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Real Wheels
Hosted By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, June 11, 2003; 11:00 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: Good morning, folks. Lots to discuss today, including Ford's 100th birthday party this weekend and, of course, whatever else is on your minds, Let's roll!


Bethesda, Md.: Warren, I'm looking for a car that would be the equivalent of an '03 Accord (EX-V6) or Maxima but with AWD. I'm not interested in an SUV, prefer car-like ride, handling, fuel economy. I would consider a newly used vehicle. Price range is 25-28K . Are there alternatives, aside from a Suburu, which appears to be the logical choice?

Warren Brown: Dear Bethesda:
The 1.8T Audi A4 Quattro ($26,850 to $28,000 msrp) comes to mind along with the Jaguar X-type ($29,305 with the base 2.5-liter, 194-horsepower V6). I have to consult another data bank to find others. Comments from the gallery are welcome.


Rockville, Md.: Your article on the vette was interesting. Obviously you were not bowled over like with the Jag or E55.
Speaking of the E55, you mentioned "LOW VOLUME, HIGH DEMAND". Why is it that if dealers like MB or Porsche can sell more E55's than they produce, why not simply produce a few more? Is it simply exclusivity?

washingtonpost.com: Indulging in a Classic Joy Ride: 2003 Corvette C5 Convertible (Post, June 8)

Warren Brown: Hello, Rockville:
All three cars hold their special place.
a. Jaguar XJ--exquisite beauty combined with speed and handling.
b. E55--smooth, sophisticated, pencil-point power. Totally addictive.
c. Corvette--Rawboned nostalgia on the hoof. I love it, but probably couldn't live with it. It's a same-time-next-year, wonderful kind of a thing.
As for the paucity of E55 models:
The direct word from AMG execs is that they want to keep the E55 and all other AMG renditions of Mercedes-Benz "exclusive." It's a halo-effect thing designed to pull admirers into the showroom only to take a peek, and buy something else. As for actual AMG buyers, the idea is max gross per car versus value dilution through volume.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hope you've been having fun reviewing all the big-money wheels. Now wouldja mind reviewing some cars we might actually be able to BUY?

Warren Brown: Sure, as soon as they become available. It might be 2003, but the industry actually is in the midst of rolling out 2004 rides. The usual strategy is to roll out the stars, draw a crowd, then roll out the supporting acts.
We will take a look at the new Malibu Sedan and Maxx, both of which I've driven in pre-production dress; as well as the not-your-Mom's Subaru Forester 2.5 XT; the Mitsubishi Endeavor SUV; Nissan Quest minivan, et cetera.
There's also the Acura TSX coming up....but, hey, what's life without dreams, envy, lust, greed?


McLean, Va.: You could get the Audi or Jag but why when you can have the Subie for more like $22-23k? NEW??

Subaru has got to be the best deal on the planet right now.

Warren Brown: Well, McLean, because some people don't want a Subie. ook Look at it another way: Why live in a mini-mansion when you can be housed just as well, for all practical purposes, in a decent apartment? Why wear linen or silk when cotton or polyester can cover you just as well?
Why live in McLean when you can live in South Arlington, or D.C.?


New Bern, NC: Warren-

I appreciate your knowledge and straight-up viewpoints. I also hope all is going well with your health. Thanks in advance for taking my questions

I am thinking about a new car and have been looking strongly at a new Jetta or Golf. I thought about a Mini (I'd like a BMW but can't afford it), but the nearest dealer is in Virginia Beach, so to take advantage of the freebee service, it would be necessary to drive about 250 miles. Five quick questions, am I missing out on any other fun-to-drive, well-engineered cars in the $16-20k department?

Is it possible to get a local BMW dealer to do the Mini service gratis?

Is there still a waiting list for the regular Mini (not the S)?

Have your latest reports from VW repair shops gotten any better (and does that just apply to dealer service and not overall vehicle reliability)?

