The Washington Post

Real Wheels Live

May 06, 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

Warren, We are looking at the Saab Convertible. People we have talked to either love or hate the Saab.  It has no problems or has been in the shop over and over. Your opinion?

Saab now has adequate funding from several sources to keep its operations going and growing. In the recent past, a lot of people disliked Saab simply because it was controlled by GM, which was unfair and factually groundless in terms of Saab quality. Facts are, Saab made very good very safe cars--under Saab and GM ownership. The company is likely to continue to do the same with its new owners.

Hi Warren, Many experts, you included, have said not to use a higher octane gas than required; it is a waste of money. Well, in the manual, it says my car requires 91 octane gas, which they have in California, but now that I live here, they only have 89 or 93 octane. Which do I use- a gas that is below the required level or one that is above? Many have said using a higher grade than is required by your engine can be harmful too.

Go back to your owner's manual. I'm reasonably certain it gives you a range of 91 to 93. In which case, I'd use 93. Octane is a measurement of a vehicle's ability to burn air-fuel mixtures smoothly, without engine knock or ping. Higher compression engines generally require higher octane fuel. If you have a turbocharged or supercharged engine, use premium.

I'm planning to replace my 2001 1/2 Passat wagon w/ another wagon. Will the Jetta Sportwagen (w/ a diesel) be a comparable substitute or should I spend up to $30K on another car? I like the comfort, MPG, fit and finish of my Passat. Thanks for your help!

Get the Jetta TDi Sportwagen and be happy....and solvent. Seriously.

Warren--I'm looking at the new 2011 Ford Explorer and then I saw the Edge sitting next to it and realized that they aren't that dissimilar. The Explorer has a third row, is a little longer, and has some gizmos. What am I missing? Now that the Explorer is a unibody crossover, as opposed to a real 4WD offroader, won't it cannibalize sales of the Edge?

The Edge was in the works before the dawning of the Alan Mulally Era in 2006, which is when the Edge, planned and developed under a previous Ford administration, was introduced. As a vehicle, the hugely revised 2011 Edge is quite nice, but seemingly unnecessary when standing alongside the completely revised and quite wonderful Explorer. If  Edge sales don't improve, and do so quickly, I wouldn't be surprised if it gets Mulallied--cut as quickly as a Navy SEAL takes down an enemy. The man has limited patience for failure.

What are your thoughts on the 2011 Kia Sorento?

Well built. Competitive with rivals in all respects. Better than many rivals in the amount of standard equipment, especially safety equipment, it offers. Afordable. The Sorento get's a strong "Buy" here.

Warren, I have over 200 thousand miles on my 99 Chevy Prizm! I will probably need to replace it in a year or two, and need some help identifying a replacement. I think my next car should be a used station wagon. What used station wagons are out there that get fairly close gas mileage to my Prizm? Oh, and I'd like to keep the cost under 15k. Thanks!

First, get out of your Prizm as quickly and safely as you can. 200,000 miles in that car!!?? And you're okay? Hmmm, my atheist and agnostic friends, here's tangible proof that there is a God! I owned a Prizm when I had better health insurance than income. It was one of the most unsafe cars (in terms of crash worthiness) made by anyone (in this case, a super cheap GM import from one of its pre-Hyundai-eminence Asian partners).

That said, get a Hyundai Elantra--well crafted, loaded with standard safety equipment, well designed inside and out, affordable, everything that the Chevrolet Prizm never was.

When the electrical system in the Volt loses its charge, does it automatically turn on the gas engine? If so, will driving with the gas engine recharge the batteries? How long would you have to drive to completely recharge the batteries? Once the electrical system is fully charged, will it shut the gas engine down and revert back to the electrical system? Thank you.

Yes. According to my real-world experience, which occurred in wet, snowy 33-degree weather, my electric-only driving mode in the Volt carried me nearly 38 miles at various highway and surface street speeds. At discharge, the 1.4-liter gasoline engine/generator took over seamlessly--not stopping, stuttering or any such thing. Yes, as indicated, the engine/generator helps revive the battery...somewhat. You won't go very far after the thing runs out of gasoline. The laws of physics still apply here. There's only so much generating a mobile engine/generator can do for a lithium-ion battery pack that requires plug-in recharging power of 120 to 220 volts to do its job. Still, we're talking (as experienced) a nearly 400-mile driving range here with the battery-gasoline combo. And we're talking no gasoline burning or emissions at all for daily commuting ranges of 40 miles or less.

