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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 30, 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.

The transcript follows.

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.

Springfield, Va.: Hi Warren --

You love the Mazda 6. Consumer Reports loves the Mazda 6. Edmunds.com loves the Mazda 6. Everyone loves the Mazda 6. Yet, I have seen exactly zero Mazda 6's on the road either in my commute or on the weekend, and I pay attention to this because I wanted to see one "in action." I see plenty of Proteges, Millennia, 626s, but no 6s. What gives, do you think?

Warren Brown: Good morning, everyone.
Good morning, Springfield.
Love is in the air.
You've just got to look harder, Springfield.
My neighbor recently bought a Mazda 6--young chap, guy on the go, good-looking car, blue. Parks it on the street.
They are around. More to come.

Allentown, Pa.: Warren,

It seems like since you get to choose which cars to review, that you review the good ones. However, part of what makes a critic valuable is when he tells you which items to avoid. I am a mid-30's dad with 3 kids and wife and I already have the minivan. This car is for me, but needs to be able to haul at least 2 kids around on occasion. I've test driven the Accord and Subaru Outback and both are nice. Are there any cars in that class that I should definitely avoid? Or is a cheaper car (like a Dodge Stratus) just as good?

Warren Brown: Well, Allentown, I WOULD avoid the Stratus. Cheap is one thing. Cheap with poor fit and finish and occasional electronic dysfunction is another. The car does nothing for me.
If you are looking for inexpensive, safe, and worthy, go to:
Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable
Chevrolet Impala LS
2003 Mitsubishi Gallant
Honda Accord/4 cylinder
Toyota Camry/4 cylinder

As always, all poster suggestions and contradictions are welcome.

Charlotte, N.C.: How much dealer profit margin is typical for a certified used car? When I look at typical trade-in values and the prices of certified vehicles, it appears that their profit margin is substantial (more than new cars?). I have found that dealers are fairly inflexible on the pricing of their certified vehicles. Does it really cost them a bundle to certify a used car?

Warren Brown: Dear Charlotte:
Dealers usually make substantially more on used cars than new models because they get used models with substantially lower overhead; no floor-planning costs, for example.
Exact profit margins vary. On most new car sales, say for standard family sedans, dealers are lucky to clear one percent/two percent, especially in today's environment. Trucks and luxury new cars generally have higher margins. But used-vehicle sales have higher margins, still.

Warren Brown: Note: If you are in the market for a 1998 Mercury Grand Marquis with 16,000 miles--that's right---Sixteen thousand miles--like new, there is one available in St. Louis, Mo. for about $11,000. One of our posters has elderly parents who want to sell the car. Respond to warbro69@msn.com, and I'll give your info to the poster, and she can do whatever. Cheers.

Somewhere, USA: On the road again: Mr. Brown, what's the best bet for a van you can travel & live in for a lengthy trip? Thank you.

Warren Brown: Hello, Somewhere. How well do you want to live? How much space?

Washington, D.C.: Warren,
Last week Ford announced they are pulling the plug on the new Thunderbird. I felt the new T-bird was ugly, plastic, overpriced and lost in a strong Cabrio market....just like the Plymouth Prowler before it was. All car-show feedback leading up the the launch of this car indicated Ford would have people fighting over them on dealer lots, except for a brief period right before and after the Neiman Marcus versions sold-- that never happened. What went wrong? What are your feelings about the demise of this car, will they finally stop the retro trend?

Warren Brown: Hello, Washington:
The Ford T-Bird is a lyrical poem in a world of rap, a 1940s ballad in a world of provocative trick verse.
I loved it in the manner that you love beautiful things, but knew it wouldn't last. Have you ever read "Sophie's Choice"? There is a character therein, a Leslie Lapidus, who looks and talks hot, but only kisses. That's the T-Bird. Beautiful, but no oomph. Frustrating to the max. Not many people are willing to put up with that, not even poets. It will be gone by 2005. No tears here.

Alexandria, Va.: What is your opinion of the new Saab 9-3 convertible?

Warren Brown: I really like it, although detractors say it doesn't look Saab enough.

