The Washington Post

Real Wheels Live

Aug 12, 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.

Past Real Wheels Live Chats

The lazy days of summer. Finally, TEN whole days at home! We got caught up on some work, got the wood split and stacked for winter. And even drove a couple cars.

Last chat someones said they drove a 2001 Jetta TDI and consistently got between 48 and 52 MPG. "I feel like this engine does not get the praise it deserves compared to hybrids. Why is Audi only offering the engine in the A3, it would be sweet in the A4?"

Audi's answer:

Great question. We are planning to expand our TDI offering in the U.S.  to the A8, A6 and Q5.  Timing is still being finalized, but we should see an A8 TDI sometime during 2012 (calendar year).  The other models will be after 2012. We are also interested in an across-the-board offering of TDI, but that can only be achieved when the other vehicles go through a significant revision, so we would anticipate that the A4 offering could be part of the next generation vehicle program.

Chevy solar canopies - Charge any EV vehicle for free!!

So far 74 Chevy dealers have put, or are putting, solar canopies on the dealer lots. These canopies will have at least four charging units for electric vehicles. The beautiful part, even if you own a Nissan Leaf you can use the EV charging unit, as long as you have the J-connector that fits.

I talked with Mom (Cheryl) Balch. She owns a Chevy Volt and has solar panels on her house so most of her energy charging is free. She has used 1/2 a gallon of gasoline since April, so Mom Balch figures she is getting over 4,000 miles per gallon at this point. 1/2 gallon of gasoline cost about $2.00 in Pleasanton, CA. Mom Balch calculates her last vehicle cost her $4,000 a year in gasoline alone.

Chevy is not the only one offering up energy solutions. Ford has struck a deal with Sunpower, a subsidiary of Total (a French company). If you own a Ford Focus, for $10,000 they will put 2.5 kW of solar panels on your roof. The theory is that during the day the solar panels offset the energy it would take to power your car at night. Check with your state to see if they give additional credits.

Cars I've driven in the last two weeks

2012 Nissan Versa

Love the 5-speed manual at $10,990. I'm not a fan of Nissan or Audi's CVT. I do like the Versa, but I would only buy the 5-speed. Here's the conundrum; it doesn't come with bluetooth. So, if you commute and like the handsfree you might have to upgrade. Cruise Control is not available on the 1.6S M/T Base Model either. Base model is the only way you can get manual. Nissan says only 5% of the people buy a manual, so it's probably not an issue, it's just that $10,990 is such a sweet price.

MINI Countryman

I was all set to tell you about how poor the Countryman's suspension was until I put the car in sport mode. What a difference! I don't understand why MINI didn't use the sport mode as the default mode, it is that much better. I still don't like run flat tires, they make the car noisier.  And the rattle in the dash doesn't help. And I hate hate hate mesh sunroofs. Don't know who thought that was a good idea. The JCW is still the best MINI, but I'm looking forward to driving the roadster.

2011 Audi Q7

How can you not love a luxury SUV with a $6,300 sound system from Bang & Olufsen? You do have to pay $500 for heated seats and a heated steering wheel. That doesn't bother me as much as the mesh sunroof. Do any of you like the mesh sunroof? To me, it still lets sun in when I don't want it, like on a 105 degree day!

2011 Hyundai Elantra GLS

Try as I might I couldn't get the 40 miles per gallon that Hyundai/EPA says I'm supposed to get. I reset the mpg trip as soon as I got on the highway and it still only registered in the low 30s. The Elantra is an amazing car for the small figure of $19,510 (including a NAV package).

Is there any truth to the rumor that Kia is planning a small roadster? If so, would it be large enough to accomodate someone taller than a Munchkin? Herndon

Possibly on all counts. Possibly.

I am off to Korea next week to drive the Rio and Soul. I will put that on my list of questions to ask and get back to you in two weeks.


Warren... How are we coming on the review of Lexus newer models?

