Real Wheels Live

Feb 18, 2011

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

Is Mini Cooper planning anything in the way of a hybrid drive system?

Yes. Mini Cooper/BMW is developing all-electric and electric-hybrid systems. So is just about veryone else.

Using the Chevy Volt as an example, if the electric power runs out and the car switches over to gas, will the gas engine recharge the batteries to the point where you don't have to charge the system when getting back home?

The Volt holds 9.3 gallons of premium gasoline. That amount alone gives you an estimated 277-mile driving range. Battery/electric only gives you nearly 40 miles (38.3 mles in our case). The engine does serve as a generator to recharge the battery. Can it suffiently recharge the battery with the expenditure of all 9.3 gallons? Yes. Enough to get you to a filling station. Based on our commuting experience, my wife and I calculate that we could drive the V0lt all year long without using any gas. Would we do that? No. Gas ultimately comes from the decay of organic matter. That means it can go stale. Premium fuel goes stale at a slower pace, which is why it's required for the Volt. Solution: Occasionally take trips that would require the expenditure of all fuel in the 9.3 gallon tank. Replace the fuel. Motor home, plug-in and charge. Top off fuel to be assured driving range of 300 miles+.

My check engine light came on recently. When I went to the dealer to have it checked, they said I need to tighten the gas cap better. I know that the automotive parts stores sell readers that can display the actual error codes. Why isn't this a standard feature of cars? Sure having a light tell you that "something" is wrong is a good start, but if the car knows exactly what is wrong, why don't they make it easier for the owner/driver? A while ago, the pressure sensor said one of the wheel pressures was low. I had to check all four tires to identify the problem. It would have been quicker if it could tell me the front passenger tire was low. (Yes, it would probably be good to check all of the tires, but that isn't my point.) I would think that the auto manufacturers could put a small digital display that and give better information about the nature of the problem than the indicator light alone.

. It costs money.

. The federal government does not require it.

. It carries the potential burden of litigation.

. Litigation costs money.

With Fiat finally coming back to the US with the introduction of the 500, do you think we'll see any other (read sportier) Fiat models from them in the future.

Possibly. It's hard to say. Keep in mind that Fiat did not buy Chrysler to bring us small, sporty cars. Fiat bought Chrysler because Chrysler  (now Dodge and Ram) makes great trucks in a market where truck sales constitute 52 percent of all new vehicles sold.  Fiat's ownership of the Chrysler Group will give us a few, desirable small cars. But keep in mind that the first vehicle Fiat redeveloped was the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Hey WB -Good Morning! I have a 2004 Silverado 2wd that is in excellent mechanical shape. Is it worth trading it in (and having a car payment) for a new Silverado with Stability Control, Side Airbags, etc.? What would you do?

And good morning, to you. Yes, it's worth trading it in. Electronic stability and traction control can keep you from spending more money--on doctors, hospitals, physical rehabilitation therapists and, God forbid, undertakers.

I never thought of a tank of gas needing an expiration or best by date. What is the shelf life of a tank of gas if a car isn't driven often?

For best answer, look up the site for the American Petroleum Industry. Or, check with

I have a Prius and it occurred to me the other day that if I ever ran out of gas, I could use the electric engine to get me to the nearest gas station. I know that there are many factors that go into how long the electric engine will run without the gas backup, but roughly how long could I drive it? I'm really wondering about, for instance, could I drive for a mile or 10 miles? Normally, I'd guess I'm --always-- within a few miles of a gas station but maybe not within 1 mile.

It's best to stay within a few miles of a gas station in the Prius, which is why I love the Volt. I can drive problem-free for 277 miles after the battery discharges. That is what I call "peace of mind."

Have you test driven the Audi Q7 and do you have any thoughts as to how it compares to others in it class?

I've driven the Q5 stateside and a diesel-powered Q7 overseas. Were I Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, I'd start paying much more attention to Audi. Why? Audi is a luxury vehicle manufacturer gifted with the understanding that value has valid residence in wealth. As a result, Audi consistently gives us more for the money than Porsche or Mercedes-Benz. Advantage, Audi.

Well, it's not entirely that simple. Not all error codes identify the single source of the error, but rather where the error is detected. Sometimes, that can mean that a fully functioning sensor has detected a reading that is out of bounds. Now the root cause of that reading cannot be easily determined without performing a diagnostic routine to test potential causes of the bad reading. For example, an O2 sensor signal may give a reading indicating that the A/F ratio is out of bounds. That doesn't tell you why. So, a shop typically has manuals or programs that will instruct the mechanic to test different systems to try to identify the cause of the bad A/F ratio reading. All those manuals, programs, and knowledge costs money and isn't always obvious from a simple error code reading.

Sounds like Clifton's in the house. Thank you.

Why cars don't come with them? Becuase it would drive dealers and mechanics nuts. Code readers do not tell you what the problem is, they just give a code which could mean one of dozens things could be wrong. Mechanics hate chasing codes, especially in BMWs and Mercedes. Also many owners would simply disconnect the battery to take care of the problem.  States with emission programs these days with late model cars just query the computer system for codes and do not sniff exhaust. Code readers would jeoparize this. Plus, you dont want the average knucklehead car owner try to fix codes that could kill him like airbag error codes. Clifton

And thank you, again.

I own a Smart Fortwo and recently got an email from smart saying they were going to transition the smart USA business to Mercedes-Benz USA. I know that Smart was owned by Mercedes, but what does this change mean to the company and the owners?

It means that Smart will get the money it needs to continue developing new Smarts--all-electric and electric-hybrid. Smart's current problems prove that Mercedes-Benz was right and I was horribly wrong. Americans have dangerously short memories. They believe in fairy tales--chief among them being that oil lasts forever. I and other automotive journalists begged and pleaded with M-B to bring Smart stateside. The car worked so well in fuel-short, traffic congested cities such as Rome. We were convinced that it would work as well in traffic-jammed US cities where gasoline prices were rising. We were wrong. Americans did what they always do when there is a consumer-favorable fluctuation in fuel prices. They buy big. They buy power, which is why light trucks once again constitute 52 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, which is why small cars, including Smart, are going begging for customers. I'm glad I'm not responsible for the profitable operation of a car company. On the Smart deal, I would have tanked Mercedes-Benz. Smart customers USA should not worry. Mercedes-Benz/Penske dealers will take care of you.

Yes, it can go bad these days with ethanol. Fuel stabilzers are now a requirement for long term storage of gas engines car, boat or ATV. Ethanol does nasty expensive things to engines, even your lawn mower. Ethanol should be banned. It's bad for family farmers too. Run the engine dry or use Stabil or something similar. Long term storage more than 90 days . Clifton

Ethanol has drawbacks and advantages. I am not at all persuaded that the drawbacks outweigh the advantages of cleaning up tailpipe emissions and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. For one thing, not all ethanol is created equally. Work on new ethanol derivative sources and blends continues apace. It's long past time for the political leaders and electorate of this country to get rid of their McDonald's approach to reality. Science and technology are not the same as an instant gratification, fast-food menu. They necessarily involve trial and error, sacrifice. They both recognize that ours is a world of tradeoffs. I wish we had political leaders who seriously accepted that concept.

Good morning Warren. I was looking at the Nissan XTerra versus the Toyota FJ Cruiser and was hoping to get your opinion. Both seem to do very well on the off road camping, a little woods, and weeds that we will take them on, but for normal day-to-day commuting, kid drop off, grocery store runs, which is the better value?

The FJ Cruiser is cute. But it's nobody's Nissan Xterra. If I were going off-road, really off-road, today and I was asked to choose between the two, I'd choose the Xterra. It came before the FJ Cruiser. Thus, it's nobody's copy of anything. It was purpose-built from its inception. And that purpose is to get you through the woods in one piece.

Hi Warren, I always enjoy your chats and hearing your clear-eyed perspective, even when I disagree. Tired of the limited visibility, storage, and maneuverability of my 2004 Corolla (though it has great reliability and gets great mileage), I am looking to buy a used compact SUV (or possibly a wagon), and, given my budget, vintage 2004-2006 or possibly 2007. This will be my first used car and I welcome advice! I am hoping for great visibility, great safety, reliability, decent mileage, and perhaps AWD (though still on the fence as to whether that really enhances safety enough in these parts to justify the cost and lowered mileage ). Most reviews are pointing me to Honda CRV, Subaru Forester, Toyota Rav4, and maybe Hyundai Tucson. Preferences/favorites/others I should consider? Thoughts about whether I'm better off getting an older model with fewer miles or a newer model with more miles? Many thanks for your thoughts.

Those reviews are pointing you in the right direction, although you might find better value in a Kia Sorento or something similar from Hyundai. A used Ford Escape or Chevrolet Cavalier might also make surprisingly good sense. But if your peace of mind requires a badge you've already lived with, get the Toyota RAV$ circa 2004-2007. It's a good piece of work.

Hi Warren, I read your interesting article on the Volt. My wife and I have three growing boys, and own a Prius and a Sienna. As a practical matter, we rarely drive for more than 20 minutes all together in the Prius, since boys will fight in such close quarters. I would like to replace the (2005) Sienna vehicle which gets 30MPG total and can separate my boys as well as accommodate a friend or grandparent occasionally. I continue to be surprised at their unavailability. I thought that the Prius V might carry 7, as was initially rumored, but unfortunately it's just a "stretch" 5-seater. I would be happy with something like a Mazda 5 if it got 30MPG, but it gets more like 25MPG and therefore isn't worth the upgrade hassle. The Tesla sedan is not out yet, and looks pricey, although in principle it will have a third seat. The Ford C-max looked promising for a while, but apparently the hybrid version won't have a 3rd seat. The Highlander Hybrid was never very impressive, and some years the 3rd seat has been available and other years not. But in any case, Toyota dressed it up with so many high-end features that it costs $40K. What do you see coming down the pike? Diesel, electric, etc.?

The Chevrolet Volt can easily accommodate a family of 5 as a one and only vehicle. But that would require a family willing to compromise. Want to haul more stuff? You'll carry fewer people. No mid-size family sedan has the same, big demilitarized zone as a Sienna-sized minivan.  That means carrying brothers who understand the concept of brotherhood, forgivenes, sharing, love. With increased cargo and passenger capacity comes increased weight and fuel consumption. It's hard to get around that physical fact. What is more imporant to you in family transportation? Choose your next vehicle accordingly. All vehicles are just as infallible as the people who make and buy them. That means there will be compromises somehow, somewhere. Decide what you can live with, without.

Thank you all for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thank you Dominique Vu, and Gaurav Jain for another fine production. Thank you, Ria Manglapus. Cars to be exhanged at 7 tonight. Eat lunch. Enjoy this pre-spring day.

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

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