Does the Jetta TDI have enough power and what kind of engine would you recommend for a Jetta sedan (I don't really understand how the horsepower ratings work with the diesel engines) 90 horse versus 115 for 4 cyl Gas vs 180 for the turbo?

Thanks again

Warren Brown: Hello, New Bern:
. The Jetta and Golf are great fun rides. VW is pushing, and helping its dealers improve service. All at Audi/VW agree that they've been losing possible return buyers because of bad service. They can't afford that kind of loss in an intensely competitive marketplace. They are improving.
. I Invite any BMW dealer or employee to comment on your question about Mini service. I don't know.
. Still a long line for Minis of all sorts; and I'm getting some unhappy reports from would-be buyers about ill treatment at pointpof-sale. MINI DEALERS SHOULD TAKE HEED. You started out by playing fair. You should continue. The goodwill you kick out of the door today could come back to kick your butt tomorrow. Be warned.
. Yes. The Jetta TDI has enough power to make most normal drivers happy.


Rockville, Md.: Thanks for the take earlier on the E55/Jag/Vette. As an owner of a 1995 vette conv. with 8100 orig. miles and a 2003 330 conv., it is true. the vette was never intended to be a daily driver. The BMW is more "daily Driver friendly". Chevy seriously needs to get with the program and put a POWER TOP on the vette. THIS helps make the BMW more daily friendly.
Thanks for the take!

Warren Brown: I agree, Rockville.


Germantown, Md.: Re: Alternatives to Subaru AWD sedan, $25K-$28K

New/Used: Audi A4, BMW 3 series, Jaquar X-Type, VW Passat, ...

Subaru is more reliable and cheaper to maintain. German cars are precision cars and expensive to maintain.

Warren Brown: All true, Germantown.
But cars are a lot like love. Under certain circumstances, neither one seems to make sense. But when you want it, you want it the way you want it and you just can't seem to do without it.


Del Ray, Va.: Morning, Warren! I've got a sweet little 2002 Mini. As a fellow Mini owner, perhaps you can help. I can't find an insulated cup small enough to fit in the two front cup holders. Usually, I cram my cup between the parking brake and the driver's seat. Do you have a better solution?

Happy Motoring!

Warren Brown: Del Ray:
Yeah, go to Pep Boys or AutoZone and get one of those cupholder inserts that allow you to hold a smaller cup securely. That should work. Enjoy the ride!


Virginia: Are you as intrigued about the new Maxx wagon as I am? I saw an ad on TV last weekend; an actual, honest-to-God GM midsized wagon. Will it be available with AWD?

Warren Brown: Yes, Virginia, there eventually will be an AWD Maxx wagon. But it won't be offered initially.
I've got to give it to GM on this one. The Maxx wagon I previewed seems like a smart piece of work--lots of storage room; very flexible, multipurpose interior; well built; finally, GOOD interior materials (no cheap-feel stuff); and a rather cleverly mounted, optional, rear-facing DVD screen. I also like what GM did with airflow in this one. The vents don't blow or cough in your face. Exterior styling is mainstream but, unlike the Toyota Camry, hints that you can still have sex after marriage.


Baltimore, Md.: BMW sent out a letter asking that owners of 3-
series M3's produced over a determined period
of time to have extensive engine work done under
BMW want's to replace the oil pump and a group
of bearings on the crankshaft.
My question is thus- on a new car well over $50K I
cringe to let a tech in a local dealership do such
extensive work. Do you know if the engines need
to be pulled to do the warranty work? Have you
heard of people negotiating for new engines?
If you have any info on this situation I'd love to
hear it.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Baltimore. BMW 3-series owners, please take note. Again, thanks for the bulletin, Baltimore.


