Real Wheels Live

Jul 01, 2011

Washington Post cars columnist Warren Brown will be joined by Lou Ann Hammond to discuss the auto industry. Plus, they'll give purchase advice to readers.

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It's the Fourth of July weekend, time to celebrate our national independence and various personal freedoms, and to once again thank those many women and men in uniform who make enormous sacrifices to protect the things we value in this country.

On that point, I'd like to say something to our automobile dealers: Many of you are upright folks--honest, conscientious business people. We thank you. But a troubling few of you apparently see people in military uniforms as suckers. I've been getting complaints from a lot of our service people saying that they are being charged unfair annual percentage rate or otherwise are being overcharged for cars and trucks, new and used.

The Federal Trade Commission has been getting similar complaints and has been looking into them. The FTC, in fact, will hold a public hearing on the matter in San Antonio in August.

I do not wish to participate in a rush to judgment. But, c'mon. The last thing our overburdened service people need is to carry the burden of unfair retail practices at home.

I am looking into this matter and welcome responses to warbro70@aol.com.

Now, for holiday warnings:

It's click-it-or-ticket time across the nation. State police everywhere will stop you if you or someone in your vehicle is observed moving along without wearing a seat belt. Buckle up!

It's also motorized drunks are legal skunks time. If you are drinking this weekend, don't drive. If you are drinking and driving, you've been warned. There isn't one state cop anywhere in the country who won't haul you off to jail. Enjoy!

It's been a busy two weeks, but I wanted to answer a couple questions from two weeks ago.

Dodge Neon engines in MINIs

I had the opportunity to talk to a powertrain platform manager from Chrysler that worked in Compo Largo, Brazil.
Between 2001-2007 Chrysler and BMW had a joint venture building engines in Compo Largo, Brazil.
They built 1.6-liter engines that went into Dodge Neon cars in Europe. The engines also went into MINIs.

When Daimler bought Chrysler the joint venture was dissolved. The plant was sold to - drumroll, please - Fiat Brazil. Fiat now owns Chrysler! However, the engines assembled in that plant, E100, are flex-fuel and meant for the Brazilian market.

I then talked to some folks at MINI. They say the parts were from Brazil, but the engine was assembled in oxford, UK.

The Neon 16v engine was a 2.0 liter, and while it shared some architecture, none of the internal components were shared. Some external items such as coil packs, accessory drives and covers were used on both engines.

MINI's finished engine was built to a quality and efficiency standard, as is expected of a premium small car.

MINI transmissions were all Midlands or Getrag sourced, which also differs from the Neon.

In either case this was the 1st generation engine for mini. Currently, MINI has a "Prince" engine in the vehicles. This engine is BMW designed, PSA (Peugeot) built.

Ford Flex going away?

I went to a "Ford forward" meeting and they showed an inflatable airbag in the second row passenger seat seatbelt. That new seat belt will come out in next years Ford Flex and Ford Explorer. So, for now, the Flex will stay a part of the Ford lineup.

Jeep Patriot and Jeep Compass

At the Chrysler event I drove a Jeep Patriot and a Jeep Compass. Both are based on the Dodge Caliber platform. They both have the same interior and the same competitors; Hyundai Tucson, Subaru Forester and Kia Sportage. While both are doing well in sales you can expect the two of them to be homologated into one vehicle in a year or two.

Cars I've driven:

Ford F150 4X4 Crew cab

I picked Norma up at the Sacramento, CA airport. Norma is 77 years old and used to take care of my 90 year old great aunt when she was alive. I flew her out for our July 4th party. Norma didn't say anything about the truck at first, but we made a couple of stops to buy things for the party. By the third stop she commented that she really like the running board that comes out automatically when she opened the door and the location of the grip bar. As we made more stops she looked in the back seat and commented that there was "oodles" of room back there. And she loved the metallic brown color. Her 11-year old Chevy Malibu is having air conditioning problems, so she really appreciated a good running air conditioner.

The SYNC interface does allow for i-Pod use. When I initiated bluetooth on Ford I tried to call my husband. I could hear him, but he couldn't hear me. My husband played with it and finally figured out that the microphone in the truck wasn't working.

The backup camera is spot on when backing up. The backup camera is positioned so that when you back up with the tailgate down the camera sees the tailgate and the sensor keeps beeping. And there are no front sensors.

BTW - the F150 says it gets 14 city/19 highway miles per gallon. I ran all over the city and a little on the highway and got 15.4 miles per gallon combined. Not bad for someone who doesn't drive a truck all the time.

Mercedes CLS550

Not everyone can afford an $80,000 car, but if you can this is a beauty. My favorite thing about this 402 horsepower 443 lb-ft or torque beauty is the extra grip the seat gives you when you go around the corner. Everything from the harman/kardon 14-speaker stereo to the Bluetooth system was easy to use and intuitive.