Hello Warren. Love your chats! Considering a used automobile and wanted to know which you'd prefer. A last generation Honda Accord EX-V6 or a Mazda 6s Grand Touring? Both are within our price range.

If the Honda has similar mileage, or lower mileage than the Mazda, get the Honda. Bottom line is that Honda tends to wear better and last longer than Mazda. Oops. Yeah. I said that, based on experience.

Hi Warren, Thanks for the columns and chats. I am a 50-year old commuter who will need a new car soon. I have always driven cars with standard transmissions and enjoy the habit of manual shifting--driving automatics (rentals) just doesn't feel like driving. I know the better gas mileage rationale for standards is no longer really an issue, but my question is this--is my affinity for manual transmissions a vanity that will disappear after a few thousand miles in an automatic or do you think I will miss "rowing the gears"? I ask because many models I am considering don't come with a manual transmission. Thanks.

First, congratulations on still having somewhere to commute to in this trashy economy. Second, the manual shifting thing is indeed a vanity, made more so by stunning advances in electronic engine controls, which you alluded to. Go on and make peace with today's automatics. Here's betting that if you do, you'll wonder why you ever rowed gears.

I see Chrysler recently came out with a positive number for their first quarter. My question is this: Who are buying these? I sure haven't noticed a lot of "new" Chryslers out there with temp plates. My guess would be the rental fleets are buying a ton of them for cheap.

Assuming you live in the Washington Metropolitan Area, or in New York, or Southern California or Oregon, you are not likely to see very many Chrysler products. Those regions have long had a special affinity for imports--even imports that aren't nearly as good as today's Chrysler products.

I said in this space last week that I'd give cautious  approbation to Chrysler's current leader, Sergio Marchionne. Perhaps, I should give him a bit better than that. I'm looking at Chrysler products developed under his regime. They are good, darned good--good enough to win battles in the retail market place, which they are doing in parts of the country (the South, Midwest) open to the possibility that Americans actually can produce darned good stuff if given the money and the chance to do so--even if that opportunity comes from an Italian.

Warren, great to chat each Friday. I do have a question because both Ford and GM are going to stop making their Ranger and Canyon/Colorado pickups. With the price of gas rising, this would seem like a giant mistake. Now, I will admit that neither company has taken the time to do any major upgrades to their trucks. I saw pictures of the new Ranger overseas which looked really nice.   I also saw the pictures of the new Colorado for overseas (interesting). I know that they are trying to improve the fuel economy of the full size pickups, but everyone doesn't want or need a full size pickup. Ford hasn't done an upgrade (body-wise) in over 10 years for the Ranger. GM screwed up going away from the V6 to a weak 5 Cylinder engine (didn't even think of putting the 4.2 6 Cylinder engine from the defunct Trailblazer but instead is offering a V8). When you get a chance to talk to the 2 car companies, maybe you can give them a voice of reason and let them know that they are making really stupid mistakes with these 2 product lines.

You could be right. But given recent trends in the U.S. truck market, I think you're wrong. The bottom line is that, for at least the past five years, compact pickups have been non-starters in this country. They've sold well in South America, Africa and parts of Europe where per capita income, lower than it is in the United States, can buy only so much vehicle. Even with rising gas prices, the people who want and need pickups in the United States are likely to keep buying Ford F-Series models and Cheverolet Silverado and Dodge Ram 1500's. It remains to be seen how badly Japan's natural and nuclear disaster problems will hurt sales of the Tundra pickup. As for Nissan, it has made little headway in what now appears a futile attempt to take pickup truck market share from Detroit. As for fuel econonomy, take another look at those "traditional" pickups. Nearly all of them have developed some kind of hybrid or other fuel-economy technology. And, you're right, GM made a mistake thinking that rising gasoline prices in the late 1990s would whet American appetites for an economical 5-cylinder pickup engine. Neither GM nor anyone else is about to make that mistake again. Instead, they've decided to make bigger engines with better fuel economy (including the V8 you cited) with no loss of power. GM understands America. It wants fuel economy WITHOUT sacrifice. That sells, as evidenced by a still strong truck market--currently runing at 51 percent of all new vehicle sales in the United States.

