Real Wheels Live

May 28, 2010

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

The public might not care, but I'm going to miss Mercury. I know they were just badge engineered Fords but I always like their style - especially the original Cougar, the original Sable and the current Sable - So much more handsome than the Trac 3 grilled Taurus. Too bad Ford couldn't couldn't redo Mercury in the same vein as GM is doing with Buick. Mercury never got any respect or support..

Hi Warren, a few weeks back I asked your advice about all-wheel-drive luxury cars. The car gods have smiled on me in a different way, and my in-laws are giving me a BMW X3 this weekend. I know in the past that they've only used regular unleaded, but I've read that using premium gas will give you more horsepower and better fuel economy. Is this true? Did they do any damage to the engine using only regular? How many tanks will it take before I can see the increases? Thanks.

My best advice is to follow the owner's manual. If premium is recommended for "best performance," and I think it is, use premium.

Hi Warren, my husband was "talked into" switching from air to nitrogen by our tire store. Is this truly helpful or just 'snake oil'? And if the benefit is that it doesn't expand while hot, then why isn't there a conversion factor necessary? (see Wouldn't 35 psi for air really need to be 40 psi for Nitrogen?

I think it's snake oil. It theoretically will help him o faster, experience better performance  with lighter tires. So what? "high-performane" is mostly a myth in a country with myriad dricing restrictions and more regulations affecting air pollution and fuel economy.

I've had 2 cars - a honda prelude (kept for 12 years) and a honda crv (have had for 12 years). I think I'm going to need a new car in the next year or two. The crv feels too big for me these days. Here's the info: single female, mainly drive in the city/DC, need to feel comfortable on the beltway and 95, park outside/no garage, like to buy new. So far I like the high end civic and the mini cooper, but concerned about safety. Any advice? Thanks!

Not to worry. The Mini Cooper is fun and safe. Almost anything Honda is safe. Honda has done an excellent job of standarding the latest safety equipment in its vehicles. As for the CRV, not to worry, single woman, you won't look like a soccer mom.

Hi Warren, I had a bad experience with VW last week related to the recently issued sunroof recall. The VW service technician told me that because my sunroof does not open electronically (a problem which may have been caused by the faulty seal and water that has been leaking in) he could not complete the recall, which called on VW to clean, assess and replace the sunroof drains and related hardware. In order to complete the recall, he would need to charge me an hour of labor to first diagnose the issue with the sunroof. I explained to him that I would not pay him to diagnose the problem and asked him to use the manual crank to open the sunroof and complete the recall, which should be done free of charge (as stated clearly in the recall notification). I am drafting a letter to VW to explain my dissatisfaction with the approach the service technician took in handling the recall and I was wondering if there are other organizations (such as dealer associations) to whom I should also send my letter? I have had several bad experiences with VW in the past few years and as much as you say the service has changed that has not been my experience. I think VW should know they still have some work to do. Thanks for the help.

This strikes me as ridiculous. A recall is a recall. It should be fixed at no cost to the customer. But there is  one possible problem in this case. Your "recall" may not be a "recall." It might be  part of a "consumer satisfaction campaign," something the manufacturer is repairing only because many consumers have been complaining about it. "Recall" is a statutory term referring to fixes that must be made by law because of a safety or clean air violation. Your problem may not qualify. But we'll post it to get a response from VW.

Warren, Following up on a question posted previously: we bought the 2010 Jetta TDI and love it. Negotiated a great deal from the dealership in Gaithersburg, so our bank account doesn't mind too much, either!

I am happy that you are happy. Please keep in touch.

I'm reluctantly giving up my sports coupe for a smallish people mover - my family of 3 simply doesn't fit anymore. I've sorta narrowed it down to the Matrix or the Mazda 5, because they seem to get good mileage, comfortable seating for a small family, have a fair amount of hauling capacity (both for hardware store runs and the family road trip), and - this is important to my fragile ego - still come with a manual transmission. What's your take on these 2 cars? Are there others I should consider? I've looked far and wide, but the other competitors don't seem to come with stick shifts.

I'd go with the Mazda 5, a people mover that has been reworked several times and is now reasonably close to perfection. I'd get the Grand Touring edition, at $23,400, the most expensive of the Mazda 5 verions offered. But it has all of the things families want in a vehicle--space, safety, comfort, and reasonable fuel economy at 21 mpg city and 17 mpg highway.

Hi Warren. This is my third attempt to get an answer from you. My daughter is in college in Wisconsin and she wants to replace her Honda Civic with a car that will do better in the snow. I'm thinking that the Honda CR-V would fit the bill. What's your take on the CR-V and is there anything else I should consider? Thank you.