Hi Warren, with all the talk of the above mentioned dealers needing to take advantage of the lack of Japanese cars/parts prior to increased availability in August, when are they going to bring back 0% financing? We are ready to buy a new 2011 model but missed the 0% financing back in April. Should I hold my breath...do you think they'll likely bring the 0% financiing back again in the next 3 months or so?

First, Toyota and Honda, two of the major Japanese companies affected by the earthquake-tsunami, are amping up production faster than anyone expected. Both are expected to have their product lines fully stocked in the U.S. by mid-august, certainly by September-October. Toyota already is offering deals. But I think those deals will get even better in August and September. What do you see on the West Coast, Lou Ann?

Get hunting now. There are 0% financing deals avaiable. Most are due to expire July 5.

I've seen 0% on some Ford and Lincolns, Toyota, Chrysler, Jeep, Mazda

Warren, how do you and or your guest evaluate a vehicle? Do you take into consideration Consumer Reports information also? Thank You for your reply.

I let my own daily use help me evaluate the car. Just like you would.

Do you look at movie reviews by a particular person and find that that person likes the same type of movies you do? When a new movie comes out you grab the newspaper to see what that person thinks of the new movie?

That's what I think of when I review a car. I have my own opinions and share them. You read my articles - and Warren's - because you understand what we like about certain cars. Both of us put the cars through the same test you would, commuting to work or driving to a friends house.

Mr. Brown, I'm considering two vehicles: 2008 Merecedes S Class (low miles) or a new Mercedes E Class. Granted, they're differernt vehicles, but would a new E still trump a used (three year old) S Class? Thanks, and I enjoy your conversations and articles. Chicago, IL

Yes! The new Mercedes  E is loaded, especially the new E-diesel, which is my favorite. However, I see no sense in spending S-Class money on a special E-Class, such as the E63 AMG, which costs about $88K. I'd stick with the E-Diesel and its Bluetec exhaust treatment--excellent overall product quality, 22mpg city/33mpg hwy, about $51,000.

My parents have a leased 2009 Toyota Camry. The lease expires at the end of October. Is there any point to try and wait for the new model next Spring? I feel they should just choose from one of the other competent contenders in the midsized car category.

Are your parents willing to step out of Toyotas?

Car manufacturers depend on customers to be brand loyal. If your parents are leasing one of the reasons would be to get a new model every couple years of the same car.

If they are willing to step out of Toyota and look for a new model I would say look at the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, Mazda, Kia Optima, Audi A4 and Volkswagen Passat, hyundai elantra.

My favorites are the VW Passat and Hyundai Elantra

On the Camry question: I'd suggest that your parents choose from one of the other many competent contenders in the field, including the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion.

Well, it seems as if many of you have taken an early slide in preparation for the 4th. That's smart. In the mid-Atlantic region law-enforcement officials are advising early morning and late evening as lower congestion travel times. But be forewarned: Police are cracking down on drowsy drivers as hard as they are coming down on drunk and drugged drivers. So, regardless of when you start out, make sure that you are properly rested. And, hey fellas, if the woman ask you to pull over because you're acting droopy behind the wheel, pull over! You won't get arrested for taking a break. The likelihood is that you won't crash, either.

Any word on when the BMW X1 will be in the US?

No firm word at this writing. BMW now is building marketing muscle behind the Active Hybrid X5 crossover/suv. U.S. gasoline prices apparently will determine the introduction date, if any, of the X1.

BMW tells me that it won't be this year, but they do plan to bring it to the U.S. in the future

I'm looking at replacing my xTerra with a wagon for the better gas mileage, but still want good performance in the snow for annual trips to New England for skiing. Do you have any thoughts on the Subaru Outback versus the Volvo XC70 (or any other suggestions you might have)?

I think you're better off keeping the Xterra. Here's why: As you've probably discovered, it's hard to beat that little rascal in the rough, or in the snow. That partly is why it's hard on mpg. You're dealing with tradeoffs here. Saving gas is one thing. Assuredly getting to your skiing destination in rough weather is another. Besides, you're well into your payments on the Xterra. Buying a new vehicle to save gasoline money might, and probably will take more money--financing, insurance, sales fees, taxes, depreciation--from another pocket. Keep the Xterra.

I'm not a fan of the Xterra. I think the ride is too hard. I would say get an Outback because it has AWD standard. You can get a Volvo, which is a great car, but it is heavy and you don't get AWD standard. In either case, I would order the car with heated seats and a heated steering wheel if it were an option.

You both left Buick off your recommendation list to the parents with a Camry. Is there a reason? I have seen more Buicks on the road lately. If I were in the market for something in that segment I think I would give them a serious look.