Warren, the Geo-Chevy Prizm was the same platform as the Toyota Corolla, and was co-manufactured with the Corolla at NUMMI. Are we to infer that Corollas of that era were death traps?

Yes. And if you want proof of that, take a look at Fatality Analysis Reporting System studies for the period. Do the same thing for Nissan, Mitsubishi and the early Honda CVCC models. Makes you wonder why outfits such as Public Citizen spent so much of their time going after Detroit and so little of it going after many of Detroit's rivals. I guess, it's easier to sue American companies in the United States than it is to sue foreign companies here. Just a guess.

If the Edge isn't selling well and might get cut, how in the heck does that ridiculously hideous Flex stay around in Ford's lineup? That was an ill-conceived product.

It might get cut, too. Watch that space. As I said, Mulally is as decisive as a Navy SEAL team on mission.

Good morning. Is it possible to purchase a car with a credit card? We'd, of course, pay it off immediately, but we want the points that would come with the purchase. Thanks.

Yes. I know of several customers who have done just that. Just make sure to pay it off IMMEDIATELY.

Except for going cheap on parts and materials. And, ask any mechanic and he'll tell you that the GM Saabs are way harder to work on.

I'm amazed by the number of supposedly objective mechanics who are as swayed by bias--and pecuniary opportunity--as anyone else. My mind goes back to the mid-1980s when so many mechanics and parking attendants in the Northeast were swearing that Audi cars were suffering from sudden acceleration. Many of those supposedly defective Audi cars were "taken off consumers' hands" by those same mechanics and shipped to points South and Southwest and sold at an incredible profit--with no mention of sudden acceleration. So, please forgive my demurral in this matter.

I am considering a Fiesta. I would like to get an automatic but there is a new automatic in that model, Ford's dual clutch automatic. However, I have read several reviews and it does not seem to be all that it's cracked up to be. Many service issues. Should I get the manual version or trust that Ford has fixed this issue?

Get the manual version Fiesta. Or, look at the Mazda2 or 3, or, my favorite, the Honda Fit Sport.

What are your thoughts on the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid? I've seen alot of Tahoe's and GMC Yukons around town. I would use it as a family car, 1 baby and probably a couple more in the next few years (need 3rd row). I'd like the 4wd to get around in the snow since my wife and I always need to get to work during blizzards. I think we are strongly leaning towards an Acura MDX unless something better comes in view, also are there any other good options for us?

I'd rather lean toward the Honda Pilot, structurally and mechanically identical in many ways to the MDX, and save money. Or save more money, and increase utility, assuming that is what you want, and get the Kia Sorento.

Dear Warren, We've narrowed it down to CPO Honda Odyssey v CPO Toyota Sienna. Any thoughts? HO: character, brand, GRAY interior everywhere, wide stance, cylinder deactivation. TS:AWD, ride comfort, brand, death grip on resale value!

Get the new Honda Odyssey--a better class of gray.

Hi Warren, My lovely wife and I are expecting our first child this fall. We have a '10 Legacy, which is not my concern - it's the '08 FJ Cruiser with suicide doors that I'm worrying about. What are your thoughts on car seats in the back seat of the FJ regarding access and safety? Thank you!

Congratulations on your forthcoming baby. Do not put the kid in the FJ Cruiser, which, as you probably know, was built primarily for young men sans wives or children. It's a new kind of "man up"  you have to do. Kids mean sacrifice. Get used to it. Replace the FJ Cruiser with something more suitable for your current station in life.