My apologies for missing your question. Wisconsin is Subaru country. I'd get  a Subaru Integra  wagon--safe,  a snow-runner supreme, reasonably fuel-efficient, and should fit the bill of anyone who was considering a Civic

We're replacing our 2007 Mustang GT with a new sports car. (Don't ask - I don't see the point of replacing a perfectly good car either. But I've given up fighting it.) The choices are: Camaro SS, Nissan 370Z, Dodge Challenger RT, and the new Mustang GT. Stick shift, of course. We were not able to test drive the new Mustang as the dealers didn't have any, but my main concern there is that it is too much like ours. My husband has a need not only for speed but for something new and different. The Challenger and the Camaro are both big feeling, and the Chevy also had weird visibility issues. That Camaro was wicked fast, though! That leavs us with the Nissan. It was peppy and cornered beautifully. It was small without feeling small on the inside. I liked the guage package, the way the tachometer was so visible. I like the idea of a 2-seater, though I'm worried we'll regret it too often when friends visit. We have no kids, and I could only think of a handful of occassions in a year where we used the backseat of the Mustang. Still, at least it was there to be used. We've never owned a Nissan and don't know anything about the brand. We thought the 370Z was an outside chance, so we haven't really researched it like we did the Camaro. What is your opinion on the car? Is there another similarly-priced sports car we should test drive before deciding?

The new Camaro is wicked fast and wicked fun. But if  it's different you want, go with the 370Z. Sounds like that's waht you really want, which is understandable. It's also wicked fast, handles beautifully and does a better job of  speaking to the middle-aged soul. Am I assuming too much here?

Promised last week. Did yours have windows in the side and rear doors? Over the road ride and mpg? Also, competitors with 50"+ long, 40"+ high (all the way to the rear door) with a flat floor. (Other than full sized vans)

No. Mine was a white cargo van, no windows, and I was happy for that. I loved its size-utility ratio, small enough to fit in tight parking spots, but large enough to carry a roomful of furniture. It makes little sense to think of it in terms of speed and handling--small engine, wide track. But it's one of the best workhorses I've used in ages--easy to drive, four-speed automatic, starts at around $22,000,  21 mpg city and 26 mpg hwy. I really hope Ford finds a way to do in the U.S. what is does in Europe--offer his one in diesel.

What web site would you recommend for arriving at a price for an older used car such as a 1995 Neon?, an affiliate of The Washington Post,,

Hi Warren, A quick question of what is the best wagon/SUV for a small family (2 adults 1 baby) mainly for local trips and off to WV on occasion to visit relatives. I have the CRV, Tiguan, Volvo V50 (used) and Saab 93 wagon (used) on the list or am I missing something? You can get a CRV for 22K, or a Tiguan S for the same price. You can also get a Tiguan SE 2009 with 20,000 miles on it for $500 less. I don't want to spend any more than that. The main clincher is that it has to have a good seat with lumbar support (for a 5 ft 8' guy weighing 170 pounds) and is fun to drive. Thoughts? Paul

Toyota Rav-4 (yes, Toyota), Chevrolet Equinox/GMC Terrain (you are cheating yourself if you don't check those),  Ford Escape, Hyundai Santa Fe.

Thanks for answering my question! Just FYI, manual transmissions are only available in the base Mazda5 (the Sport trim). The more luxurious trims only come with automatics. :-(

Welcome to the real world. Traditional manuals now barely make up 11 percent of the U.S. market--and falling.

What about the Jetta Sportwagen? It's available in stick shift so far as I'm aware. Get it in diesel and the mileage is even better.

I don't know if it's yet available in diesel Stateside. If it is, it's a buy as far as I'm concerned.

I have a 2001 Jetta with 75,000 miles. The owner's manual says to replace the timing belt at 75,000 miles. The shop told me the same thing the last time I was in. Do I need to follow this recommendation or just wait until it goes out? It's $1,000 to replace so I'd rather not do it right away if it's got some life left in it.

Yes. Replace the timing belt when scheduled. Failure to do that can costyou a heck of a lot more than $1,000. Trust your owner's manual, please.

Since I know you love the BMW 335d, how do you like the diesel engine in the BMW X5?

Love the diesel engine. Not terribly sure about the X5's packaging. There are less expensive vehicles offering better utility. But, yeah, I love those BMW diesels.