I can't speak for Lou Ann. But I'm sometimes addle-brained and forgetful. That's my excuse. Otherwise, I most certainly would have favorably cited the Buick LaCrosse and Buick Regal, both excellent and both high on my "buy" mist for mid-size and compact cars. Thanks for the nudge.

I like the Regal and think it's a fair competitor. I thank you for reminding both of us.

Does Chevy/GM have any new crossovers in the pipeline?

Yes, GM is eyeing possible new crossovers from its Opel subsidiary to add to its Chevrolet and Buick lines. They are "eyeing," which means they're not talking on the record.

I am torn between the Fiat and the Fiesta now. I thought I was all set on a new Fiesta but now the 500 has come and made me doubt. I like the interior of the Fiesta but the 500 is peppy and has a nice look. Both will cost about the same with what i need. Ford seems like the more secure choice given reliability and quality these days but the Fiat just has that chirpy look to it that is hard to turn down. Any advice or recommendations?

You've answered your own question. Personally, I like the Fiat 500 better than I do the Fiesta because the 500 is the cutest of the two. But liking ain't marrying. Marrying involves a profound act of faith based on beleifs, experience and trust in reliability. That being the  case, I'd go with the Fiesta.

Have you driven the 500 yet? The Winding Road e-zine had an interesting Cooper comparison the other day. They spent a lot of time talking about how much they liked the 500, but ultimately recommended the MINI instead. They seem to be cars with very different personalities. I currently drive a MINI with very low miles so I expect to keep it for several years. But I think my sensibility leans a bit more towards the 500... Ultimately I think the new Prius-C might be even more suited to me though.

In the end the MINI would win, BUT the 500 Cabrio is a cute urban car. The Fiat 500 hardtop had some fit and finish that I wasn't fond of. The MINI is tried and true and has a good residual value. The Fiat is cute, but only gets 100 horsepower and it torrential rains on the highway just doesn't feel as sure-footed. Fiat is a wonderful car, I used to own one. The 500 will keep getting more sales and I love them on the road. Fiat will only get stronger in the U.S. now that it is one with Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep.

The natural tendency is to compare the Mini Cooper with the Fiat 500 because both are small, cute and peppy cars. But the truth is that they are different. The Mini is deliberately more of a premium small car and all that means for build quality, materials, performance and price. The 500, by comparion, is more of an everyman's affordable urban runner and all that means for materials  and fit and finish.

Hi Warren. I'm a big fan -- thanks for what you do here. I'm trying to squeeze all the life I can out of my 1990 325i while I wait for a more fuel-efficient BMW to come on the market. I'd like it to be big enough for my dog. I'm really impressed by what I've been reading about the X1 diesel. Any idea if, or when, that might be coming to the U.S.?

We had a question earlier about the X1 and I called my BMW buddy Dave Buchko. He said he won't be coming this year, but they do have plans to bring it to the U.S.

I am conservative, like Warren. If you really want to make a smooth transition start putting the monthly loan amount in a savings account now. If your 325i dies on the road you have a nice little down payment and your finance rates will be lower. And remember - always tell the dealer you want to see a copy of your FICO score that they get. That is what they base your finance rate on and if they tell you it is a certain number have them show you the papers.

Hi Warren, I"m thinking buying an SUV. In considering the various models out there, I remembered my parents old International Travelall. I loved the way the rear window went down like a regular window so you could let things hang out the back but still have the tailgate up. Do any of today's SUVs have windows like that?

I can't think of any at the moment, because the vast majority of them don't have rear windows that can be lowered--and for good reason. Do you remember having headaches or slight nausea from riding in that International Travelall with the rear window lowered? If you do, your upset probably was caused by exhaust fumes wafting into the vehicle via the opened tailgate window.

Any update on the prospect for new offerings in this category?

Warren doesn't like 3-row vehicles, so I'll take this one :)

I'll be back on the chat on the 15th. I will bring a whole list of 3-rowers with me (look above, I always try to answer any leftover questions from the last chat)

The Ford Flex will be around Highlander, Odyssey, Mazda 5, Sorento and Rav4 are some of them.

I should have clarified; the xTerra (2003) is paid off, and we would be looking to pay cash for a used car with ~1/2 the mileage and age. Does that change your suggestion, or is hanging on still the way you would go?

Yes. Shop the Subaru Outback.

I'm looking to purchase a new (to me) crossover. The vehicles that I am interested in so far are the BMW X3 and the VW Tiguan. I like the looks of both, unlike many crossovers. Any recommendations?

BMW X3. and if you're in South Carolina - where the X3 is made - you can drop by the BMW museum. Tell Bunny Richardson I said hi. I'm not sure but you might also get to tour the factory. BTW - did you know that BMW EXPORTS about 70 percent of the cars made in South Carolina?

If this isn't going to be in the U.S. any time in the identifiable future, is it possible to import it from Germany myself? One of those buy-drive-ship arrangements?