Vienna, Va.: Warren,
The Roush 380 Mustang is, as you say, a nice high-powered ponycar, but in my opinion it is grossly overpriced ($55K) when you consider that you can get a standard Mustang Cobra with original factory parts (and warranty) brand-new for $39-40K list and it is rated at 390 HP vs. the Roush's 379. In some ways (if you are a power freak) today's Cobra is a bargain, not only for the reason I just mentioned but for the fact that its HP rating (390) matches that of the former Cobra R, which was essentially a very limited-production street-legal dragster with no frills....not even A/C or a radio....and rode like a bucking bronco.
Mr. Roush may not like my advice, but my advice is to buy the standard Cobra, put the extra $15K in the bank, cruise on down to a SAFE place to run (like the 75-80 dragstrip) and blow the doors off of all those arrogant F-body Camaro and Firebird jocks.

washingtonpost.com: A Dance on the Daring Side (Post, April 27)

Warren Brown: Point well made, Vienna. Thanks for checking in.

Centreville, Va.: I have a '87 Camry LE. Just over 100k miles. Recently it started idling roughly at stoplights after I get off the highway. It will hover around 300-400 rpm and will sputter and the car will shake. It I put the car in park and get out, I can hear a sputtering sound around the rear of the car.
Only seems to do it after I get off the highway.

It has had a tune-up in the last six-months. Brand-new Toyota air filter. Oil changed regularly. Put a gas treatment in the last full tank. Recently had the fuel system flushed by a Toyota dealer.

Warren Brown: Calling the tech squad! Calling the tech squad! What's wrong with this car?

No Wheels in Washington, D.C.: Warren --

Our only car died after 171K (cracked block, no complaints, car didn't owe us anything.) We've ordered a new one, but it'll take six months to deliver. (Mini Cooper S, natch.)

The question is, any ideas on where one gets a car for six months? Rental from a regular company is awfully expensive, and I don't think leases are available for that short a time.

Does it make any sense to buy another new or used car, then trade it in when the new car arrives? It seems like we'd just take the depreciation hit.

Any other ideas?

Warren Brown: Dear No Wheels:
If you can get by without a car during the week, ride Metro. Rent on weekends. Or, if you have a heavy driving week for business, rent a cheapie and drive carefully.

Alexandria, Va.: So, has the Mini Cooper arrived yet?

Warren Brown: You mean, mine? Nope.
It's coming, after TWT finishes putting in new closets upstairs and downstairs, which is just about done--under budget!
Which means I can finally submit the order for my S in June.

Morristown, NJ: I'm sorry to hear about the T-Bird. I loved how it looked. Maybe I can get a good deal on the 2005 version. Won't they be going cheaper?

Warren Brown: You probably can get a good deal now, Morristown. They are not selling that fast.

Used Car Markups: Here's how one dealer says he prices his used cars: they are priced to cover the value of the trade-in, the $500-700 he spends in repairs on the car, plus a 12-13% markup.

Don't know how he deals with cars purchased at auction.

Warren Brown: Addendum:
The value of the trade-in?
And how does he define "Value"--the actual value, or the often low-balled value?

Washington, D.C.: What can you do if you've bought a new car and a month later you realized you want a different color car or even a different model of the same maker?
I was wondering if you can exchange/refund a car like you do with merchandise you buy from department stores. These days, it seems like you can exchange just about anything you buy.

Warren Brown: Dear Washington:
Rare is the dealer who would relieve your buyer's remorse with an one-for-one trade. Be prepared to lose money on this one, or to live with what you've bought.

Bethesda, Md.: Maintain or Replace: Our 1991 Honda Accord has about 90,000 miles, but they've been virtually all tough in-town commuter miles. After 12 nearly trouble-free years, we're now facing a couple of fairly significant maintenance projects, plus some cosmetics that will total around $5-6,000. We're probably going to keep it, but are concerned about when we're past the point where it will cost more to fix than replace. Is it a worthwhile investment, or is it time for a new car -- either another Accord or something comparable -- that will be used almost exclusively for commuting and local weekend tasks. Other than the subjective benefits of incremental advances in certain creature and safety comforts in new cars, is there any rule of thumb that we can apply to estimate at what point it's no longer worth it to keep putting money into the old Honda?

Warren Brown: My apologies, folks. Our server just did us a disservice. We fixed it.

Dear Bethesda:
Normally, I'd say that it's cheaper to repair than it is to assume a new car note. But a repair note approaching $6,000 on a car with 91,000 miles.
If you go with the repair, you might as well get a thorough evaluation on how the car might weather the next 30,000 miles. If you're looking at more repairs, dump it.