Beginning in October, earlier if certain things work out.

I've driven a couple of them. Is there one in particular you're looking for information on?


Hi Warren, I have my heart set on a used Nissan 350Z; but I was wondering if there are any other cars that you may think are comparable. I owned a 1992 Nissan 240SX in the past and definitely got my money's worth. I retired it after 263,000+ miles and it was at least 15 years old. I currenty drive a 2000 Infiniti G20; so I'm pretty loyal to Nissan. I'd prefer to get another Infiniti; buts its not in the budget. Thanks.

Do you remember the old Nissan commercials, back when they were Datsuns and Nissan? Steve Wozniak was in one of them. quite funny.

I would stick with the Infiniti but upgrade to a G37. sweet ride

Warren, help me, please! We have a 2000 Outback that we love and would like to buy another Outback--the 2011 Premium, specifically. We were quoted $29,620 on one with the AWP. Looking through Edmunds, I saw that their TMV for the same model with the same upgrades is $26,760. Does that sound right to you? We really don't want to pay more than we should, but neither one of us are confident negotiators! Thanks.

I'd go with the Edmunds recommendation, which normally is pretty accurate, and find a dealer who could/will match it, or do better. it's a buyers' market nowadays.

Do you know if Subaru has plans to introduce hybrid or other newer technology into it's line? I have an 11 y/o forester, and would like to replace it with a newer, more ecologically correct one...Thanks

Yes. When, I don't know. Everybody is beginning to take advantage of advanced start/stop technology. It's reasonable to expectct Subaru to participate. We'll find out more when we'e in Frankfurt next month.

I talked to subaru a minute ago. I have confirmed that they will have a subaru hybrid in the 2013 model year.  Subaru wants me to remind you that the new Impreza 5 door gets 36mpg even without hybrid technology!

Thanks Michael from Subaru

Thank you for taking my question - Have either of you research and/or driven the 2012 Impreza yet? The hatchback looks like it would compete with Focus and other small hatchs, but offer AWD as well. Your thoughts/insight are appreciated.

Not me. Not yet. Did California play with this on, first, Lou Ann?

I drove the entire line of Subarus and loved the Impreza. If you're looking for all-wheel drive fun to drive I'm still impressed with Subaru.

Good morning Mr. Brown and Ms. Hammond: We're in the investigative stage of replacing our 10-year-old minivan. We'd like something smaller (but with a functional third row) that gets better MPG than a minivan. I held out hope that Ford's C-Max would be the answer, but it now appears that the seven-seat version isn't destined for our shores. Is there anything else in the development pipeline that would compete with the Mazda5 -- and that will be available in the U.S. in the next 6-8 months? Thanks.

Have you looked at the new Mazda5 minivan? The thing is gorgeous! Love it! Rides well, handles great. Please tell me what you don't like about the new version.

Seriously, I would buy that van.

You are not the first person that is upset that Ford is not bringing over a 7-passenger C-Max.

Which means you can go for a MINI, or a fully loaded Hyundai Elantra. Ford Focus, too. And let's not leave a high-end version of the Chevrolet Cruze or Chrysler 200 off the list. Lots of pleasant surprises in those Detroit badges. And, of course, the Mazda 3, if you can find one.

Hi Warren, Love your chats. I test drove the BMW 335d and loved it but I am worried about needing to get to work when it snows. The 335d does not have all wheel drive. Do you think I'll be OK with some snow tires on the 335d?

I was just going to suggest Blizzaks, a snow/performance tire, if you can imagine such a thing. Whatever the case, change those low-aspect ratio, summer performance tires before the snow falls. Don't be one of the legions of Washington-area BMW owners with an expensive car stuck on the side of the road in a modest snowfall, while lower-priced Subaru and Hyundai cars whiz buy. It's embarrassing.

Good morning, what do you think of it? Good buy? Anything to look out for? Thank you

Yes, it's one of the best compact lux/entry-level luxury sport-utility vehicles out there.

I would look at the Range Rover as well. I liked their suspension better.

Have you gotten a preview of the new MINI Coupe yet? It looks pretty hot, but I worry about rear visibility with the way the roofline swoops down so much in the back. I contacted the Alexandria dealer asking when they would be available for a test drive and now they won't leave me alone.

Lou Ann has scheduled us for that one in September. Looking forward to it. Will I have to fly to your side of the country, Lou?

I'm looking forward to driving the roadster. We will let you know in September.

Warren - we're getting grits in Nashville!!

Hi. Addressing a topic that I know is dear to you. I need a small car purely for inner city commuting. I don't want something as cheap feeling as the new Civic and not something as racy as a BMW 3-series. I want it to feel luxurious, with all the modern conveniences (e.g., iPod jack), but I don't want to pay $50,000. So, is this car one of the Korean makes, and if so, what model and trim?

You can buy the Hyundai Accent. Great car for the value. So much "stuff" comes standard. Plus EPA says it gets 40 mpg on the highway, 30 in the city. And they have an assurance program so you are assured of a certain price when you resale it.

Also look at the new Chevy Sonic. Warren and I talked to the designer about the Sonic. We both like the looks. (It's not just an old Aveo)

Ford Focus is also good. Nissan Leaf if you truly are just city-hopping and have access to charging it.


Thanks for answering my question about the Outback. Just one more: Edmunds lists Subaru as offering a lower interest rate than we were given (and that appears on the dealer's website; we both have excellent credit, so I imagine we'd qualify for the lowest available). Is it possible this IR is not available at our dealership, or are they just not offering it unless asked? Thanks again!

It's possible that your selected dealer has more than one offer for the car and, as a result, is playing the real estate game by inflating cost beyond value. Don't play. Find another dealer; or, find another car. It's all very competitive out there. You are in the driver's's seat, especially with excellent credit. Drive elsewhere for a better deal, if need be.

It allows too much road noise in for my taste, the interior has a somewhat cheap feel and it lags other family haulers in available extras. We drove an S-Max in Europe last summer; I thought that was a world-class family hauler and hoped the C-Max would match its build quality and offer a real alternative to traditional minivans and the Mazda5.

What version of the Mazda5 did you drive?

Good morning Warren and Lou Ann: I read with interest this week the news out of Detroit about General Motors and their goal of cutting costs in order to sustain long-term growth. G.M.'s chairman, Daniel F.Akerson, said of the U.S. auto industry: "There's a lot of turmoil in the business and turmoil means uncertainty." Could you share your thoughts about this, and how would you compare Mr. Akerson's style in running G.M. with that of Chrysler's Sergio Marchionne?

Well, we all know there is a lot of turmoil in the business. In any business. In our lives.

Both of them seemed thin-skinned to me when they came into power in the American car industry. Meaning, they were offended by what journalists said, even though most of it was fair. Both are getting better at understanding us and taking criticism. 

I would still list both companies as a ways to go before they are out of ICU.

Mr. Akerson is right. There is a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in the car business, largely because the people who drive at least 70 percent of that business, the everyday retail consumer, are out of work, working for lower pay, or trying to survive retirement without the pensions they were promised. Add to that the confusion over oil prices and availability, aggravated by the absence of anything resembling a bona fide national  U.S. energy policy. It would be nice if automobile manufacturers knew that consumers will actually buy the small cars they have on the drawing board. They don't. So, at the moment, they are taking a major gamble.

Meanwhile, banks are sitting on trillions of dollars of cash. Cash-stuffed employers aren't hiring or expanding. And sophomoric Washington politicians are behaving as if they are running a student council instead of a national  government. Makes me happy to be writing about car companies instead of actually running one of them.

Pay attention to the head rest. It pushes my head forward so it's uncomfortable. It was so bad it was a dealbreaker for me. I went into that dealership ready to buy, but it hurt my neck and back so much I walked out after 15 minutes of me and the salesman adjusting it. I'd like to know what you think. The salesman said it was because of new national safety rules, but I haven't had that problem in any of the other makes I've tried.