It won't pass the EPA or DOT certification, so NO.

I'm trying to narrow my choice between Acura's TSX wagon and Volvo's V50. What do you think about these cars, does one rise above the other, and if so, why?

I lean toward the Volvo V50. The V50 has a base price nearly $2,000 lower than the TSX "Sport Wagon." But it is what it is, a very good small wagon sans "sport" pretensions and reasonable utility.

Given the changes in the second generation Fit, do you think a used first generation one is preferable to a new one? I want excellent fuel efficiency in a car to drive around locally. Prefer a hatchback/wagon style. I am concerned with the styling changes that made rear visibility worse in the new models.

I'd save money and by the used first generation Fit, which is an excellent, fuel-efficient small car with remarkable utility.

Hi Warren, I had heard a few months ago about some new Subaru/Toyota collaboration--Subaru designing the engine and chasis, with Toyota doing the body I think. Any ideas what it's all about?

Lou Ann, isn't this just another cost-sharing, joint-venture arrangement?

It is a rear-wheel sports car. I hear it is going to be a Scion, but can't remember off the top of my head.

I leased a Hyundai Sonata in September 2010. While I do like the Sonata, the new Elantra (which wasn't available last September) is closer to my ideal car. Do you know if it's within the realm of possibility for me to approach the dealer and ask to change cars under the lease? Does the dealer have any flexibility to waive the huge early-termination fee? I don't want to waste energy if this is something that's just not done with leases. Thanks.

probably not. It's tough to get out of a lease contract.

BUT - because cars are at such a premium the dealer may be willing to play.

HOWEVER - Elantra's can't be made fast enough. They are selling like - Elantras :) So, if you wanted to trade your lease on something that wasn't selling as quickly you might have a better chance.

Being stuck with a Sonata. Sorry, no sympathy for you. :)

On changing a lease:

It's doable, but probably not without a cost penalty. Check with your dealer. To the dealer: Recession isn't forever. Take care of this customer now and bank on trading him/her up in a better economy.

Ford launched it on the 2011 Explorer and they've been in production; the Flex (and assuming the similar MKT) are the additions/new vehicle to have it.

You are absolutely correct. The inflatable airbag in the second row passenger seats will show up on the Explorer and Flex in 2011 and two Lincoln models. They wouldn't say which ones, but it's good to see the WP readers know their cars. :)

Warren, I enjoy the conversations. Last weekend GM had a big event at Fedex Field. I took my wife, my 18 year old daughter and our 1 year old son. Enjoyed driving the Volt. It was too small for my wife, but, my daughter enjoyed it. My wife gave me the approval to buy the GMC Terrain after she drove it. Will add to our fleet in November. My wife fell in love with the Chevy Cruze, so we will be buying a new Cruze LTZ before September. My daughter loved driving the Camaro convertible. That isn't joining the fleet. Tell GM to keep up the events but, was surprised that Cadillac was missing.

Will do. These consumer sales events are among GM's smarter marketing efforts, much smarter than some of the company's TV commercials. Bottom line: GM is turning out good cars nowadays. But it's still battling negative misperceptions of the company. The best way to counter those misperceptions is to have people actually drive the cars.

How do you both keep all these cars straight? It's amazing to me how you have such detailed answers each week. I know it's your industry, but still. Very impressive.

The answer increasingly is in the word "both." Lou Ann and I long ago decided to pool our expertise. She's on the West Coast and long has had in interest in alternative propulsion systems, oil, and energy conservation. I am on the East Coast in "regulation central"--Washington, D.C. My interests normally tend toward what the government is doing, or not doing in matters of automobile safety regulation and national energy policy. We both travel a lot. But Lou Ann has more of a tolerance for those unnecessarily long overseas trips than I do. We both love cars. But neither of us are "car guys" per se. That means we both are willing to let the automobile and the very concept of automobility evolve into something other than "car guy" think and "car guy" talk. We drive and study--truly study--a lot.

Thank you for the kind words. I just love doing this chat because I get to talk to real people looking for real cars for their real life. I'm always impressed with the questions and the amount of information that all of you know about the cars you are looking for.

Warren and I have known each other for, oh, twenty years or more. Our answers will not always be the same and we like that because it tells us - and you - some of the differences we value.

Thanks for the chat.

Have a Happy 4th of July everyone.

Okay, folks. Thank you for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thanks, Gaurav and Dominique, for another fine production. Thank you Lou Ann for your brilliant participation. Thanks, Ria, for keeping the cars moving. Eat lunch. Enjoy the Fourth. Be safe.

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
Lou Ann Hammond
Lou Ann Hammond is the founder and owner of the first privately owned automobile website Carlist.com. Recently Lou Ann has developed an automotive and energy issues related website, Drivingthenation.com, that covers a broader range of subjects than solely the automotive or the energy industry.
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