Q&A With Warren Brown
"Levey Live," appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Bob's guest was Warren Brown, The Post's auto industry reporter. Brown, who joined the newspaper in 1976, has been covering the automobile industry for us since 1982. He has what many people think is a particularly cool job: Brown gets to test drive all manner of cars, from top-of-the-line Mercedes to Volkswagen Beetles. 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.
A transcript of the discussion follows.
The new three-cylinder engine developed by Toyota that will be used to recharge a battery operated vehicle and also provide alternate propulsion in the event of battery failure will be introduced in 2001. What are the plans to sell this car in the U.S.?
Warren Brown: You're talking about the Prius, currently on sale in Japan and possibly Europe. U.S. introduction will bee in fall of 2000, perhaps sooner, if Toyota wants to impress the California Air Resources Board in that state, where the Prius should be a big hit.
Is BMW or Volvo a better car?
Warren Brown: Which BMW? Which Volvo? The new Volvo S80 sedan offers everything a person could want in an exceptionally safe, reasonably affordable (meaning that you're employed in some professional job or something) car. But, exactly what BMW are you talking about?
Bob Levey: Let's talk leasing. Has it been as big a boost to the industry as some people say? Is it a good deal for everybody?
Washington, D.C.: I drive a muscle car a 1998 Trans Am. (Please hold the midlife crisis jokes. I've heard them all.) I LOVE this car, but I understand that muscle cars like the Camaro and the Firebird may soon be automotive memories thanks to changing demographics. Say it ain't so, Warren.
Warren Brown: GM might try to use the ruse of "changing demographics" as an excuse for getting rid of the Camaro/Firebird. But, hey, that ain't the problem. Real deal is that Camaro/Firebird sales simply stink, and GM isn't in the mood to keep producing something that isn't selling well. Now, there's the Ford Mustang. Pretty much the same demographics as Camaro/Firebird. But Ford isn't dropping the Mustang because the Mustang still earns its keep in the sales stable.
Auburn Hills, Mich.: To what extent are Detroit automakers interested in capturing future market share by developing more fuel-efficient gasoline powered vehicles or alternative fueled vehicles? (Or, to what extent are such vehicles the product of government prodding rather than competition?)
Warren Brown: Detroit's strategy on future cars is this: Develop fuel cells, electric, CNG's et cetera, with aim towards developing market sales in Asia and Latin America. Idea is that those are virgin fields in terms of autos, which means that automakers also have a chance of developing infrastructures in those places to support new-fuel vehicles. Gasoline engines, with increasing sophistication in terms of fuel economy and cleanliness, will continue to hold sway in U.S., where unleaded can be bought cheaper than spring water.
Washington, D.C.: A fellow on a talk show recently extolled the many virtues of cars running on natural gas: Little or no air pollution, fewer tune-ups, and good economy. Would it really make sense to convert my car to run on natural gas?
Warren Brown: To me, it makes NO SENSE not to develop CNG vehicles. They generally burn cleaner than gasoline. There's lots of compressed natural gas available. The Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University has done a wonderful job of perfecting CNG storage tanks. For the life of me, I can't figure out why there isn't a greater push for CNG. And there's this: Putting a CNG infrastructure in place should make it easier for us to get to fuel cells. Am I wrong on that one?
Washington, D.C.: How do automobile manufacturers go about choosing a name for a car? I mean, what kind of name is "Prius" for a car? It sounds like a gum disease.
Warren Brown: Believe it or not, the car companies keep banks of names, some of which can prove embarrassing. Remember the Ford Probe? That didn't go well with guys facing prostate exams. There's also the deal where automakers deliberately misspell a name to make it different. For example, we studied prisms in high school physics, but never PRIZMS.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post automotive writer Warren Brown.
Bob Levey: My favorite auto writer, Mr. W. Brown, wrote this sentence recently: "The automobile business is as much about fashion and passion as it is about practicality and utility." Isn't that precisely what ails the biz? Wouldn't they sell more cars if they forgot about all the spoilers and tachometers and doohickeys and helped us be safer?
Warren Brown: You will never separate fashion and passion from the auto business, or any business involving style. Now, don't mistake this for a cyber-sex question, but, what are you wearing today? Why not sackcloth and ashes? What kind of shoes? What kind of belt? We could ask you about your underwear, but that's too personal. Thing is, we often choose cars the same way we choose clothes, for the look.
Bob Levey: Way back when the Levey children were small, Papa Bear bought Buicks and nothing but Buicks. They were big, they were safe, they were fairly economical. I loved them! And you, Warren Brown, told me that Buicks were "most sexless cars ever made." My in-box is now open for apologies....
Warren Brown: Sorry, Bob. The Buick is sexless. But, apparently, you're not. How many kids?
My father has introduced me to you as one of the Yorktown band boosters, but I always wanted to know how you got into this type of field.
Warren Brown: How did I get into this field? Easily. I like to write and talk. I don't like real work. I love cars and marketing. I talked my way into it. The editors didn't know what to do with me. They figured that doing this would keep me out of trouble, and out of their hair.
Washington, D.C.: Can we expect a change in quality with the Daimler-Benz, Chrysler merger? Where will the new Benzes be built?
Warren Brown: Re: DaimlerChrysler: Expect improvement in Chrysler vehicle quality, which is something Chrysler has struggled to do over the years. Expect faster turnaround on new Mercedes-Benz products. Chrysler is a more efficient manufacturer. Mercedes-Benz is better on quality. Ideally, the merged companies should benefit from their respective strengths.
Hamden, Conn.: Test drove cars in the Escort, Cavalier, Neon range recently. Can't understand how Chrysler STILL can't seem to master the concept of smooth-shifting auto transmission. Ford and Chevy seem to have mastered the concept more than 20 years ago at least. Neon's shifting is noisy and jerky. What do Ford and Chevy know that Dodge can't quite figure out?
Warren Brown: I've had the same complaints about the Neon. Could it be overall transmission quality? I don't know. Perhaps Chrysler ought to start buying parts from GM on this one.
Do you have any idea what the new Ford T-Bird is going to look like and how much they will go for?
Warren Brown: My understanding is that Ford plans to show us a copy of the new T-Bird at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Word is that it will be aggressively retro a two-seater with portals in the rear roof.
Washington, D.C.: Considering all the cars you've test driven and all the cars you've written about, is there one car you consider your dream car?
Warren Brown: My dream "car" is a motorhome, a 50-foot Prevost, or maybe a Country Coach. I'd take a Holiday Rambler Imperial, too or a Newmar. I absolutely love those things.
Crofton, Md.: America's love affair with the automobile has survived several oil-price shocks and EPA air quality regulation. Do you think that disgust with sprawl might finally threaten this romance?
Warren Brown: Freedom of individual mobility is the driving force behind the very idea of America. As long as Americans understand and believe that, their romance with the car or truck, bike, motorcycle, motorhome, whatever will remain alive. There is no bureaucracy that can change that.
Warrenton, Va.: I have had very disappointing experiences with my Mercury Sable. Ford has acknowledged the defects but claims my car is out of warranty. Any suggestions on getting them to be more responsible and cooperative? By the way, I have always enjoyed your columns.
Warren Brown: Hey, thanks for reading the column. About your Sable: Build a paper case receipts, service records, et cetera. Ship a copy of all to The Post. We'll see if we can get some kind of response out of Ford. No promises. But we've gotten some equitable results from other car companies in the past. Good luck.
Bob Levey: You've pointed out that sales of small cars are suffering because gas is cheap. But what if that changes? Aren't Americans smart enough to realize that the party might end at any moment, and it won't be pretty to be stuck with a Lincoln Town Car?
Warren Brown: When it comes to gas prices, it's not the intelligence of the American people that I question. It's the integrity and political guts of our elected officials. They tell us, on the one hand, that we need to do more to conserve. On the other, they run for cover at the very suggestion of higher gasoline taxes. No guts. No leadership. No real energy policy. As a result, no real market in the United States for small, fuel-efficient cars.
That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, Warren Brown. Be sure to join us this Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely," our weekly anything-goes show. And be with us next Tuesday, Dec. 8, from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time, when "Levey Live" revisits the impeachment story during the week when the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote.