Real Wheels Live

Mar 30, 2012

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

Speaking of real wheels, we have already entered the spring and it is time to test the chevys, sports cars, vans and visit everywhere glued to the Royal Road of California. Thanks Mr. Warren Brown.

Okay, latter state. But if you really want to enjoy spring on the road, you'd best drive through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley or the Storm Hill Mountain area of New York State.

Hi Warren - we have been researching a new long hauler (to replace our beloved Ford Focus wagon) for awhile now. We keep on reading about the Ford C-Max - and all its changes in features and release dates. We really like the Mazda5, but I'm wondering if we should wait until Fall (if they stick with that) for the C-Max? We have no kids, but do have largish dogs, camping gear and two bikes (usually 2 out of threes of those at once) to fit inside. Thanks!

You've probably heard that the C-Max Hybrid is scheduled for release late summer, or early fall 2012. The C-Max Energi, more of an extended range plug-in electric, which supposedly can run 500 miles via a Chevy Volt-like combination of battery-powered motor and extended range fossil fuel engine, will come in mid-2013. Prices will determine their acceptability. Prices ahve not yet been ammounced. My overall EV prediction: Thy will remain something of a hard sell, but a growing portion of the market for the next five years.

Does a sturdy suspension have to mean a hard ride? What is the sturdiest small SUV. In Costa Rica, the roads are terrible. They eat tie rods, ball joints, bushings and stabilizers.

Traditional truck suspensions, those with leaf-spring rear suspensions, solid beams, that sort of thing, guarantee a hard, bumpy ride. It's the nature of the beast. Most sophisticated trucks nowadays are using more compliant four-wheel-independent suspension systems.

I live in San Francisco and am looking to buy a car after not having one for several years. I would like one that's small and easy to park, with an automatic transmission for the hills. My budget dictates I buy a used car, and I would like to spend $8000 or less. I'd really love all-wheel drive for trips to the mountains in the winter, but I think that's out of my price range. Any suggestions?

Check out a used Hyundai Elantra (which I've driven all over the Bay Area with great delight) or a Subaru Impreza, perfect for Bay Area, including occasional muddy patches, and for getting up to and around the ski zones.

Hi Warren, My college-age daughters will be commuting together this summer to a great job that is 30 highway miles away. We want to buy a good, safe used commuting car for them. Ideally not more than $6,000. What do you recommend we consider?

Again, Hyundai is hard to beat in your suggested price range. Look at the Accent or the Elantra used. The Toyota Corolla is hard to beat as a reliable economy/commuter car. And if you need all-wheel-drive, Subaru is hard to beat anywhere. You'll pay more for Toyota or Subaru. But I'm a parent. I've been there with college kids (now paying their own way, including student loans, thank God!). Paying more for piece of mind is worth it.

I'm looking at a BMW X3 (2013 for the better gas milage). But BMW, which used to have a full size spare tire, no longer has any spare and has run flats instead (now on all their cars). I'm female and frequently do long distances alone. I like to have a full size spare so, if there's a flat, I can change the tire and go without having to ask anyone for assistance (yes, I know how to change a tire). I know that, with run flats, they can go an extra 150 miles after a puncture, but it's only at 50 mph (not a safe speed on the New Jersey Turnpike), and what if I'm 200+ miles from home or my destination. Can I use a can of sealer and air to fix the tire? Is there anything else I can do to fix the tire so I can keep on driving to my destination and at a normal speed? Thank you very much for any info you have. This is a serious problem for me.

I don't know how to change a tire, at least not with total confidence and competence. So, if I get a flat on the Turnpike, here's hoping you're driving my way!

But one of the many reasons you're getting better mileage in 2013 3-Series Bimmers is that those cars  are extremely weight conscious. They drop pounds by doing things such as jettisoning weighty spare tires. Run-flats also help by reducing rolling resistance without dangerously compromising traction. The downside is a harder ride, somewhat mitigated by a superior suspension system, and a higher cost.

But run-flats can keep you going 50 miles at 50 miles per hour (stay in right lane, of course) until you reach a service station (all over NJ, especially in the Turnpike area). Run-flats have improved much since their introduction 15 or so years ago. I don't think you have anything to worry about. And, of course, always keep a charged cell phone on the road.

Thanks for your answer last week WRT the Audi A4, but if Audi is trying to compete with BMW and be the #1 German automaker in 2015, why are they offering such limited versions of this car (and the A3)? I get that the 3.0L turbo is in the S4, but previous model years of the A4 had both 2.0L and a 3.2L to go with the S4 (V8). Now, they only offer the 2.0L A4 and 3.0L S4. This makes the S4 less exclusive. If you look at BMW, they offer the comparable 328, 335, diesel, and M3, not to mention RWD, X-drive, coupes/convertible, and sport wagon (328 only) for the former two models.

The column last week was on the A3 2.0 TDi wagon. But your point is well-taken. Seems to me that someone at Volkswagen, Audi's corporate parent, needs to set borders. Let VW handle the economy and entry-level luxury stuff. Allow Audi to handle the high-end exclusively. It does not take a genius to figure out that when you're buying an A3 2.0 TDi wagon, you're  buying a VW SportWagen TDi at a higher price.

