Real Wheels Live

Feb 25, 2011

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

Comparing a 2011 Regal Turbo with a 2011 MKZ Sport. I like the combination of American luxury with an edge of sportiness that both cars offer. After talking to dealers- the prices are very similar. Which would you recommend?

I'm just finishing up with the  Regal CXL Turbo. Impressive. I'll revisit the MKZ sport in a few weeks and will let you know what I think. But that Regal Turbo is a very nice piece of work for about $28,000, including onboard navigation and backup camera, four-wheel ventilated disc brakes, and a really responsive 2.-liter turbo inline foour (220 hp/258 ft.-lbs. torque) and six-speed automatic transmission with six-speed manual stick optional.

How does the heater work in a Volt? Do you get less range in the winter when you have to have the heater on?

Yes, you get less battery range in the winter when running the heater, etc. But it's all very well managed. There is a dashboard monitor that allows you to see what you are doing to range as you increase cabin temperature. I ran 38.3 miles  (battery only) in dead of winter with cabin temperature set at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Not bad.

Good morning, Warren: I am interested in your thoughts (pros and cons) about Chrysler's 545RFE automatic transmission that is used in its family of trucks, and how it compares with other automatic transmission systems.

I've had experience with the 45 RFE, which worked just fine. 545 RFE? I don't think I've driven that one, yet. I'll check and put it on the list.

Hi Warren, For our next car (we have only one) we will consider a diesel, plug-in and hybrid. I'm retiring very soon and we live close-in like you so we don't have any great distances to drive. We also keep a car for about 10 years. I've read your thoughts on the simplicity of diesel being a single system vice the others with electric and gas engines. Would appreciate your thoughts on a comparison of the 3 for our situation. We do like to take road trips so that is another factor. I enjoy reading RWL and Sunday's vehicle review - it's the first thing I read in the Biz section. Thanks, Bill

Hello, Bill: Check out the Volkswagen Jetta TDi. One of the best diesels out there. Reasonably affordable. And, since VW has moved its US headquarters to Herndon, regional VW dealers seem to be doing a much better job of taking care of their customers after sale. And thank you for your support.

What's up with the Sonata Hybrid? Will it be available around here soon, and should I want one? I like the 2011 Sonata Limited, but if I can get the hybrid for a few dollars more, I might want to wait.

Frankly, I'd go with the Sonata Turbo and be happy. Fuel economy involves more than MPG. It also involves things such as consolidating trips, understanding that excessive speed equals excessive fuel consumption, et cetera. I plan to drive the Sonata Hybrid in the spring. I'm sure it will be just as good as everything else Hyundai. But I'm n0t sure what you'll be getting for the extra cost other than a dual drivetrain.

Last week's poster who thought he could run his tank empty in his Prius and operate on battery-only better read his Owner's Manual. I have the hybrid Lexus HS250h and the manual clearly states that there must be gas in the tank for the car to operate. I believe that the Lexus and Prius hybrid systems are the same.

Thanks for reading the manual. You are right. ^Thank you.

I am rather shocked at the enormous price tag on the Volt. For $20K less you can buy a nicely equipped Sonata. That would pay for a whole lotta gas, even with prices rising. How much does the electricity cost to run a Volt too? Do you think anyone factors that in when they are considering buying one? Of course those of us who don't live in single family homes can't charge the car anyway so it would seem that the market for all-electrics or those with systems like the Volt have a somewhat limited potential pool of buyers.

You are talking apples and oranges. The Volt's $42,000 price tag IS high, abated by a $7,500 federal tax rebate. It would be better if our government would give Volt buyers that money up front. But I'm not the least bit shocked by the price tag, considering all of the engineering and new technology that went into the car. That price will come down in the manner that prices for laptops and iPads, etc., have come down. The 2011 Volt is a first-generation computer on wheels. As the technology improves, the cost will decline. As it is, it's one heck of a breakthrough in automotive technology. (Journalists who call it "hype" have never driven, lived with, or otherwise studied the thing. Jeez! I remember when journalism once meant you checked something out, thoroughly, before opening your mouth. Times change.)

I read with some amount of glee about the latest Toyota recall. Yet again, it is proven that overseas automakers are as human as the rest of us. I also think it sends a clear message to the right-wing poltical elements of the country: the current administration's work to save GM and Chrysler has not only saved two of the highest-profile companies in America, but also saved uncounted jobs, helped the economy, and also shown that the US still needs an unmatched industrial base that provides CHOICES to consumers.

Dear Potomac:

Here's the deal, schadenfreude over Toyota's current problems aside. And I invite Toyota to respond.

The simple truth is that Toyota has always had problems, just like everyone else in the automobile industry. A car is a complex piece of equipment designed, developed, engineered and built by human beings. It's bound to have problems.

Toyota's reputation for impeccable, infallible quality took root in North America, Europe, and Africa. Here's why: In the past, Toyota's policy was to build in Japan and export to those markets. It exported ONLY AFTER working out the kinks its consumers experienced in Japan. As a result, Toyota buyers in North America and Europe hailed Toyota's quality, often comparing first-run cars produced in their home markets to kink-debunked cars initially built and sold in Japan.

