Real Wheels Live

May 14, 2010

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

A friend keeps his cars in immaculate condition to include washing the engine with Simple Green then hosing it off. I know the engine gets wet in rainy weather, but this seems extreme. The engine looks like the day it was manufactured and runs great.

It is not the least bit extreme. You'd be surprised how many people "detail" their vehicles every time they clean them. A  multi-billion dollar products industry has been built around that habit.

Hi Warren, I can't seem to find what I'm looking for...a sporty small wagon or sedan with decent room (not huge though) that come in a manual transmission. I want some pep but also fuel economy. Am I asking too much? Oh and the budget is around $25K. Thanks for any suggestions.

Honda is trying to answer your request with the new Contour. Nissan is trying to do it with the Rogue. There is Volkswagen with the nicely done Tiguan, GMC with the well-executed Terrain, and Kia with the excellent Sorento. Check those out.

Warren - love the chats. My wife has booked a beach house this summer on the OBX. There is no road to the house but a beach trail for a mile or so. Their web site says AWD is OK but 4WD is recommended. We have a Honda Pilot and it appears to be a bit pricey to rent a 4WD for a week. What are your thoughts about going with the Pilot?

The OBX folks should level with people and say 4WD is required. Doing an OBX beach run in less will get you stuck--after a rain, or before a rain if the weather has been hot and dry and the beach sand is easily displaced, sucking down and trapping wheels. Enrure the happiness of your OBX vacation. Rent a real 4wd vehicle.

Just got a 2010 MC. 6 speed manual, base engine, no frills except bluetooth/iPod integration package and cold weather package. The MINI dealers are "dealing" and they have lots of inventory of these fun little cars. MINI "SUV" out soon actually. I am averaging over 35 mpg in city driving on a brand new engine! I know its not the same car as yours (platform changed in 2007) but I hope to have the good luck you have had. Honk/wave if you see me! Blue with white top/mirrors.

Nice. The MINI dealers are dealing because all of their rivals have discovered that small done well sells. The industry is expecting an avalanche of small-car competition in the coming months--Ford Fiesta, smartly redone Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Fiat 500 and/or Chrysler Derivative,  entries from VW, Toyota and just about everyone else.

You are lucky to have bought early. Consumers ultimately will carry the costs of BP's oil spill in the Gulf. That and other influences will boost gasoline prices. You're going to love your MINI, which requires premium by the way.

Here's to Hyundai for forgoing the v6 in the midsized segment...any plans for the Accord/Camry/Malibu set to focus exclusively on high efficiency turbo charged 4 pots?

At the moment, Hyundai's rivals are watching to see if the 4-banger strategy works. But here's betting, with Gulf oil spills and political unrest in Indonesia, Venezuela, Africa and the Middle East, they won't be watching long. Most already are cranking up their 4-cylinder offerings.

Time to retire my 1995 Honda Accord, at just shy of 195k miles, and replace it with (most likely) an SUV. Honda Pilot, Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer, Chevy Tahoe, or am I missing something? Mechanic says get Japanese or the Tahoe. Husband wants me safe and would put me in an army tank if he could. I don't want something huge. We have large and extra-large dogs to haul around, and usually only the two of us humans. We want some towing capacity and on-demand 4WD. I haven't driven anything yet, but planned to consider the Ford Escape/Mercury Mariner until they failed to offer V-6 in 2010. I liked that it appeared to be small enough to be nimble but big enough to pile dogs into. $30k, or thereabouts. I am not after bells and whistles, though I want a sunroof. What would you recommend?

Here's something I thought I'd never say: Most drivers in the United States, especially those living in metropolitan areas, don't need SUVs. Certainly, they don't need full-size SUVs. The functional history of SUVs is that they were being used as substitutes for station wagons, which were classified as cars and thus subjected  to more stringent fuel economy rules, making them more expensive to build and buy.  Light trucks, the category covering SUVs, were considered "work" vehicles and originally subjected to less stringent fuel economy rules. The automotive industry drove a truck (minivan, pickup, SUV) through that exception.

Newer fed fuel economy rules are size, weight, category based. Also, there's been a huge consumer rebellion against SUVs, leading  the car companies toward the modern equivalent of station wagons--crossover utility vehicles and sport wagons.

That being the case, check out models such as the Honda Crosstour, BMW X-class, Cadillac CTS sport wagon, Ford Flex, Ford Edge, VW Tiguan, et cetera. And don't worry about safety. Big cars are to automotive safety what empires are to Afghanistan. In both cases, size guarantees nothing.

Would you mind providing tips on how to teach teens to drive? Are there any really good driving schools that teach beyond the basic driving techniques? We will obviously put in a lot of hours with our teen but I am sure that even I can benefit from going to a really good driving school. Thank you.

This, in the matter of teen driving, I believe:

It starts at birth in families where love is the overriding value. Sounds corny. But it's true. If a kid is taught that it is as important for him or her to love others as much as he or she is loved, that becomes the best driving defense, the best insurance against dangerous driving habits.