Detroit, Mich.: Good morning all! First, a comment, then a question. As a sales manager for an automotive supplier I've had the chance to see the plans for the new 2006 re-designed Grand Am. I have to applaud Pontiac for developing the Grand Am as both a coupe and a hard-top convertible. This should finally allow those of us who can afford the Cadillac, Lexus or Mercedes hard-top convertibles to experience an exciting new segment in the auto industry. Now for my question. I have absolutely fallen in love with the Nissan Z. The first time I saw it at the Detroit Auto Show I knew that one day I would have to lease/own this car. But with Michigan winters I've been afraid that the Z, or other sport roadsters like the Audi TT, would handle extremely poorly (like the Ford Mustang, which I've had the unluck to drive on a snowy winter day). My question is really is this a false preconception, or am I correct in this fear. Perhaps you may be able to suggest a sporty car or roadster that would not have this problem. Many thanks from the Motor City!

Warren Brown: Welcome, Detroit:
In fact, I'll be in your city the last two weeks of June for the GM design show, 2004 product rollout and other events.
As for your question:
It's all in the tires, and ground clearance. Good traction control systems, usually available on the cars you're looking at, also help.
Avoid low-aspect ratio, wide-treads during winter. They are great for speed and handling on dry roads, but lousy for snow and ice--which is why we see so many sports cars stuck on the side of the road in winter months.
Ground clearance:
Not much you can do there. If you have eight inches of snow and a car with a 3-inch ground clearance, keep it in the garage. That also goes for all-wheel-drive and "Quattro" models.
Comments, arguments, brickbats, disclaimers are welcome.


Garrett Park, Md.: Hi Warren,

My wife and I are in the market for a minivan. We've test driven - and liked - the Odyssey, Sienna, and the MPV. Should we wait making a decision for the new Quest to come out?

I know you've had a chance to see it - can you tell us anything?

Thanks for your help!

Warren Brown: Yes, Garrett Park, if you can, you definitely should wait for a test-drive of the new Nissan Quest. It competes well against all of the models you've mentioned. It represents a desirable alternative to both the Odyssey and the Sienna. Quest models are rolling off the Nissan line in Canton, Miss., as we speak. Some Nissan dealers reportedly are getting them into showrooms now. Check.


Burke, Va.: What is your opinion of the Mini Cooper? I'm thinking about buying one in about a year. Do you think they're safe? I keep finding conflicting information. Thanks!

Warren Brown: Dear Burke:
We've been driving my wife's Mini Cooper (odd phrasing, but accurate) for nearly a year. No problems. Only complaint is minor: We got a flat tire. Low-pressure warning light flashed. We easily changed the tire. But the warning light keeps flashing. We have to reset the sensor.
Is it safe? Yes. Reasonably safe. If it hits a Honda Civic, it's safe. If it hits an Acura MDX or Chevy Tahoe, it's not.
But that's life, isn't it? Life well-lived is making your choices, living with the benefits or consequences of those decisions, and not puffing out your chest if things go right or blaming others if things go wrong.


Oakton, Va. Re: Bethesda: There are a number of alternatives in your search for a mid-sized AWD car.....from Volvo, Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, and, of course, Subaru and Audi. There is also the compact Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix AWD.
My strong advice.....go with the Subarus. They will be the safest buys in the long run. Many European cars have shown a distinct drop in build quality in the last few years, notably Mercedes.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Oakton. But, the chatter doesn't want a Subaru. Thanks for the OTHER suggestions.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Warren, I hope things are well with you and your family. Just wanted to check in from the field with a report regarding Audi service. I bought a "certified used" Audi this past fall, expected major headaches regarding service. Over the weekend, the car developed a problem and I called the dealer first thing Monday morning. Contrary to what I have been hearing, the dealer immediately scheduled an appointment for the next day. When I got there, the folks couldn't have been nicer, and even arranged for a complimentary loaner. I should be hearing today about when the repairs will be done, but the service rep. told me that it shouldn't be any more than 2 days.

I'm not sure if you'll let me mention the dealer (for fear of turning your forum into a giant commercial), but will pass it on if you want.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Washington. That kind of report gives me confidence that the Audi/VW people are doing what they told me and other journalists they would do. Thanks for that report.
And, hey, the family is fine. Hope all's well at your place.