Ford Explorer What a fall from fame. Hundreds of thousands rolled off the line year after year as the Explorer defined "SUV" in all its paved, suburban glory. The Explorer made billions for Ford and people really liked owning them (compared to minivan or "appliance car" owners). Somewhere along the way, the Firestone tires fell apart and people died. Gas prices went up and the war in the oil-rich Middle East dragged on. Sales softened, then plummeted. No longer number one in sales, the Explorer took on a new title in the Cash for Clunkers program: number one vehicle scrapped via sodium silicate. I saw that Ford is putting the Explorer name on a new crossover (unibody?). The first Explorer was the first of its niche. The new Explorer sounds like a follower of a trend that has already peaked. Have you seen/driven one and is there any reason to look forward to the Explorer? How will it be positioned relative to the new Grand Cherokee?

Cars and trucks don't exist in a vacuum. Their longevity is affected by events, those directly affecting their respective nameplates, as well as world events. It's clear now that mid-size and large SUVs have pretty much had their day as mass-market vehicles. They will continue to fill niches, large niches, perhaps. But their spot on the stage has been taken by crossover utility vehicles and the like, until events and changing tastes remove them, too.

Have the dealer add whatever features from the Grand Touring that you want to the Sport model. We got the manual Sport and added leather and sunroof; dealer did a great job making it look like it came from the factory that way.

Thanks for that suggestion.

Since they actually plow the roads in WI when its snows I would get her the CRV and 4 extra wheeels for real snow tires. Michelin Ice's are the best snow tire out there. She will not be out in WI all the time. I ahve them on my Element and they worked incredibly well in our blizzards this past winter. They are also an excellent dry and wet road tire something that can not be said about most snow tires to include Blizzaks. The CRV will hold its value better than and is significantly more reliable than the Subie. Clifton

Nice to hear that Wisconsin still has enough money o plow the roads, Clifton. But I'd bet you that Subaru holds its value better than Honda in a wintry clime such as Wisconsin. Let's revisit this next week when we've both had time to check our facts.

My wife and I are looking into SUV's as we expand our family. Our (my) concern is upkeep after the purchase. We will also have a BMW and don't want to get hammered by the upkeep costs with more than one vehicle. We are still trying to decide on whether to go large (Tahoe, Sequoia) or small (Escape, Rav4) or even Medium (Like the Cherokee, and they are some deals on them now)...Is there a place where I can check the upkeep costs? Thanks.

I'd go with the Cherokee--good quality, good safety, and, as you pointed out, you get very good deals on them now. Resale value?  Truth is, that all depends on what's happening in the country and the world when you get ready to  dump it. What is the resale value of a Toyota Corolla today versus its residual value two years ago?

I'm going to get an oil change today. Last time I went, the dealership told me I was due for a big $400 maintenance service. Are these things recommended?

Again, check your owner's manual and heed the advice there. Cars are like human bodies. They wear out. They need repair and maintenance. Save a buck by not going to the doctor today. Pay through the nose for something gone wrong tomorrow. There's no conspiracy to rob you here. Life lived properly and happily costs money.

My understanding of the purpose of putting nitrogen in your tires is that it doesn't leak as fast as regular air, so your tires stay inflated longer. The payoff is better fuel economy, not going faster. I'm no engineer, but Pat Goss always says it works.

And I assume that Pat Goss also knows that proper tire inflation with regular air works just as well. It's the rubber that counts, the type of tire, not what's occupying the volume inside.

Warren - Nitrogen in tires is not snake oil - the biggest reason service shops recommend using it is that it stays in the tire longer than "regular" air. Also, nitrogen doesn't have moisture which can rust wheels from the inside out. This was less of an issue when most cars rode on steel wheels (which were cheap). Now most cars ride on 1 or 3 piece alloy wheels, made of aluminum alloys (aluminum doesn't rust, but the cheaper alloys can). That being said, I don't think nitrogen is worth the extra cost. But please educate yourself on the topic before making a blanket statement.

Thank you for your education, and eventual agreement.

Nitrogen nowadays is a ruse, not worth the cost. Wheel components and tires have changed.  Coopertires, Goodyear and other manufacturers are putting out new rubber that gives better fuel economy, traction, tread life, ride, and handling. To my knowledge, none of those companies has recommended filling those tires with nitrogen.

Didn't know Subaru made Integras, thought it was an Impreza. :) I've been looking at a Forester but the Mazda CX-7 caught my eye. What's your take?

Totally my error. I meant Subaru Impreza, not Integra. And I thank you for the correction.

And with that, I'll sign off. I obviously need lunch and sleep. Thank you all for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thank you for producing today, Sakina. Please eat lunch, Ria.

With the unique shape and arrangements of auto manufacturers' stereo systems, will aftermarket systems even fit anymore?


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

On Wheels Archive

Real Wheels Live Q&A Archive
Recent Chats
  • Next: