Real Wheels Live

Sep 02, 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

Your frequent assertion that third-row seats in compact mini-vans are both a human disaster and a legal bonanza in the making, has apparently provoked manufacturers to put that theory to actual test, albeit on a smaller scale. Recent and forthcoming subcompact hatchback vehicles from several makes all have non-existent rear overhang "crush zones", even though this makes them appreciably shorter than their sedan counterparts. In addition to the safety concerns, this adds a couple of significant other drawbacks: The normal hatchback versatility of sizeable cargo space behind the rear seats is forfeited; and ANY impact from the rear, however minor, is apt to involve the rear wheel suspension, making it a dramatically costlier repair or even total writeoff. What bizarre affliction has led manufacturers to commit this insanity? Where were THEIR lawyers when these cars were being designed?

I don't know. It appears that the marketing people held sway. Maybe, some automotive designers and marketers had large families--and normally transported seven to eight people every time the family vehicle moved. I seriously doubt it. What was clear to me was that too many of those rear seats, third-row seats, seemed too close to the rear hatch. Does some kind of structural magic limit the vulnerability of the usually small children sitting in those seats? I doubt it, particularly if those children aren't properly restrained in those seats. Seems to me like a class-action liability suit waiting to happen.

We have 2 kids now (1.5 years & 3 years old) and hope that we will have a 3rd by next fall. We will need a minivan. The question is should we buy now at the end of the model year with .9 percent financing or wait until next summer to buy one. My husband and I are also debating the new/used. Typically I'm fine with a used car but if we're going to have the van for 10+ years, I think new is the better way to go. Your thoughts on that? Leaning towards and Odessey. Thanks for your guidance!

I was going to suggest the compact Nissan Juke hatchback, which starts at around $20K and delivers 32 mpg on the highway. But that one comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), which displeases some people. CVTs eschew fixed-gear ratios in favor of a pulley-type system to adjust the flow of power from engine to drive wheels. So, yeah, I'd go with the Honda Odyssey, Toyota Sienna, or something like the Kia Sorento. Most nowadays come with auto-manual transmissions--automatic that also can be operated in the manner of manuals. A quick check here shows that traditional manual gearboxes are few and far between in this segment. Hint: Kia trumps its rivals in offering the best value.

Isn't it in the interest of auto mechanics to never recommend that you get a new car since the more extensive the repairs required, the more money for the auto mechanic?

Not everything is a conspiracy. Nor is everyone involved in one. Most mechanics would not sacrifice professionalism or integrity to repair something that is unrepairable or to fix something that needs no fixing. They know that if their reputation for fairness and honesty go south, their  business will follow.

Are we going to see more dual-clutch or other "automated manual" transmissions in the next few model years. My understanding is that they offer faster shifting, quicker acceleration and better performance than other types of transmissions. Have they proven reliable in daily use? Herndon

Yes, we'll see more auto-manuals as more car manufacturers struggle to increase mpg. Most auto-manuals are reliable. Early versions displeased drivers because of an often-rubbery shift feel. But that was a decade or so ago. CVTs have improved considerably.

I love my 11 year old Forester, except for having to replace the wheel bearings 3 times so far... Any ideas on contacting either Subaru or NHTSA on that issue? But my real question is about a replacement. Ideally, I'd like a manual transmission, small SUV or crossover, all wheel drive or 4 wd, good mileage. Asking too much? What I've found online with Honda, Toyota and Hyundai shows they do not have manual transmissions any more. Mileage is so-so. Do the car companies do their own mileage estimates, or rely on EPA's rosy estimates? Thanks!

Check at www.nhtsa.dot.gov. Click on "service bulletins" or whatever rubric NHTSA is using nowadays to get you to service-bulletin information.

I am looking into AWD sedans, specifically the Audi A4 and the Infiniti g25x/37x. Can you suggest some other options I should be looking at? They don't have to have a luxury badge.

If they don't have to have a luxury badge and they don't have to look that great, try the Mitsubishi Lancer MR, starting at around $37,600. Works: Turbo 2-liter, 16-valve, gasoline direct injection (291 horsepower, 300 foot-pounds of torque) linked to a six-speed auto-manual transmission. Fast as hel. Ugly as hel, too. But lots of fun to drive.