Fairfax, Va.: Warren...I'm going to come to your defense here. What the caller from Silver Spring is forgetting is that Corvettes and Jags are cars that people in this area DO buy....and in quite large numbers. This is the second-largest auto market in the U.S. .....behind only Southern California.....and, obviously, it shows, both in the huge traffic volume here and the large numbers of luxury and sport cars.
Recession? WHAT recession?

Warren Brown: Thank you, Fairfax. You're right. I recently spend several days in Canton and Jackson. Miss. and environs. Most of the metal you see on the road are domestic trucks and cars, in that order. Many have been around for a while. People there are struggling with the economic downturn, which is why they're overjoyed with having the new Nissan plant.
Then, I get back to Washington--the land of exotic wheels. Makes you wonder. Aren't we supposed to be the place that helps the rest of the nation?


Washington, D.C.: Hi Warren!

Any word on the Chrysler Pacifica? We're expecting baby #3 and can't fit carseats 3 across in our 97 Grand Cherokee!

Any other suggestions that won't break the bank?
(Why are backseats so darn narrow these days??)

Warren Brown: Dear Washington:
I like the Pacifica's styling inside and out.
But, you need a real minivan, something with space for baby #3 and siblings. (Congratulations, by the way). The Pacifica has limited cargo/passenger space. It's the minivan for people who don't want, or really need a minivan. It's the SUV for people who don't want or need an SUV. It pretends to be a sports car. That's a bit of a joke.
You need a minivan--a real, honest-to-goodness minivan.
I would suggest:
a. The new Toyota Sienna, still my top choice.
b. The new Nissan Quest, now my second choice.
C. Chrysler Town & Country, third choice.
d. Honda Odyssey, fourth
e. New Ford Windstar, fifth choice and rising.


Adams Morgan, Washington, D.C.: I have two questions, both rooted in my status as a non car owner. For more than three years, I've commuted more than 40 minutes each way from Adams Morgan to Shirlington on a combination of Metrorail/Metrobus. As much as I'm committed to the cause of public transit, it is getting ridiculous. I might be ready to get a tiny (have to park it on the street in Ad Mo), cheap (I'm broke), fuel efficient (I feel bad enough abandoning mass transit) car.

Question one: of the following, which do you think is the best buy:
Hyundai Accent
Dodge Neon
Saturn Ion
Ford Focus
Mazda Protege
Nissan Sentra

Question two: when buying a car, should one ever admit she's never owned a car? Part of me think its a fairly good bargaining position to be able to say, "Hey, I get around just fine on my $20 a week flash pass, so really going to have to convince me you're giving me a good deal." (Which is true...I am not totally sure I need car and its expense). But then I am sure the dealer will find a way to capitalize on the "this girl knows nothing about cars" vibe.

Any ideas?

Warren Brown: Hello, Adams Morgan.
I like your lineup.
My re-ordered preference, based on what you've presented:
. Ford Focus, a good car that has overcome quality difficulties and is now a full-fledged contender for the Urban Wheels Award.
. Nissan Sentra. City-smart, fuel-efficient, well-designed. I like what Nissan has done to the rear end.
. Saturn Ion--much-maligned in the automotive press, lots of criticism about lack of power and that sort of thing. But I think my colleagues miss the point. This is a city car, a good one. It's not meant for racing around. It is safe and reasonably priced. We can fight over the styling. But, at least it's distinctive.
. Dodge Neon--still a good little city runner. I like the styling. But still afflicted with cheapo interior materials.
. Hyundai Accent--probably the best bargain available for new city wheels. Good quality, too.
Your second question:
It matters not whether you are a novice are a pro at car-buying. Do our homework, as you clearly have done. Determine what you need and can afford. Then determine what you want and can afford. Do the math. Walk away from any dealer who wastes your time, double-talks, condescends, or otherwise disrespects your intelligence.


Sterling, Va.: Hi Warren,
I had sent in a comment about my new car earlier, but seeing all the discussion about Subarus as an AWD choice in the low 20's, and driving a car that you love, I wanted to write again.
We just bought a 2003 Subaru Outback wagon last weekend. I LOVE driving this car - it makes me want to go do errands all the time, just so I can get behind the wheel again. We're taking another road trip with it this weekend. Different strokes for different folks I guess! Thanks for all your helpful advice over the years. (It took us three years of off-and-on car shopping to buy this car!)