I need a new car, and I'm thinking I want a Subaru Outback. Somehow I have gotten it into my head that you should never buy a car when it's the first year of a redesign, because they're still working the kinks out. I'm happy to wait until the 2013s come out, but is my theory just car-hating crackpottery with hints of cheapskate who is dragging her heels on replacing her old car? Or am I right and my husband wrong. (No pressure!)

Waiting is no guarantor of  perfection in the automobile business, nor in anything else. Nor is it a sign of car-hating crackpottery, addictive pennypinching, or heel-dragging. It all depends on what you are waiting for. In the case of the new Subaru Outback, though, there is no need to wait. Subaru has vehicle quality, reliability, and its various all-wheel-drive systems (among the best in the business) down to a science. I'd go for it. And if your spouse makes one of those irritating "I told you so" noises, make him wait for a few things. He'll wise up and shut up. Good luck.

I'm a big fan of your work Warren and have been wanting to ask this question for some time: if you could design your ideal family vehicle -you have to have room to seat 5 people comfortably- what would you build into it? By this I mean, how much efficiency, sportiness, body style (SUV, wagon, etc), safety, technology would it have, and after answering this, what existing vehicles are closest to this in your mind?

Thanks for your comment. I've grown up since I've started writing about this business 30 years ago. So "zoom" no longer is an overwhelming factor in my concerns. Structural integrity and overall vehicle safety are. A vehicle that sins against safety in pursuit of performance chutzpah no longer gets my vote. Fuel economy and tailpipe pollution are major concerns. Traveling changed my mind on those. After seeing as many Chinese in Africa as I've seen Africans--the Chinese were there for oil and other available natural resources--it occurred to me that ours is a dangerously finite world. We can help limit resource wars by limiting resource waste. And it is our world--one world when seen from above, with "oceans" becoming one large body of water punctuated by separate pieces of land. Same with air. Air-blown pollution does not stop at national borders. Cleaner cars can reduce that, too. And I like something well-sculpted outside and pretty inside. Safety preferences include side and head air bags; automatically tensions seat belts; four-wheel disc brakes (all ventilated, or ventilated front and solid rear); electronic stability and traction control; good visibility, of course; automatic blind-side warning, becoming increasingly valuable to me the older I get.

I have a 2007 Volvo s40 that I love and I believe I'll keep for another year or two. I'd love to get another s40, but now that they are discontinued do you have other ideas? Any new things coming from Volvo soon? Any hybrids on the horizon?

Keep an eye on Volvo. Geely of China, Volvo's new owner, is pouring a lot of money into product development. You will have an S40-type vehicle, probably even available with hybrid, electric-gas, or diesel technology, and more strikingly designed, soon.

What would you recommend along the lines of a Subaru Outback?

The new Subaru Outback. You want something else?

We have been looking for a mid-size car. With private owners wanting top dollar for their cars, we are thinking of using that money for a down payment and buying a new car or 2010/2009 used car. Your thoughts and advice?

I'd shop the Hyundai Elantra or Chevrolet Sonic. Both are safe, reliable small cars easy to park and fuel. And what I like about the Sonic is its optional infotainment center, which obviates the need for expensive onboard navigation by allowing you to sync your i Phone navi or portable Garmin or other navi with the Sonic's screen.

I love my smart fortwo. I rarely have to worry about fitting in a parking space even when the car next to it is parked on the lines. But in the summer, I work at various farmers markets and need to be able to bring a table, chair, and tent. In the past, I used my second car, an SUV, but I really don't need two cars if I can find one that has the benefits of small size and fuel economy with a reasonable amount of storage space.

Check out my favorite four compact haulers: Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox, and Toyota Rav-4. Any one of them can handle all of your transportation concerns.

Only a handful of auto manufacturers use continuously variable transmissions, and in only a few models. Seems like if CVTs were good things they would be used more widely, but if they were bad thing, nobody would use them at all. So how do CVTs compare to ordinary automatic transmissions in terms of reliability, smooth operation, gas mileage, acceleration, etc.? If I am looking at a model that offers trim levels with a choice of regular automatic or CVT (some Nissans, for one), which do I want, and why?

CVTs, continuously variable transmissions, are a work in progress--a darned good work in progress, especially in an era of steadily rising fuel prices. We'll see more of them, especially from Nissan and Hyundai, I think. Things change, sometimes slowly. But they change.

How likely is a subcompact like a Honda Fit to fully protect its driver in a collision at 45 mph versus a Honda Civic or Honda Accord? Where have studies been published revealing the degree of difference in safety among subcompacts, midsize and full size cars so consumers can make informed decisions?

Look, life, injury and death or random. How well you survive a crash in any vehicle depends on the closing speed and angle of the crash, the compatibility or lack thereof of objects crashed, the amount of safety mitigation (seat belts, air bags, errant energy management structure, et cetera) involved in the crash. There's also the matter of pure luck, which no one seems capable of explaining to anyone's satisfaction. A closing speed of 45 mph is a rather horrendous crash. Pray for luck in that one in any vehicle.

Thank you for joining us today. We welcome your visit next week. Lou Ann Hammond and I will be at the  New York International Auto Show, a premier global automotive display venue, all next week. We'll do Real Wheels from there.

Thank you, Dominique, for another fine production. Ria, my dear, you are handling the Leaf transfer and BMW 3-series drives next week. Please check and arrange with Ms. Gordon. Eat lunch. Happy Easter to everyone for whom Easter is important.

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

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