But I have, so the saleman may be right. I will ask. It is amazing that one obscure piece can be a deal breaker, but I agree. A headrest is important.

great point

Just curious, but may I ask why? I currently own a 2006 Ford Freestyle with the 3.0 liter Duratec and CVT combination. Took some getting used to but I like it. Thanks for your insights!

Because it doesn't seem to match the powerband of the engine on different road conditions like I can do with a manual. especially going up a hill when I'm merging into traffic on a highway. That's always a dangerous place to be and I put myself into a mother's position with children in the car. I want something that makes me feel safer. I would buy the manual nissan versa (for $10990) before I would buy the cvt automatic for a couple thousand more

I drove a Chevy Cruze rental car a couple of weeks ago. I liked it well enough but the seats seemed too hard to me. I see that there's a new small Buick on the horizon called the Verano which will be built on the same or a similar platform. Sounds like they put a lot of engineering into it. I hope they don't price it too high for the segment. I'm not sure how well the exterior design will age either... Any idea when it will be available?

It's coming out as a 2012 model, but should be here in October of 2011.

Buick is on a roll lately. Their designs, exterior and interior are so much better. I remember when I was in China 5-6 years ago and the Buicks there were so different from the Buicks here. As cars go global we get the benefit.

I think trhe Cruze's exterior design will age well, primarily because the people at Chevy have embraced the idea of using higher quality materials. Here's hoping that GM does not start cost-cutting itself back to mediocrity.

Hi. I am looking for a car that I will use almost exclusively for commuting in the city. Great gas milage and low cost are my main criteria. Any favorites?

That would be a hybrid or an electric car.

Hybrid gets its best mpg in the city. Electric vehicles (EV) are even cheaper! Imagine getting 4,000 mpg (see my first blog) about Mom Balch.

The Toyota Prius with 50 mpg, the Nissan Leaf EV and the Ford Focus EV are the best hybrids and electric vehicles that match your criteria.

Was the mileage quoted in the article the EPA estimate or actual?

The Genesis R-Spec mileage was surprisingly good. I got around 29 mpg, if I recall correctly--not bad for a high-horsepower performance car. But the gas was still expensive. The thing runs on premium.

Hey folks, pay a little closer attention please. "Can anything compete with the Mazda5" response: "have you looked at the Mazda5?" "an Infiniti isn't in the budget." response: "try the Infiniti G37." Not helpful!

You must be talking to Lou Ann. She likes expensive things. I suggest you take  a close look at the substantially more reasonable Ki Sorento.

Drove the Touring and Grand Touring models. Don't misunderstand: I'm not knocking the Mazda5, I was looking to see if there were any alternatives coming anytime soon in that very narrow niche market before I commit to buying a new family hauler. Thanks again.

Kia Sorento, seriously.

The Jetta TDI wagon comes with either 16" or 17" wheels. What's the difference? Is one supposed to look cooler than the other? Does one perform better than the other? Thanks.

17" inch-diameter wheels tend to look cooler and drive better than 16"-inch diameter wheels. It's a case where size does matter. Wheels and the tires that shod them are your contact patches with the road. Generally speaking, the larger the wheel/tire, the better your contact--except in snow and mud, where high-aspect ratio, well-siped tires do much better work.

While it may be gorgeous in a more compact package, it is hardly more fuel efficient than its full-size counterparts. Why can't we get a minivan that gets 30+ mpg on the highway? Where's the Chevy Orlando and Ford C-max Grand, or similar offering from Korea or Japan?

Another great question for Korea next week! Sales of minivans have been decreasing. Small cars are in. As CAFE requirements go up car companies are going to have to be careful about what they bring to market.