Warren Brown: Dear Sterling:
I can't argue with you, not at all.
In fact, my wife is so smitten with the wonderful new Subaru Forester 2.5 XT, she's putting pressure on me to back out of the Mini Cooper S (which would be our second Mini) and get the Subaru instead. Frankly, I'm not putting up much of a fight on that one. I really like that 2.5 XT. Inasmuch as we are giving our truck to a great young man, and superior crafstman, who has been doing much of the remodeling work on our house, we'll need another hauler. So, The Woman From Texas has a point.


Look into a 2003 325ix...the 2004's are out and deals might be good. price might a tick higher than a loaded Accord EX, but the trade off is potentially solid BMW resale...

Warren Brown: Thank you, Rockville.


Washington, DC: the TSX from Acura is just an Accord from Europe. Why didn't they put the 240 hp V-6 from the Accord in it and blow away the competition from BMW, Audi, and Lexus?

Warren Brown: You are right. Mileage is why we have the four-cylinder, which still is pretty good. The TSX is a middle-muddle entry, between the Acura RSX sports coupe and the 3.2TL luxury performance sedan. Acura is giving the skow-selling CL the boot.


Washington, D.C.: 03 Accord for 4WD. You don't need 4WD in this area. FWD is very good in bad weather. I have an 03 accord and did very well in the bad snow this year.

But if you want an alternative, Subaru Outbacks are a good choice.

Warren Brown: Thank you, Washington. (And please forgive the typos in the last response. Lunchtime, you know.)


Vienna, Va.: Hi, Warren....sorry I missed the show last week. For the person who wants a Subaru alternative mid-sized AWD car, how about the VW Passat 4Motion? A few more bucks than the Subies, but has good driving characteristics and steering feel. Only problem, as you have pointed out, is the poor VW service. If it were MY money, though, I'd go with a Subaru...they are likely to hold up much better than the AWD European cars....and be cheaper to boot.

Warren Brown: Good entry, Vienna. Thanks for the note.


Washington, D.C.: Hi,

Can you please convince my friend (24 yr old single guy) that there is no need for him to get the station wagon Impreza WRX over the sedan version. Who wants a station wagon when you don't need it! Besides the look, is any of the performance compromised by it being a station wagon? Also, why does Nissan insist on those hideous door handles for the 350zx (especially when it's a different color than the rest of the car to stand out) it's the worst aspect of the car.


Warren Brown: Hello, Washington.
If the dude wants the wagon version, he gets the wagon version. It's his money. Unless you are paying, or helping to pay the note, leave him alone.
I agree. Nissan needs to rethink those 350Z handles.


Dover, Del.: This is the first I'd heard of the Chevy Maxx, so just now I did a search and read up on it. Perfect! This thing is exactly what I need... oooooh. No manual transmission. Blast!

When will they learn? Offer both! This is the sole reason I've had so many Japanese cars lately.

Warren Brown: Dear Dover:
I've said this before.
Will say it again.
Those manuals?
Yeah, I love them, too.
But they are going...bye-bye...eventually.
Sales dictate production, and the sales for manuals are falling, falling, falling.....especially on mainstream vehicles.


Warren Brown: Okay, good and wonderful people, that's a wrap for today. In several weeks, I will join the righteous Bill O'Brien in a hot-to-trot, weekly, on-air car show at WMAL radio in Washington. We'll talk cars, trucks, love, relationships, carpolitics, regulation, et cetera. The aim is to inform, entertain, exchange ideas, and have an absolute ball. All are welcome to participate. That includes car-lovers and haters, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Center for Auto Safety and, especially, just plain folks. I'm looking forward to it.
Yes, the Real Wheels chatline will continue, along with Overdrive, On Wheels, et cetera.
What can I say?
I love this job!


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