Hello! I'm in the market for a new car and really like the 2012 Ford Focus. Originally I was looking at the Fiesta, but since the fuel economy of the Focus and Fiesta are now near equal, I decided to go with the (apparently) more American-made car. While I could afford the payments (to purchase, not lease), I was blown away by the insurance quote from my current insurer. I currently pay ~$800/year (and falling) for my 97 Malibu that I own (no collision, and I'm a young male driver.) When I called for a quote for the car including collision, the cost came out to whopping $1800/year!! What do you suggest I do to lower my costs? Would my costs for insurance be significantly lowered with a slightly used car? Thanks!

Get married. Insurers look more kindly on young guys with wives. Seriously.

In your chat last week, you suggested that it would be possible to sell a 10-year-old Honda Civic (trim level unknown) with 120,000 miles on the odometer for $15,000, while at the same time stating correctly that new Civics, depending on trim level, have base prices of $16,000-$25,000. Now that you have had some time to think about that statement, do you still believe that it's possible to sell a decade-old economy car with 120,000 miles on it for what that car cost new, 10 years ago (MSRP of 2001 Civic ranged from $12,760 -$17,960)? Please feel free to elaborate on your reasoning. Here is a link to last week's chat for your convenience and that of this week's chatters.

Yes, especially the way dealers are scurrying around for good, used, fuel-efficient Japanese cars. I'd still wait until the end of May or middle of June to sell, when fuel prices are soaring and the Japanese car companies are really feeling the tsunami crunch. Maybe, you won't get a $10,000 profit. But I'm willing to bet that you'll get way more money than you thought possible.

Just because the code says something maybe be a wrong, doesn't mean you replace it. You have to conduct additional tests (ie. verify the O2 sensors' useful life has ended since it is a wear item. ie the sensor no longer senses.)  Since most cars have multiple O2 sensors, you have to verify which one is bad. If it's not the 02 sensor, then you continue chasing codes. Plug wires these days are incredibly reliable. I can remember replacing plug wires every 50K miles in my old Rabbit. My Element is 5 years old and plug wires are fine. I never replaced the plug wires in my old 3 series with 230K hard miles including numerous track days. Easy test for plug wires is to spray water on them. If the engine doesn't stumble, they are fine. Spark plugs are bear to change on many engines these days. You need a special tool to pull the wire w/o damage. A simple ratchet and spark plug socket won't work. Codes lead to more codes and running tests. Chasing codes is no fun and also means the customer gets billed for the time spent chasing. Also remember the emission warranty goes beyond the normal warranty. O2 sensors should be changed when warm since it's easier to get them out if things are warm. They require a special socket and are bear to change lying flat on your back in your garage on the driveway. Cross threading when changing an O2 sensor or spark plugs means you now spent 5 times what it would have cost the shop to do it. An auto tech is no longer the kid who sat in the back of English class in HS who had issues. A journey man level tech at a BMW, Mercedes, Acura, Lexus, Caddy dealership splits the hourly rate with his employer. That means a tech is making a $120K or more a year with no student loans. More than this DOD civilian employee and govt lawyers. Clifton

Thanks, Clifton.

Mr. Brown, I have a new Volvo S60 T5 and I really like the car, but the gas mileage is soooo bad.  I'm wondering if there's something that needs to be reset or if it's something in the car. I've only had it about three weeks and there's fewer than 300 miles on it, but the mileage is about 13 mpg! True, I drive almost exclusively in town - but I'm rarely stuck in traffic and just forced to keep to 20 - 30 mph due to traffic laws, traffic, etc. I'm wondering if the problem is the car being new, needing some sort of fix, or if this is a result of me acclimating to driving a turbo-charged automatic when I drove a stick for many years. (I find that instead of mostly just easing up on the gas when I'm approaching a stop sign, I now have to put my foot on the brakes much farther from the stop). Any ideas/suggestions?

Give it about another 1,500 miles. Valves should have properly seated by then. Mileage should increase. Clifton, my brother, can you serve us with a more intelligent response on this matter next week? Thanks, in advance.

Thank you all for joining us today. Thank you, Dominique Vu, for your patience and another fine production. And thank you, Ria, for all that you do. I'd nominate you for sainthood. But I don't think anyone in Rome would listen to me. Eat lunch.

See ya'll next week.

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

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