Warren, I read your explanation last week about transmissions that could be operated manually, and I do not understand it. I have driven manual transmissions for most of the 54 years that I have had a driver's license. Would you try again to explain what it is and how it works without a clutch?

I'll try. Here goes: There are strictly manual gearboxes, which are in steep decline in cunsumer preference worldwide. Strictly manual means your left foot pushes a clutch pedal as you physically shift from one gear to another. There are simple automatics in which appropriate power automatically is transferred from engine to drive wheels while the driver steers the vehicle. Combine key elements of the two to get auto-manual. There is no clutch for your left foot to push while you are in manual mode. But you can phsically shift gears, thereby giving you the feel of driving a manual without actually doing the work.

Good morning. My husband and I are looking at buying a Subaru Outback. The new ones aren't that much more than the used, but they are still a couple thousand dollars cheaper. I have two questions. First, what year of the Subaru Outback do you recommend? Second, when buying a used car, is it advised to get the pre-certified vehicles or just a pre-owned? Thanks.

First, when buying used, it is better to buy certified. Just make sure that it is factory-certified, or, at least, dealer-certified with certification, in this case, meaning that the purchased vehicle is certified to run at least a year trouble free.

Second, get the latest-model, least-used Subaru Outback.  Many orders tend to dog these cars. Have a trusted technician examine your intended purchase before turning over any money for purchase.

2005 Chevy Trailblazer; V-8 engine, 150K miles (hard miles - we drive it back and forth to work; plus it was the "college travel" car, back and forth to West Virginia for several years). Transmission is failing, and of course it is out of warranty, but paid for. It is my husband's car and he loves it. It has had some minor electrical issues, but is also eating oil which, for the time being, is manageable. Fix or trade?

Trash it. Sell for parts. Put him in a safer, substantially more fuel-efficient, flex-fuel, cleaner burning 2012 Chevrolet Equinox crossover-utility vehicle with OnStar emergency telecommunications. The 2.4-liter, inline four-cylinder engine in that one offers better fuel economy. But a guy stepping down from a V-8 probably would be more comfortable embracing the Equinox's optional V-6. Both engines can run on a 85-percent ethanol to agsoline blend. Both also run well on regular.

Warren, We just traded in our 2004 Subaru Baja (great car BTW) for a 2011 Forester limited. So far we love the Forester with the Sirius/XM, USB, good ride, huge moonroof, and best of all we got 30-31 MPG (mostly highway driving) this past weekend on a six hour drive. If it came with a port-a-john, we could actually live in it. :) Have a great Labor Day.

Thanks for writing. Drive safely this weekend.

Hiya Warren So often we complain about arrogance, pushiness, rudeness, and so forth from our interactions with car dealers, but I bought a new car this week from Rosenthal Nissan/Mazda in the Tysons Corner area, and I had nothing but a hugely positive experience, so I wanted to pass along kudos. Spread the word--there are dealers out there that value their customers, treat them with respect, and work hard with them to make a mutually beneficial deal. Don't settle for less.

Thanks for, as my sister Mary Edith says, "sharing."

Thanks, you've given me some new ideas. My follow up question is on the timing on whether or not to buy now (end of model year w/low financing rates) or wait until next summer (when we actually need it)?

Here's the retail scene:

Honda, Toyota, and Subaru finally are recovering from the March 11 earthquake-tsunami. They are filling their supply and assembled-product lines. But their product lines (in the U.S.) won't be completely filled until late September 2011. When that happens, look for Honda, Toyota and Subaru to pour on the sales incentives in a bid to make up market share lost because of the March 11 disaster.

Domestic sales, meanwhile, have been soaring while domestic sales incentives have been decreasing. Yes, that means GM, Ford, Chrysler have taken advantage of Japan's misfortunes. Business is business. It also means that GM, Ford and Chrysler are now producing attractive, competitive products in all vehicle segments. Look for the domestics to increase incentives in response to actions taken by the Japanese.

Which means that our South Korean friends will continue offering the best values in all of the vehicle segments in which they compete.

