! I love it, and have named it Bulldog!

Warren Brown: Not to late. I'm working overtime today, although I'l quit in a few minutes.

Consumers' Reports: You are undoubtedly correct that the CR repair data must be taken with the grain of salt. But it is unquestionably the largest data set available for these purposes and presents the only really useful tool for consumer decisions. What would you have consumers rely upon instead? J.D. Powers initial quality? And while consumer reporting of defects in their own cars will always be suspect -- reporting defects can be viewed as a tacit admission of a purchase mistake -- don't the same biases and self-justifying motives infect the Chevy owners as the Toyota owners? So far as I can determine, this is the fact: the data supporting Japanese (esp. Toyota and Honda) primacy in reliablility is incomplete but uniform. The data supporting your alleged parity of Ford, Chevy and Chrysler in reliability is, so far as I have been able to determine, non-existent. I would be happy for you to prove me wrong.

Warren Brown: Okay. Fair enough.

Oakton, Va.: While I am not a Toyota rep or employee, I find it very difficult to just automatically blame the company for the 3.0 V6 sludge problems. The fact is that car ownership involves responsibility on the owner's part, too. Part of that responsibility is to change the oil.....in this area with its brutal driving conditions, 3 months/3000 miles really is best. The owner's manual recommends 3750 miles for severe service. Many, if not most, of the sludge problems are due to simply not changing the oil. The factory itself will repair (or even replace) the engine if receipts for simply changing the oil once in the past 12 months can be produced (with proper oil and filters). This engine, in fact, may be simply more prone to this than some others due to its narrow oil passages that allow high oil temperatues, but in almost all cases, the ruined engines have resulted simply from laziness.

Warren Brown: And, Oakton, I find it very difficult to believe that all of those people complaining about sludge problems are/were somehow negligent. In fact, I don't buy that at all. Toyota has a problem here, and no small part of that problem is the company's tepid and too-often blame-the-victim approach in handling it.

Washington, D.C.: Hi Warren,
Do you know if anyone has actually purchased the new Porsche Cayenne?

Warren Brown: No.

re: MB C coupe: My slk 230 (unreliable, but love it anyway) was in the shop. The loaner is the C320 coupe & it's awesome!

Warren Brown: Yep, that's what my daughter says. And, believe me, like her mother, she's the consumer from hell. She complains about the least little thing.

Vienna, Va.: Warren....what do you think the response would be to laws that mandated auto replacement say, every ten years, 200,000 miles, or if it simply wore out or was totalled in an accident? Yes, exemptions could be made for antique cars, cars that regularly go to shows (like my friend's Smokey and the Bandit Trans-Am), or if the owner showed a compelling reason why he/she should be able to keep it. To help with the financial pain of replacing it, big tax exemptions or deductions could be given for those who want to or need to replace their old clunkers. This would help out greatly with safety, emissions, greater efficiency of newer products, etc...

Warren Brown: I like the idea, Vienna. I'm not certain about approach. But the fact is that older cars pollute a lot more than, say, new SUVs.
And with that, kind people, I bid you adieu. (Hey, what can I say? Many of my relatives are French. I can't hate them. That would be hating a part of myself.)

Besides, we all know that the French are, well, French.

C'mon. Laugh people. Go out and make somebody laugh. Have...FUN!!!

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