In my lectures to high school students, I ask them to take a moment and look at one another. Then I ask if they would like to be responsible for that classmate's death or ruinous injury, and that respective family's profound unhappiness. I remind them that love commands responsibility, and that the exercise of that responsibility behind the wheel is one of the most important manifestations of love. The kids who become the best drivers get it. The ones who think the love-responsibility stuff is pre-prom fluff don't.

The same is true for adults. I never met a drunk driver who evidenced concern for other people.

As for the technical stuff, yes, there are a number of good courses available, offered by AAA Potomac, Porsche driving clubs, and a number of other groups. Google "defensive driving." Watch what comes up. Pay particular attention to groups operating out of, or in conjunction with Summit Point Raceway in Summit Point, West Virginia. They are among the best.

But the technical training is meaningless in the absence of understanding  that good driving is an act of love and an exercise of the responsibility that love requires.

How about a Mazda3 or a Jetta Sportwagen? I'm also a fan of the small SUVs you mentioned, but do any come with a manual transmission?

I think most of the models I mentioned offer at least a five-speed manual. But, sign of the times, traditional manuals are becoming a thing of the past, replaced by computer controlled automatics that shift more effectively than manuals (in terms of fuel economy), and increasingly losing ground to "manumatics" (transmissions that can be operated as manuals or automatics). Computers have made traditional manuals "old school."

Thanks for the suggestions but those are all definitely bigger than what I'm looking for. We have a Ford Edge for long trips etc. and I'm really looking for something smaller and more sporty. My ideal would be the A3 sport wagon but it's out of the budget....Thanks!

Try the MINI Clubman. Or the Honda Element. Or the Scion xD. All of which have small, but gutsy engines and lots of utility. They are easy to park and, with the exception of the MINI, cheap to operate. All have good fuel economy, at least 32 miles per gallon. But the MINI requires premium gasoline.

Warren, what are your thoughts on the new consumer frugality that has been written about and its affect on the car industry? Will it be a move to simpler, cheaper cars with high expectations for quality and performance? Or, will there be a big change at all? Thanks.

I hope it lasts, if only for us to get our money back from GM and Chrysler. GM, for example, has been pouring billions into giving us the same kind of high-quality, fun-to-drive, fuel-eficient small cars that have won the company praise and sales in Europe and Asia--the kind of cars that now have a chance to win acceptance and profits in a United States chastened by economic collapse.

That doesn't mean big or luxurious rides should, or will go away. But changed circumstancs should limit their appeal and even redefine, for the better, terms such as "luxury" and "performance."  If, for example, a well-engineered four-cylinder car can run and handle as well as a V-8, which has the better performance? How much engineering genius does it take to get 500 hp out of an expensive V-12 engine that consumes fuel at the rate of 10mpg?

We're beginning to rethink those things, and that's a very good thing.

When will it be available so I can go and get a better deal on 2010 Subaru Outback? While I'm here, is there anything NOT to love about the Outback? Do you have any alternative cars that you would recommend? (Other than the Forester--I just want to have something a little roomier for the hounds, kids, big instrument that I have to haul to music lessons...) Thank you so much.

Compare it with the VW Tiguan, GMC Terrain, Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav-4. With those product-price evaluations, that should give you a better idea of why so many people are high on the Subaru Outback. Something not to like: Some people consider the four-cylinder Outback a weakling in acceleration. I'm not one of those people.

I just ordered a new Equinox LTZ. They must be popular because there are very few on dealer lots. 6-8 weeks is a long wait, but it should be worth it! I've never ordered a car before.

The Eqinox LTZ is one of my favorite crossover utility models and one that I've recommended previously. But, alas, it's one that has to be discovered. People who don't drive it won't know it, which is too bad. By not checking that one out, pants in seat hands on wheel, they really are cheating themselves while shopping in the crossover utility market.

Hi Warren, Need you advice one a full-size SUV. Will used it for toting around the fam, 4 kid and a dog, Weekend trips to NC and WV, etc. Not looking for a crossover or van. I like the Tahoe with the third row and 4wd but should i be looking at the Expedition, Armada and Sequoia? Why? Thanks!

No. And I mean that. If you're looking for a full-size SUV, it's hard to beat the Tahoe. The Nissan Armada doesn't come close to that one. The Ford Expedition is too big to make any sense. Get the Tahoe.

Warren, I just bought a Volvo V70 and was intrigued by your comment about washing the engine. How do I do that properly? I'd be afraid of getting electrical components wet that aren't supposed to get wet. Incidentally, I bought this wagon because I also have two dogs that I haul around. The dog-owning car shopper might want to add this to her list. There aren't many on dealer lots any more, as this is the last year for them, but if you find one equipped as you want, you can buy it for about $4,000, maybe more, under MSRP. I love mine. Better handling and mileage than the SUV version, and the lower and completely flat load floor means my dog can jump right in to his crate in back.

Stop by Pep Boys or one of the other auto supply stores, most of which have books or guidelines to detailing automobiles. Detailing is fun for those of us who are anal-retentive types. But, be warned, it's time consuming and potentially spouse irritating.

With that, we'll thank you for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thanks for another fine production, Delece and Sakina.

Eat lunch, Ria.

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

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