But you are likely to run into good luck in shopping German, especially the Volkswagen group, which includes Audi. VW nowadays is super-agressive both in terms of product development and pricing. VW's goal is to displace Toyota as the No.1  car company. An early look at VW's 2012 product lineup says that VW has a good chance of achieving that goal.

I love the work that NHTSA and IIHS do. I'm fairly certain they don't perform high-speed rear-end crash testing. If they did it would be plain that cars where the rear most seat is closer to the back edge of the car would not get as high marks as seats further from the rear of the car. So they'd probably take those cars off of the top safety picks list. But then again, we're not up in arms that you can be ejected and hurt that much easier from a convertible.

Putting this out there in hopes that both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administraion (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) will follow up... if they aren't already doing so.

Just saw that Chrysler has rolled out a new financing deal 0% - 60 months as of the 1st for the 2011 inventory. Might be worth checking into (if the T&C minivan is still a contender). Also, congratulate me. I took delivery on a Mazda3 sport hatch last night. Already loving it!

Congratulations!! One of the best, most fun-to-drive small cars eever!!

The Chrysler Town & Country minivan remains very competitive. Just ask the folks at VW who are selling essentially the same vehicle under the VW Routan nameplate. Globalism! You gotta love it.

Thank you so much for answering my question about the used Subarus. Since the price difference isn't that great between the used and the new, do you think it is worth getting a new one? Thanks.

Yes. And get it WITHOUT the extended warranty. The automatically purchasednew-vehicle federal and manufacturer warranties are sufficient. Secure financing BEFORE you enter the dealership. Work with your bank or credit union. Good luck. P.S. And no "dealer undercoating" or "paint sealant" or "environmental protection package." All of that stuff already is done at the factory.

Warren, you correctly note that some people do not like CVT trannies. They typically complain it sounds like they are driving golf carts. I thought I'd post a rebuttal. I have a 2011 Subaru Legacy with CVT, and I like it a lot. The CVT allows the engine to operate at optimal revs at all times... all speeds and throttle positions. I especially like how it allows the engine to operate at low RPMs on the highway, which reduces noise and vibration, and also boosts highway MPGs. I like the CVT better than a "normal" auto slushbox.

Thanks for the counter. Much appreciated.

How does the Volvo S80 compare to the Audi A4, Infiniti g25x, and the Mitsubishi Lancer MR?

The Volvo S80  looks better than the Lancer MR, but does not drive nearly as well. The Volvo S80 is outclassed in feel and design by the A4 and Infiniti g25x, both of which drive as well as the Lancer MR.

You said this about used Subarus just now. Could you please translate into English? I can't really decode these words.

My apologies. The English tranlation: Many OWNERS tend to dog these cars, which means the people who drove it before you might have roughed it up a bit. In any language, that means you should check it thoroughly before buying.

When trying to determine the value of my car, which is better: Kelley or NADA? Their values are off by at least $1k. Thanks!

Use both. Include www.edmunds.com, TrueCar.com, and cars.com (a Washington Post retail partner) in your research. There is no such thing as too much information when preparing to spend the kind of money it takes to buy a motor vehicle, new or used.

After agreeing to a price for a new car purchase, I discussed trading in my old car only to receive a way low-ball price. The new car price was fair, so I bought the car, but now I am holding onto the trade in. Are there other car buyers out there besides Car Max that offer a similar car buying service?

Check with Washington Consumers' Checkbook (Google it.). The Checkbook staff usually offers solid direction in vehicle sales/purchases.

Hi Warren, I know you have said good things about this van in the past. I drove one yesterday (2011 LX model) and I was disappointed it didn't have the power sliding side doors. Is this an expensive option for all the van makers out there? I don't need or want many options but that is one I definitely want.

For reasons that befog me, Kia seems to have abandoned further development of the Sedona. I'd take a look at the new Nissan Quest.

Thank you all for joining us today. WARNING:  This is Labor Day weekend. Law enforcement departments nationwide will be looking for people driving under the influence or otherwise flouting traffic laws. The police are strictly serious about this. Do not give them an excuse to pull you over.

Thank you, Dominique, for another fine production. Thank you, Ria, for keeping the cars moving. Eat lunch.

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

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