Silver Spring, Md.: Warren...this is a subject that you probably don't get very many comments on, but I have noticed that on many (if not most) vehicles available today, both interior and exterior color choices are very, very limited....needlessly so, in my opinion. Why so you think this is so....cost-cutting? Simplification of the assembly lines? First, it is unusual to find true two-tones. A few vehicles like the Outbacks and some hybrid trucks and SUV's have a lot of gray or champagne-color plastic lower body cladding that tries to pass as two-tone but really is not....they are not fooling people (especially me). Second, interior colors are almost always gray or beige (sometimes black) with no other choices. (a few specialty cars like the T-Bird and BMW M-cars have multicolor interiors but they are unusual). Third, what exterior colors ARE offered in most cases are just about as predictable as the sun coming up.....look through almost any automotive brochure and you will see the same boring colors....white, silver, black, dark blue, dark green, and burgundy. Once in a while you'll see yellow or bright red but again that is not the norm.
Now, contrast THIS with the cars we grew up with in the 50's and 60's.....two-tone bodies were almost standard and two-tone (and even three-tone leather and vinyl interiors) were pretty much standard. Elvis Presley bought and gave away pink Cadillacs as gifts. The '58 Impala came in orange/white/black three-tone. You see my point.....today's vehicles all look like funeral homes. And last, you don't need bright colors to look attractive. Amethyst, coral, saffron, cherry, and lime green are all beautiful non-flashy colors, but nobody offers them any more. I say we're getting ripped off.

Warren Brown: Dear Silver Spring:
You are right. Maybe, we have become boring. I follow the popular colors as listed by DuPont. For the past several years, the exterior color has been silver, or white, or gun-metal gray, or black. Such colors supposedly bespeak wealth, sophistication.
For a bit, there was some experimentation with earth tones, those indefinable colors that always look metallic tan, but are called something else. And then there was something called "champagne," a color so boring it could make you give up drinking.
That's one of the many reason I love the Mini--bold, bright colors and wonderfully wacky combinations, all of which bespeak fun, which is what cars are supposed to be about.

Arlington, Va.: Hi Warren,

Do you know if purchasing the extended warranty on a used car is worth it? We bought a 2-year-old car with 30K miles on it this weekend, and once we agreed to the purchase (based on what a GREAT CAR is was, blah, blah, blah) we got fifteen minutes of hard sell on the warranty...how the car was basically going to fall apart as soon as we drove off the lot. I was extremely annoyed--at one point, when we weren't biting, the finance guy got a "supervisor" to come in and tag-team us. I almost walked out of the deal. But (despite the overselling) is it really something we should have considered? They wanted $1,500 for another 3 years/36,000 miles. I'd rather keep the money in the bank and pay for problems only if they arise, but maybe that's just me. They specifically mentioned some computer chips that were likely to go. (This was a 2001 Nissan Maxima.)

Warren Brown: Dear Arlington:
Most extended warranties are worthless to the consumer, which is why so many sellers love selling them. Think about it. How many insurance companies enjoy paying claims? If the sellers of extended warranties actually were paying claims on those warranties in any significant amount, would they keep selling them? Of course not.

Somewhere, USA: Re: returning/exchanging cars: You can for up to 3 days after purchase, but a month later? It's cheaper to get it painted.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Somewhere.

Summer maintenance: Now's about the time you hear of deals for "Spring Specials" or "Summer Specials" from area garages. Basically, these specials will flush the cooling system, check it under pressure, give you new coolant, inspect hoses, belts and the like, and sometimes throw in an oil change. Total cost, $95.

Are they worth it?

Warren Brown: They are worth it. But those services are very competitive. Shop around for a better deal.

Acura RSX S-Type: Driven it yet, Mr. B.? I just snagged a 2003 one with 1500 miles on it at CarMax--it was a case of lust that has turned into love. I'm celebrating. Should I be?

Warren Brown: Dear Acura:
I'm driving the TSX. Okay, so far. Not love just yet.
Haven't driven the RSX. Will do so, soon.
But, lookit.
If you are happy and in love, why doubt what you feel? Enjoy!

Leesburg, Va.: Hello Warren!
I just bought a 04 Toyota Sienna LE 8passengerr van and I love the ride, feel, fit and finish. What is your opinion of this van did I choose the right one?

Warren Brown: Yes, Leesburg, you did. I love the new Sienna. Even wrote a Sunday columns about it two weeks ago. Congrats!

North Potomac, Md.: Hey Warren,

Always dig your column. I've been considering getting a used Mercedes, one of those big S-class sedans from the mid-90's. Compared to what new ones cost, they almost seem reasonable. But are they too expensive and complicated to maintain? Am I just buying a new set of expensive problems, or long term answer to car needs? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Dear North Potomac:
That big S Class is expensive to maintain. If you proceed, have a Mercedes-Benz technician check out your intended purchase. You don't want any really unpleasant surprises. But, yes, even in good condition, the 90s S-Class is a high-maintenance vehicle.

Clifton, Va.: If you can afford BMW and Porsche will match any color you desire for the exterior. Porsche will do the same for interior. I think BMW can under their Individual program.
A custom color a few years ago was going to cost me an additional $2500.00 from BMW. It isn't the cost of the paint but the cost of shutting down the assembly line and retooling for the custom color. A Mclaren Orange M3 was my choice but not at that price

Warren Brown: Right, Clifton. They also have to get the solvent right for special paints, don't they?

Warranty, Va.: Seems disingenuous to talk about how the car is going to fall apart and you need an extended warranty. If a dealer told me up front that my car was going to need so many repairs that an extended warranty was a necessity, I'd thank him for his honesty and then go buy something else.

Warren Brown: Bravo! Bingo!

Washington, D.C.: Hello Warren,
Do you think if the Damlier had it to do all over again they'd still buy Chrysler?

Warren Brown: Not unless they were on drugs.

Mclean, Va.: Warren, what's up man? A 94 Land Cruiser or a 96 Four Runner...help me out!

Warren Brown: Hey, McLean:
The 4Runner, even if you want the size of the Land Cruiser. My memory might deceive me, but I recall the 94 Land Cruiser as being overweight and underpowered.

Baltimore, Md.: Hi, Warren. For my next new car, I'm thinking of getting a navigational system installed--but when I asked about it in a dealership, they told me that it would bean afterrmarkett item, and would sit on TOP of the dashboard. I'm afraid that such an arrangement would block my view--and maybe even be illegal in Maryland and surrounding states. What has been your experience with this? I'd love to hear from fellow readers, too.

Warren Brown: Dear Baltimore:
That doesn't sound right, what the dealer told you.
What kind of car?
Many add-on navs fit perfectly in center consoles or on the lower portion of the dash.

Washington, D.C.: What car would you choose between the Mazda Protege and Ford Focus? And why? Thanks.

Warren Brown: I'd go with the Focus, although the Protege is a good car and the Focus has had a rather embarrassing recall history.
But I'd go with the Focus because that history is past and the car is well-designed, spirited, and much more fun to drive than the Protege.

Alexandria, Va.: What kind of tires would yourecommendd putting on a 1998 Honda Accord LX? I am moving to New Orleans in August, and it rains a lot there. I don't know if that is important or not?

Warren Brown: BFG. Goodyear or Yokohoma, mud-plus-snow radials. And inasmuch as you are moving to my home city, you'd better get your suspension system checked. The streets generally are horrible, almost Third World in some neighborhoods.

Alexandria, Va.: I started a job in Baltimore which means that I now get to drive 40 miles everyday without any rush hour traffic. So, I want to do something frivolous like getting a sports car. I can spend about $25K but I need it to run reliably. I like a used BMW M Coupe because it looks so funny and goes so fast. But, I didn't know what to expect from a 3 to 4 year old BMW. Also, how dangerous is a little rear wheel drive rocket with a little rain or snow? What's a 35+ dad, junior exec to do who doesn't want to drive a junior exec car?

Warren Brown: Dear Alexandria:
Get the Acura TSX, or Mazda 6 and be safe, fast and happy. If you still want something BMW, I'll hit-up one of my sources for a key chain. How about that?

Washington, D.C.: Warren,
When do you anticipate getting to drive the new Pontiac GTO? Hey I liked the story about the guy who delivers to you and other media cars to test drive, I am sure lots ofguys fantasizee about walking away from high stress jobs and doing something cool like that, I know I do.

Warren Brown: Yeah, my man Donatelli is cool. On the GTO, not until August--in Australia, I hope.

Maryland: Warren:

I am in the market for a zippy car (16-22k) that seats four, but does not scrimp on style. I really want a Mini Cooper, but are there other well built but cute cars that I should consider? The Mini will be used - I can't endure the wait!

Warren Brown: The list:
Acura TSX
Subaru Impreza WRX
Volkswagen GTI
Ford Focus SVT
Honda Civic Si

Washington, D.C.: 94 Land Cruiser "overweight and underpowered"....hey sounds like you are speaking about lots of your readers! Ha, just kidding. Seriously, my housemate had one and it was about as exciting as a root canal.

Warren Brown: Now, Washington, my readers are all fine, sexy, intelligent, upstanding people. I'm the one on a diet. But you are right about that Land Cruiser. The 90s jobs were too heavy and lacking in "motorvation".

Vienna, Va.: Hi, Warren, Vienna replying to the color-remorseful buyer from D.C -- Saturn allows a return of ANY new Saturn product for a FULL refund within the first 30 days (with a clear title and no significant damage) for ANY reason (yes, even including simple remorse on the color).
I know I've done it.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Vienna.

Burke, Va.: Why can Harleysrun muffledd with db well over a hundred and I get harassed by the Virginia state troopers formy exhaustt on my BMW? I now carry a sound meter and a copy of the Virginia vehicle code to show the trooper I am in compliance. I am actually almost 3 db under the limit. Not fair to discriminate between cars and bikes. AndI don'tt buy the argument that a loud exhaust makes drivers of cars notice bikes.They don'tt hear sirens!

Warren Brown: Dear Burke:
It's like this.
Lots of our police officers ride Harleys, or some other motorcycle.
They don't drive BMWs.
And many of the people they've met in BMWs, well...
Anyway, they don't drive BMWs.

Sean Penn's 1987 Buick: Am I missing something about the appeal of the Grand National? I'm used to thinking of American cars from the '70s and '80s as trashwagons -- ugly, slow and unreliable. Not exactly something that would appeal to a wealthy actor.

Warren Brown: No, the Grand National was a nice piece of muscle-car work. The 70s and early 1980s were bad for American car companies, but not all bad.

Charlottesville, Va.: Warren --
Nissan has done a great job making a comeback in the automotive industry. Why then, are is the company making foolish moves such as using amber illumination for their instrumentation panels, which has been widely panned by the automotive press? I don't get it. BMW can get away with it because its BMW, and Pontiac can do it because the company is expected to make such strategic errors. But Nissan?

Warren Brown: Dear Charlottesville:
You will notice that Nissan does a much better job of selling cars than the press does writing about them. We critics can be prisoners of our own bias. I've learned that it's probably best to say you don't like something, but allow thatsomeonee else might like it very much. After all, I'm the dolt who thought the Cadillac Escalade wouldn't sell. I'll bet there are a lot of people at Cadillac who are happy they didn't listen to me.

Gaithersburg, Md.: Warren, I've seen all sorts of excitement about Mazda's new RX-8. Any first impressions, and any timetable on when you'll be reviewing it? My girlfriend thinks this would be the "perfect mid-life crisis car" for me.

Warren Brown: Dear Gaithersburg:
Tell your girlfriend that mid-life crises are overrated.
As for the RX-8, I'll be in it by July.

Alexandria, Va.: I'm going to be in the market for a sporty sedan pretty soon. I'd like something pretty compact -- I'm happy with the size of my Civic, I just wish it was 4 doors and a bit more fun to drive. I'm looking at the Mazda6, the Subaru Impreza and the VW Jetta. Of these three, which would you recommend? Are there any other vehicles I should add to the list to investigate?

Warren Brown: The Mazda 6.
Add the Acura TSX and Dodge Neon SRT-4.

Somewhere, USA: No wheels suggestion: Buy a stick-shift Honda CRX with 150k miles for $600, enjoy 50 mpg for six months, donate to charity.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Somewhere.

Boston, Mass.: Better choice: 2002 loaded Maxima GLE with 12K miles for $22,000 or new Acura TSX for about $5,000 more? Have driven both and like both, but the Maxima seems to be the better performer. Appreciate any Maxima owner's input as well as your thoughts.

Warren Brown: Advantage to Maxima on that one. Fully loaded with that 3.5-liter V6 is hard to beat at that price, especially considering that you're also escaping depreciations costs.
How say the people?

McLean, Va.: Hi Warren, I'm 23, out of college, have a job, and want to get a classy, used SUV for surfboards, buddies, and maybe a dog or two. Tell me why I should get a 96FourRunnerr instead of a 94 Land Crusier. I know the gas is an issue, I just like the look of the Land Crusier better. Both will run forever right? Can you help me out? Thanks!

Warren Brown: First of all, congratulations on being out of college and gainfully employed. If you are also out ofyour parent's' house, even more power to you!
The 94 Land Cruiser, as I said earlier, is heavy and underpowered. The 4Runner has less interior space, but it's a really well-designed mid-size SUV, Besides, that way you get to tell some buddies: "Sorry, don't have the space."

Warren Brown: Okay, good folks. Myapologiess for today's server problems. Thanks for sticking with me.
We'll be chatting from the road for the next two weeks. Lots of car reveals to attend: Audi A-8 in Louisville, Ky; Bentley Continental GT in Winston-Salem; Mercedes-Benz E-55 in Raleigh; Jaguar XJ Series in Phoenix; finishing the month with Nissan Endeavor in CantonMississippii.
Take care, everybody.

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