Real Wheels Live

Apr 15, 2011

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown will discuss the auto industry. Plus, he'll give purchase advice to readers.

Past Real Wheels Live Chats

Here's my dilemma: Circumstances left me with two cars -- a 1997 Corolla 5-speed manual with 175K miles, which I use for commuting (10 miles one-way, mostly streets), and a 2004 Pilot with 123K miles, which is the road-trip and heavy hauling vehicle. The Corolla still gets almost 30 mpg composite, and everything still works -- but it is shortly going to need new engine mounts and a set of tires (not to mention a timing belt at 180K). I figure that total will be about $1,500. I could fix up the Corolla and continue to drive it (gambling that nothing else will need fixing near-term); sell it and drive the Pilot (which gets 17 mpg composite if I'm lucky); or sell both of them and buy something else. Candidates are the Elantra Touring, Subaru Forester, and Jetta TDi (all manual). I can wait until the 2012 model year -- the Elantra Touring is really nice but a bit short-legged on the highway -- maybe it will get a 6-speed manual for 2012. What do you think?

I'd repair the Toyota, which is a real-life response, inasmuch as I just spent nearly the sanme amount of money repairing our 35 mpg hwy Mini Cooper for the same reason. Don't talk yourself into buying what you don't have to buy.

 Jeff Hooper, Senior Vice President & Consumer Lending Manager at SunTrust, was asked to submit a comment about auto refinancing and answer any questions on the topic. Hello to the readers of Real Wheels! Warren and I spoke on the phone recently about growing interest in auto refinancing. In the greater Washington, D.C. region, more than half of SunTrust"s auto loans in 2010 were actually refinancing deals. With gas prices going up and budgets tight, we at SunTrust think this is an innovative way for people to save money. On average, our clients save about $60 per month when they refinance. That is a tank of gas! I wanted to ask the Real Wheels community if they have ever considered this option, as well as answer a few questions about refinancing an auto.

Hello, Jeff. Wow, what a difference a year makes! Last year, consumers were begging banks for loans and getting a big "No!," especially when it came to financing automobiles. Now, Sun Trust, among others, is offering to refinance cars in possession! What's going on?

Good morning! I hope you can help me make up my mind regarding three cars that I think have a good combination of style, practicality and fuel economy. These are the newest models of the Hyundai Elantra (which I know you love), the Ford Focus five-door hatchback and the VW Golf TDI. How would you rank these and what features would put one or the other at the top of your list? Thank you, Grant

Hyundai Elantra gets "best value" nod.

Ford Focus ranks near the top in "fun to drive."

The Tdi is one of the most fuel-efficient, fun-to-drive compacts on the market. But it's not cheap.

My husband and I are in the market for a gently used SUV that has capacity to tow approximately 3500lbs. We're hoping to spend around $20-25K and seem to keep coming back to the Ford Explorer and the Toyota 4Runner. Anything else we should really consider? Between those two would you rather have an older 4Runner with higher miles or a newer Explorer. The plan is to keep this car until it dies a slow death!

The Explorer and Highlander are good choices. You should also look at the Nissan Xterra and Jeep Grand Cherokee, as well as the Chevy Tahoe.

Hi Warren! What are your thoughts on the chevy equinox? How does it compare to the suburu outback and/or forester? I'm looking ahead to the next car, and I'm considering some 4wheel drive options; something that will handle well in bad/all weather, but doesn't totally kill me with fuel economy. What would you recommend?

The NEW Equinox (2010/11/12) is a very nice piece of wotk and is well worth the look. You might also find a price advantage there over the Forester and Outback. The new Equinox certainly looks better than both of those.

Hi Warren, I've been reading your column and discussions for a few years and I really enjoy them. I'm curious, when you're driving a car that you plan to later review in your column, what exactly do you do/what is your driving protocol? I'm dying to know how the wheels (sorry for the bad pun) in your brain turn when you're reviewing a car.

I try to consider the intended market for the vehicle in question. For example, in a pickup, I usually head down I-66 West to the Shenandoah Valley and other places where people regularly use pickups. I let them look at it, and take their comments seriously. Or, I head up to the farmers in the Adirondacks. Those folks don't play. If they don't like something, they are quick to tell you why.

I seldom drive super luxury anything, especially cars. That's barely a nine-percent sare of  the market (exotics, I mean). People with that kind of money don't need me to tell them how to spend it, although I might play with one of those models just for the fun of it.

Mostly, I focus on traditional low-end (say, something such as the Ford Fiesta) to high-end (Mercedes-Benz, et cetera) models. Most of the current car market in the US is in those segments. I mean, let's be real. I essentially have 52 columns annually. My readers and editors don't want me wasting that space on fantasy mobiles that precious few of us will buy or can afford. I respect that sentiment.

Lately, you might have noticed my increased concern about the environment and interest in alternative-fuel cars, such as electrics.

That's not because I've all of a sudden gone green. It's because I travel a lot--and what I see going on around the world scares the hell out of me. Resource wars over oil and water. The wanton destruction of so many natural resources. Poverty, I mean, real, gut-wrenching poverty. And the rapidly increasing demand for oil in places such as China and India.

Bottom line is that we in the "developed world" can no longer entertain our affection, without consequences, for the wanton use of fossil fuels. We have to change. So, that is where my head has been lately. Sort of "car guy" in the world as it actually exists. I mostly let other people handle the fantasy.

Warren, love the chats, but have to post early since they're on at bedtime here in Asia. My family will be returning to the States in August, and will need to buy two cars when we return. I find myself very nervous about the prospect, and have many questions. I prefer new cars, since a used car burned me and my wallet many years ago, but is such a fear overblown today? It used to be that August was about when new models would start hitting the showroom; is that still true today? Is there any reason beyond liking two cars from the same place to attempt to buy from one dealership? Our car here has the beeping that helps a driver when in reverse (which probably has a fancier name); has such a feature become mainstream in the US, since US drivers do not routinely back into parking spaces? What should we expect to spend on a good gas mileage compact vehicle and a bigger minivan/SUV for family trips? If we were to buy one used and one new, which would be the better choice for the used vehicle? Sorry if I asked too many questions...

Not too many questions at all. The used-car U.S. scene is booming, mostly because new-car production for Asian and U.S. models is constrained by the ET (earthquake, tsunami) unhappiness in Japan. Toyota, Honda, and Nissan have sharply curtailed production in North America. GM is sending experts to Japan to see what can be done to boost compenents supply. There are other problems too difficult to delineate in this space.  So, used vehicles, especially fuel-efficient used vehicles, are back in vogue. You might have heard that we in the United States are looking at, at least, $4 a gallon for regular unleaded gasoline by mid-summer, if not earlier. Depending on what Ghaddafi , Inc. does, that easily could reach $5 a gallon. Good news: Korean, U.S., and German car companies have invested heavily in high-quality, fuel-efficient small cars. Unfortunately, because of conflict of interest rules, I can't buy Hyundai stock. Wish I could.

With the price of gas rising past $4 per gallon in many places and likely to stay there for some time, is there any hint that some auto manufacturers may be rethinking their earlier decisions re: 3-row fuel efficient people movers? Specifically, will Chevy recant its shortsighted plan to offer the Orlando only in Canada, and will Kia build a driveline-upgraded version of the Rondo for sale here, as well as presently in Canada?

All of those things are possible. Chevy first introduced the Orlando in Europe and Canada,because it knew it had solid markets for that model in those places. But it never was Chevy's intention to restrict the Orlando to those markets. Chevy was being cautious, like everyone else. Nobody wants to intro a fuel-efficient vehicle in an America awash in cheap gasoline--not Chevrolet, BMW, VW...nobody. Keep in mind that, in recent years, big profits for Toyota, Honda and...gulp!...Porsche... came from the sale of SUVs! Now, with $4-a-gallon gasoline..and higher... we are much more likely to see more vehicles that make sense.

Jeff Hooper's response to Warren's question:  We actually began a full-court press over two years ago to provide auto loans for our clients. One of the things we realized was that many folks who do business with us had their auto loans from someone else. As rates began to drop we saw a big opportunity helping them refinance into more competitive rates and, in some cases, expanded terms. We see this as a real “Win-Winâ€Â: we are able to make more loans and the clients save money!

What will be the effect on your loan activity of contraints on new-vehicle production caused by the trouble in Japan, and the resultant fallout for used-vehicle sales?

Warren, one of my co-workers, an engineer, made a comment that the cost of the fabrication of just the battery for a hybrid car takes as much energy as driving a Hummer for 200,000 miles - implying that hybrids, when viewed as a whole and not just MPG, are actually a huge waste of energy. I'm having a hard time buying that notion. Any truth to it?

Your co-worker is right, which is why we must accelerate the pace of battery development--making them more efficient and easier and cheaper to build. We must also pay closer attention to things such as liquid propane gas, which might make more sense in mass transit and industrial applications, and compressed natural gas, which might have similar use. What we absolutely cannot do is pretend that we're all members of Congress and sit on our tails and do nothing. We simply don't have that option. If you don't believe me, take a trip to Africa. So many Chinese petrochemical executives there. And they are all looking for oil to fuel a still-booming Chinese economy.

Good morning, Warren: My wife and I recently reached 117,000 miles on our 2000 Saturn SL2, which we bought brand new in 2000. It's been nice not having a car note since 2004 and, overall, it's been dependable transportation. However, we're ready to look for a new car and are seriously considering switching to a hybrid. What are our best options?

Check out the Green Car Journal where you are likely to find a number of high-mileage cars, 35-40 mpg hwy, that run extremely well without hybrid technology. Ready examples include the Hyundai Elantra, Toyota Corolla, Ford Fiesta and Focus, Chevrolet Cruze. If you really want a hybrid, they abound, including the Toyota Prius, Ford Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.

Hybrid warning: Most manufacturers are turning to lighter weight, more fuel-efficient lithium-ion polymer batteries. That includes Toyota, which is beginning to introduce those batteries in Japan in its newest Prius models. Ford and other domestic companies are bringing lithium-ion batteries onboard, too. That means hybrids with traditional nickel-metal hydride batteries are looking at lower resale values. Beware.

Warren, Considering minivans: a)Nissan Quest SL-2007, b) Honda Odyssey XL AT-2007, c) Toyota Sienna XLE-2008. a) service intervals, dual dvds, engine; b) character, service interval, cylinder deactivation; c)AWD, ride Any opinions on the above choices and/or criteria we need to check? Thanks, Gulfcoast

Gulf Coast, you should also put the Chrysler Town& Country in there, which meets practically all of your stated needs. But of the models you mentioned, I'd go with the new Honda Odyssey, hands down. It meets all of your criteria...and then some.

Warren, how do the following subcompacts compare to each other: Fit, Focus, and Fiesta (or "the 3 Fs")?

My favoriteremains the Honda Fit (Sport) model--good fuel-efficiency, excellent small-car utility, definitely fun to drive.

I'm waiting on the new Focus, and will tell you more about that, later.

I like the Fiesta, love it, in fact. But you're asking me to be honest here. And honesty says that I would choose the Honda Fit Sport almost everytime.

How do hybrids achieve a greater over the road MPG than their standard brethren? I understand a higher City number, but how does a heavier car or truck get bettter Road mileage, is the electric motor in use while the battery is being charged?

Well, you've hit it on the head, haven't you? The current crop of hybrids get better mpg in the city, where their batteries and electric motors do most of the work. You also have electric assist tecnologies in tandem with cylinder de-activation, depending on vehicle load and speed, that may deliver better fuel economy on the highway. And our dear friend, Lou Ann Hammon, has just spent time in Portugal with theContinental people who are planning a whole new array of tires specifically designed to increase the fuel efficiency of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles. I'll met with Lou Ann in New York this week at the New York Auto Show. Maybe, we can come up with a chat on tires of the future. In the interim, you might want to check out what she has to say about the matter on DrivingtheNation.com.

My beloved Toyota Avalon (1996) is starting to look a bit long in the tooth. All the systems are sound (engine, brakes, transmission, etc), but the inside is definitely looking shabby and we're starting to have some rust issues over the wheel wells. My husband and I figure that we could probably put about $5,000 into the car to spruce it up and get a few more years out of it. Or we could buy a new car (would be used). Except for one issue of burning oil (for which we had to have the engine rebuilt--at Toyota's expense), this has been a wonderful, comfortable, reliable car. Any thoughts? Is it worth the investment?

Yes. You already are driving a used car. Why buy one that's new-used? Doing so will cost you more than $5,000, and that's just for purchase. Stand up for things and people that are "long in the tooth!" They and we still have value. A fix here, a facelift there, a little extra paint in all of the right places, and they and we can still keep going. Have some respect for the elderly, why dontcha? Fix the darned thing and keep driving!

What are the charges involved in refinancing--both fixed costs (list amount) and variable costs (explain formula)?

I'm going to ask Mr. Hooper of Sun Trust to respond to me on this one via warbro70@aol.com. I will forwar his answer to you.

Thank you all for joining us today. Please come back next week. We're really beginning to do some great things via auto coverage at The Washington Post. Stay tuned. Eat lunch, Ria.

In This Chat
Warren Brown
Warren Brown has covered the cars industry for The Washington Post since 1982.

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