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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, May 14, 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.

Warren Brown: Greetings from Houston, Texas, where the cars are fast, the drivers are crazy, and the expressways were designed by people who would have rather built roller-coasters.
I've been on the road for several weeks looking at 2004 models, including the Audi A8 L, Bentley Arnage R, Mercedes-Benz E55, and the Jaguar XJ series. I'll end the month in Canton, Miss. with the Nissan Quest minivan. How are you all doing?

Somewhere, USA: Mr. Brown, I have a question that is part practical and part philosophical.
The practical side is that I am in search of reliable transportation here in the middle of the country, and I have been offered a '91 Impala (base model with the small engine). It has 85k miles, the vast majority highway, and has been treated generally well in terms of maintenance. The only major repair has been the replacement of the computer. The asking price is 5k, and the bluebook shows at least 10k.
My questions isn't whether I am getting a good deal, but rather what should be expected from a car at this age/mileage? Could you give me some general guidance? Also, do you think the Impala with the small engine will be underpowered (my financee's vehicle is an 02 Alero GLS with the large engine, and I find it quite satisfactory in all ways--a great car)? I appreciate your assistance, as I have a great respect for you and your work, especially given that you are willing to go beyond nuts and bolts to talk about the more emotional issues regarding vehicles.

Warren Brown: Dear Somewhere:
Your question is all practical.
If, by small, you are referring to GM's 3.8-liter V-6, you have nothing to worry about, assuming that the engine has been properly cared for during its 80,000-mile history. There's also, I think, a 3.3 or 3.5, (my cheat sheets are in my suitcase), which also is a decent engine.
Have a technician inspect it. If he or she gives it thumbs up, buy.
As you know, highway miles are the kindest miles for a vehicle. Here's hoping that most of that 80K mileage really came on the highway.

Colesville, Md.: Hey Warren,

How about some "fantasy" reviews like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, or Aston Martin?

Warren Brown: Dear Colesville:
Can't get the Enzo, for all of the obvious reasons. But would you settle for a Murcialago and the latest from Aston Martin? Coming your way, soon.

Vienna, Va.: Hello, Warren. A couple of comments on your Sunday write-up and comparison between the Bentley Arnage R and the Hyundai Accent, two vehicles at the opposite ends of the price spectrum.
The Bentley is indeed plush.....British luxury cars are probably unsurpassed in the sumptuousness of their interiors, although recent upper-level Audis and the Lexus LS 430 come close.
And, as you say, the Bentley, with its massive frame, heavy weight, and multiple air bags will provide excellent crash protection, especially with a smaller and lighter vehicle.
However, before panning the Hyundai Accent for its admittedly inferior crash protection (which is a characteristic of many small cars), consider that even in spite of its somewhat slow steering ratio, the Hyundai's light weight, narrow width, and short wheelbase will give it much superior manuverability compared to the Bentley and will help it AVOID many crashes in the first place that the Bentley would plow straight ahead right into.
Ans last, now many Bentleys will be sold outside of Hollywood/Beverly Hills, Manhattan, The Potomac/McLean areas locally here, and a few upscale limo firms?
Not very many, I would bet.
Accents will sell by the hundreds of thousands.....especially to cash-strapped people like college students and fixed-income senoirs.

Warren Brown: My dear Vienna:
I am part entertainer, part columnist. I want to make you laugh, dream, cry and curse. The highway is my stage. The vehicles are my props. They give me access to roads less traveled, lives often unexamined. They are metaphors for wealth and poverty, greed and ambition, modesty, hypocrisy, love, romance, sex, power. I wish to examine them in their entirety, which means going beyond their obvious composition of nuts, bolts and slip-rate differentials. Thus, the article to which you refer--though your points are well-taken--was not, per se, a comparison between a Hyundai and a Bentley. It simply was a whimsical dance between those that have less and those that have more. Sort of an outtake on life.

Los Angeles, Calif.: Warren: My family and I are moving to back to downstate Illinois to take care of the grandparents..this is rural Illinois where we get snow and the roads aren't the best. We have 2 children, 5 and 10, so we want a safe vehicle as well as one with four wheel drive. What would your recommend for a good, reliable vehicle. One final point, not a wide variety of dealers close in the area so domestic or Toyota is probably the extent of our choices. Thank you for your input.

Warren Brown: Greetings, Los Angeles:
I think you are looking at minivan. Thus, per my recommendadtion, you are looking at, in order of personal preference, a 2004 Toyota Sienna, Chrysler Town & Country, Honda Odyssey, Mazda MPV, or Ford Windstar. As I said, my cheat sheet is in my suitcase which is on its way downstairs at the Intercontinental Hotel in Houston. But I think that you can get any or most of those in all-wheel-drive at extra cost. Best wishes to you and family.

Springfield, Va.: What do you think of Ford's Windstar van? Safe? Reliable? Is it a best seller in its class?

Warren Brown: Hello, Springfield:
Current editions of the Windstar are safe and reliable, and they sell reasonably well. But, in that class, the 2004 Toyota Sienna rules, hands-down. Sorry, Chrysler. You held the lead for a loong time. But, I suspect, even you have to admit that Toyota has gone you one better this time around.

Silver Spring, Md.: Warren....do you think you could talk Chrysler (now that Plymouth is gone) into doing a retro Road Runner? We are seeing retro Minis, Mustangs, Woody PT's, Prowler hot rods, Beetles, etc..., a concept natural-gas Charger R/T, and a GTO coming this fall.
I can't understand why no one at D/C has come up with a retro Road Runner. The original Road Runners with the cartoon birds on the fenders, steering wheel, glove box, trunk, and classic beep-beep horns were not only cute, they were a brilliant marketing idea....even aside from the supercar torque and horsepower. In 1970 and 1971 they had some of the brightest and most unusual colors in the indusry.
I have discounted buying or restoring an old one, however, because I prefer modern technology...fuel injection, clearcoat paint, electronic ignition, disc brakes, etc...
Admittedly, I have a preference for Japanese nameplates with their superior quality but I would buy a new Road Runner in a heartbeat if they ever built one again.

Warren Brown: Silver Spring:
Take a look at the new Crossfire from Chrysler and tell me if you don't see hints of the Road Runner and the Dukes of Hazard mobile in that car.

Knoxville, Tenn.: Mr. Brown, I would certainly appreciate your help with respect to a new van. We have a 1993 Chevrolet Beauville with 150K miles on it. Its been a real trooper and we hate to part with it. Unfortunately, it has started having problems and we would like to buy a new one. More unfortunately, Chevrolet doesn't make the Beauville anymore. The closest thing we've found is the Chevy Express, but its too tall and won't fit in our garage, parking garage, etc. Do you know of any full size 7 passenger vans, with removable bench seats, that would fit our bill? Thanks so much.

Warren Brown: That's easy, Knoxville.
The 2004 Toyota Sienna. And don't worry. It's very American.

Silver Spring, Md.: Hey Warren, how are you? What's your take on the Suzuki Aerio sedan? I saw one recently and liked its looks, and it was loaded at a very good price, but I have no clue on its reliability, safety and how it drives. Yea or nay on this as a daily commuter?

Warren Brown: I lke the Aerio, really enjoyed it. But my friends at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety were a bit miffed that I neglected to mention the Aerio's less-than-protective bumpers in a recent review of that car.
They are right.
The Aerio and similar cars, in a bid to hold down poroduction costs while giving you as much performance and as many creature comforts as possible, skimped on the bumpers. That means a 5 mph crash could leave you with a pretty big crepair bill. What you save at the pump could be lost in the repair shop.

Seattle, Wash.: A reason to buy a fancy, but unreliable car:

I have a 1994 Honda Accord DX (that's right, a stripper). I'm bored to death with it, and I got my lovely wife to agree to let me buy myself something new and fun and plush and all that.

Then we decided to send the kid to Catholic school.

Now, I get to drive my very very reliable, economical, paid for and BORING car for another X years.


Warren Brown: Dear Seattle:
Believe me, I understand.
But here are the potential benefits:
. A happy wife and solvent bank account.
. A well-educated kid who will make both you and your wife proud.
Trust me, the latter is priceless and better than any car you could possibly imagine.

Washington, D.C.: I am looking for a car that at 65 mph is very quiet in the passenger cabin. Under $35K. Preferably a small sedan. Is it out there?

I heard The Car Guys joke once that the only reason this Lexus (I forget the model) had a tachometer was so that you could tell the engine was on from the inside....that's what I'm looking for!

Warren Brown: Dear D.C.:
Infiniti G35, Lexus ES300, Volkswagen Passat, 2004 Nissan Maxima, Jaguar X-Type, Cadillac CTS.....the list seems endless.

Washington, D.C.: Trailblazer or Explorer? How about tricked out TrailBlazer or more standard Expedition?

Warren Brown: That's a hard one. Both are very nice mid-size SUVs. But if you want tricked-out expertly and elegantly done, take a look at the Explorer-based Lincoln Aviator, or the TrailBlazer-based GMC Envoy.

Arlington, Va.: Hi Warren:

Will you be reviewing the Chrysler Pacifica soon? If yes, how does it compare to the Volvo XC90 and Honda Pilot/Acura MDX?

Many thanks.

Warren Brown: Dear Arlington:
I've driven the Chrysler Pacifica and found it both disappointing and uninspiring. It is a work of automotive confusion, not roomy enough to suffice as a legitimate minivan or desirable SUV; neither is it sporty enough to support its sports-car pretensions.
It is well-styled. But I think it will appeal primarily tom people who need a minivan but don't want one, or those who own an SUV, but are ashamed to buy one.
On the other hand, the XC90 is an excellent, innovative SUV, superior to the Honda Pilot/Acura MDX because of its standard-setting rollover-protection system. I predict that the XCD90's rollover protection system, or some variant, soon will find its way into many Ford products (Ford owns Volvo, as well as trucks made by other manufacturers.

Concord, N.C.: The beltlines in cars have been rising over the past several years. Is the trend due to safety considerations, styling or a broader consumer preference? If it is the latter, what does it say about our culture, if anything?

Warren Brown: Dear Concord:
Those rising, often undulating and ululating beltlines are primarily experiments in style--with considerations for things such as aerodynamics. But it's mostly style.
What it says about our culture is that we still have imagination and the willingness to use it; we still have the will to take chances, try different things. All I can say is "Amen" to that.

Arlington, Va.: Warren -

What's the scoop on the '04 Benz E-Class wagon? I wanted to test drive an '03 this weekend but the dealer said he was out of them and won't be getting any '04s for a while - he couldn't even offer me specs or photos of them.

Cheers -

Warren Brown: Dear Arlington:
I don't know what's going on with supply on that one. But I think you can find specs at edmunds.com, or www.mbusa.com.

Washington, D.C.: While the Chrysler cars are beautiful, their reputation for building poor quality cars. Has it improved in the past few years?

Warren Brown: Chrysler quality has improved substantially. No argument there.

First time buyer in Washington, D.C.: Is it better to get an auto loan from the bank or the dealership? I'm a first time buyer so I won't be getting 0%. I'm a little scared by the "finance charges" that I hear about.

Warren Brown: Dear First Time:
Go to your credit union, if you have one. Go to your bank, if you don't. Go to your dealer's finance arm as a last resort, unless you, through research, discover better rates at outfits such as General Motors Acceptance Corp. or Toyota Motor Credit.

Reston, Va: Warren,

I was in a slow speed (10-15 mph) accident last Friday. They'll have to replace hood, fender(s), grill, radiator, lights, etc. Air bag did not deploy.

My question (other than can I borrow your E55) is that, what area (frame?) should I be paying attention to when I go and pick up the car from the dealer when they are done fixing it? Thanks.

Warren Brown: Dear Reston:
First, here's hoping that you are okay.
Second, I suspect that your car is unibody as opposed to body on frame, which means looking at things such as the way the front doors and hood fit after repair.
It sounds as if you were in a frontal collission bwhich, if true, puzzles me as to why the front air bags did not deploy.
Several possibilities:
. You have depowered air bags, designed to deploy at a higher trigger speed.
. Your crash wasn't frontal.
. You have dual-stage bags, designed to inflate at different rates based on the triggering speed.
. Your bags are defective and should be checked.
In the interim, buckle up!

Washington, D.C.: The 50th anniversary burgundy Corvette is a thing of beauty!! I want it in a big bad way. Say something to bring me to my senses!

Warren Brown: Nahh, I'm just going to make you jealous. I get to drive it for a week this summer. Nah, nahh, nah, nah, nahh.

Silver Spring, Md.: A QUIET car under $35K? Try a 3-year-old or so Lexus LS 430. Probably the quietest production car in the world.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Silver Spring.

Bethesda, Md.: Warren, I'm looking to purchase a vehicle right now, and while I usually go used, it seems to me that over the last several years, the quality of SUV's has increased exponentially. Both in terms of driveability and safety. Not to mention that it seems that virtually every model has been redesigned in the last few years. Do you think the normal savings associated with buying used are outdone by this abnormal SUV period?

Warren Brown: Dear Bethesda:
SUV quality has improved, as has the quality of most vehicles.
But, if money is a concern, it makes more sense to buy used.
Little secret:
Those SUVs didn't just roll over.
People rolled them.
People who overloaded bthem and did not check tire inflation.
People who ignored onboard warning labels and tried to btake them around corners as if they were driving sports cars.
People who drove drunk.
People in SUVs who were the victims of other people driving drunk, or driving too fast, violating traffic rules, or people who were driving with too little sleep.
Vheicle safety has been improved, can be improved. More should be done.
But the unhappy truth behind most of the government's latest crash numbers is that too many people are driving irresponsibly, negating the value of any technical improvements in their vehicles.
I mrean, geez, try driving in Houston! It's insane!!!

Silver Spring, Md.: To the callar who had the low-speed crash.....air bag sensors in general, while it differs slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, in general do not go off until around 14 MPH or so..the G-forces under this speed are insufficient. It is highly unlikely that the sensors themselves are bad.....they are plated with pure gold to ward off corrosion for the ten years they are designed to last. That is one of the reasons that airbag assemblies are so expensive....and why they are so often stolen.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Silver Spring.

Bethesda, Md.: Warren -
I have a daughter who is currently driving our 93 Honda Accord, but I will need to update that before she goes off to school next year in Texas. What I want to know is about cars that are better suited for someone her height, which is just over 5'1". In the Accord, she can't really see the front end of the hood when driving, or the front corners when parking, and she has to raise up out of the seat to look backwards when backing up. Are adjustable seats and pedals only in the higher end autos, or are they becoming more common? I need a dependable and safe car for her.


Warren Brown: Dear Bethesda: You can put her in a smalletr car, such as a Civic. Frankly, I'd put her in another Accord.
Look, if you vreally want to help her, do this:
Send her to the International Training Institute in West Point, Va. Or send her to the Skip Barber Driving School or some comparably good driving school. Those places will teach her how to drive defensively, how to think behind the wheel, visualize the traffic scene. They will teach her about vehicle dynamics, how her car behaves under certain driving conditions and why it behaves that way.
That kind of training is better than any safety system you will find in almost any car.

Warren Brown: Okay, good folks. I enjoyed being with you. But the schedule says it's time to hit the road.
Have a happy rest of the week. Cheers, everybody!


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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