Over the years, I've often wondered why Japanese consumers had more complaints about Toyota than consumers in North America, Europe, and Africa. Africa was almost self-explanatory. Anything that worked and worked reliably well there was put on a pedestal. In North America and Europe, Toyota had all of the advantage of a student who was allowed to check and correct his test paper with an answer book before turning in the exam. Of course, he got good grades.

But now, in quest of global dominance, Toyota has been building its cars where it sells them. Thus, those Toyotas are first-run cars in their target markets. The mistakes that Japanese consumers once saw are now seen first-hand by consumers in North America and Europe.

Bottom line: There is no such thing as an infallible human being. There is no such thing as an infallible Toyota, or anything else, designed, developed, engineered and built by human beings. Period.

You do a great job Warren. Okay you really need to do timed laps at the main circuit at Summit Point, Vir or Watkins Glen but they are better and more concise then C&D and more informative then R&T. I have subscribed to R&T since 1973. Could you please list if the rear seats in SUVS, CUVS and station wagons fold completely flat. This is important to the millions of dog owners who compete in various events. We do herding trials. Clifton, VA

I will check out the rear-seat question, Clifton. But I've long tired of the timed-laps, track business. It makes no sense to me in a world of heavily regulated public roads and endangered fuel supplies. If a vehicle accelerates fast enough and easily enough to ensure my safety on a public road, I'm happy. If it can do that without leaving me as broke as a Maddoff client, I'm happier still.

If unrest in the oil-producing countries continues into the Spring and causes gasoline prices here to rise to $4 a gallon or higher, will the auto companies quickly revise their model lineups in response? Specifically, will Chevrolet decide to offer its Orlando 3-row compact van after all? Will Kia restore its Rondo? Will Nissan offer a Versa 1.6 hatchback?

Good question. Actually, car companies already are in the process of doing that. What is seldom cited in the popular media is the auomobile industry's investment in global intelligence. For example, the entire move toward alternatively fueled vehicles isn't as much fueled by government regulation as it is by the global automobile industry's now firm belief, based on intelligence, that oil is not forever and that cheap oil in the United States rapidly is coming to an end. Why then, do automobile companies continue to make gas-guzzling trucks and high-performance cars?

Simple: Like sex, they sell and are extremely profitable. The automobile industry does not make policy. It responds to profitable opportunity. Right now, in an America that continues to believe that cheap gasoline is forever, that profit is in trucks and high-performance cars. Evidence: In the retail aftermath of the Great Recession, trucks now account for 52 percent of all new vehicles sold. Small cars barely account for 8 percent. They go for the money.

So, why ar car companies investing billions in electric cars, small cars, et cetera?

Easy: Despite the crap you read and hear in the general media, which I am convinced knows nothing about anything real, car companies are not stupid. They are hedging their bets. If profit opportunity shifts to electric cars, small cars, et cetera, they want to be there.

The situation is best described by comments from a Shell Oil Co. executive three years ago in Shanghai.

Exec: Are we an oil company or an energy company?

Me: You are an oil company.

Exec: Hell, no, we're not. We are an energy company. And we want to control that energy supply from wherever it comes--the sun, the ocean, natural gas, electricity, nuclear, propane, hydrogen, whatever.

Me: Sounds greedy.

Exec: Don't be naive, Mr. Brown. The purpose of any corporation is to make money. Profit is survival. We're going after that profit wherever we can find it.

Me: You should call yourselves Shell Energy.

Exec: Ha! We're considering that.


Hi Warren: I believe the 545RFE grew out of the 45RFE as Chrysler added an additional gear to make it a 5-speed. How important is it having that extra gear and do you think it's a big selling point for buyers?

Oh, I see. The reason you have gears is to reduce engine stress--strain, work--at higher loads, increased speeds. Thus, 5-speeds are generally more efficient than four, six are more fuel-efficient than five, and so on. You might note that our favorite german car companies are now rolling out seven-speed and eight-speed transmissions. Others are trying to do away with fixe gears altogether through the installation of gearless (no fixed gears), continuously variable transmissions (CVTs).

Re: Volt- Won't be seeing many of these around here, I expect. Don't designers realize that many people don't have garages if they are in single homes or live in apartments/condos? Are portable battery chargers/portable generators available? With Pepco's problems, you can't count on electricity being available?

Well, you are right. But, think a bit. Any radical change in the transportation sector has always come with questions of access or sustainability. You might recall that gasoline was once inaccessible to the general public, deemed so dangerous that it was sold in drug stores.

Similarly, with electricity, we have a charging infrastructure problem, such as the one you cited. It is a real problem.

Unfortunately, in this country, we worship stupid partisan politics more than we do research and development. Forget that he's a Democrat, President Obama is right. The problem you cited is, right now, being resolved in China and Japan. India is taking a serious whack at it, too. That being the case, who do you think will own the future of the automobile industry? The  Tea Party? The Republican Party? The Democrats, the independents? Not a chance!!

The future belongs to people with the foresight and determination to plan for it. At the moment, sadly, that's not us. We should be ashamed.

Thank you for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thank you Dominique and Gaurav for another fine production. As always, thank you, Ria. Eat lunch.

Note: We here at are planning big things in our online automotive presentation to you. Stay tuned.--Warren

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

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