I believe that one or both of you have correctly commented that it is a good dog vehicle because of the flat floor AND interior height. Easy question does the van seat sit flat or come out easily? Hard questions: While I realize it is not a Mercedes, is it something you'd enjoy driving on a long trip, or more like a heavy duty pickup truck? The 2.0 engine may not be a problem, but I wonder whether the 4-speed transmission is geared for town or the suburbs as a delivery truck? Would ir be happy merging on 495, or keeping up with traffic on 95 north of Miami?

The 4-speed was a problem for me on the highway. The revs were high which meant it was less fuel efficient and it lacked power.

However, Ford has said that 90% of their vehicles will have ecoboost by 2013. As this vehicle gets more play (New York will be using them as taxis soon) expect it to get a redux.

Wait for the redux.

I have read/heard a number of reports recently claiming that used cars are relatively expensive right now compared to new cars. Is that your perception as well, and if so, do you expect it to last? I ask because I have been looking at buying a used car in the 40k mileage range, and if I can the same model brand new for only $3-$5k more, I might be willing to brave the hassle of a new car dealership.

Over the past three months, used cars prices have risen markedly. That's fact, not perception. A phenomenon of multiple causes, including product shortages caused by Japan's tsunami/earthquake. But the causes are more systemic. We actually have nearly 25 million people out of work in this country. Others are struggling along with lower wages. Those people tend not to buy new cars. They hold onto their old cars, or buy used models when they buy. Thus, used car prices rise. Look for a thaw, ironically, in October.

I'm looking at cars and the headrest issue is present in many, many of them. It makes it impossible to sit unless you recline the seat beause of how far forward it pushes your head. Are safety standards written to protect the dopes that like to lie down when they drive?

:) I think they're written for whiplash issues.

Whiplash is a big concern for safety and for insurance companies. I haven't verified this, (but will) but think that is the reason NHTSA has changed the headrest law.

I will have an answer in two weeks.

Thanks for the recommendations. How does your answer change if I emphasize low monthly payment/total cost of car over the mileage (but still want good mileage). We just moved (hence the need for a new way to commute) and don't have a ton of room in the monthly budget right now.

Who does have a ton of money in the monthly budget? Consider the 2012 Hyundai Elantra, 4o MPG using regular gas, reasonably priced, well made, high safety ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Traffic Safety Administration.

91 Honda Accord with about 249K. Runs great. There some oil leakage, but nothing big. I recently moved - my old mechanic would just clean the engine up when he changed the oil. I don't live near any mechanics now, so have been going to a "box store" for oil changes. They suggested I have my engine steam cleaned and said they could put dye in the system to determine where the leak is coming from. Is it worth it? I could go to a "real" mechanic, although it would be a little drive and require more time to wait for an oil change. Is it worth doing that to develop a relationship (and pay $35/oil change vs $20)?

Yes, clean the engine and get the car fixed. Makes more sense than another car note and all of its attendant charges at this time.

Warren, Suggest anyone who needs snow tires and wheels check out Radial Tire in SIlver Spring, MD. I have been dealing with Paul, the owner and his staff for 24 years now. I make trip these days from Clifton. They are also great for your your tire needs for the other 3 seasons. There out the door price beats Tire rack by a significant margin. Paul is a UMD alumni and racer. Clifton VA

And here is hoping that they give non-sales pitch tire tutorials. That would help. I'm finding that many motorists just don't know much about tires. A good tutorial from someone in the business would help.

I have been a Honda/Acura driver for 35 years and am now ready to trade my 2005 TL 6 speed manual for something with 4 cyl , but still manual. It looks like it will still be a while until manual TSX's will be arrivin gin the US . Alternatives,please?

An Audi A4 FSI or TDI.

Warren, any others?

Warren, When one increases wheel size and goes to a wider tire the shape of the tire contact patch changes but the total area of the contact patch remains the same no matter how wide you go. As you go wider the tire contact patch gets wider and shorter. Wider tires mean less psi per inch and therefor less traction in rain, snow, and mud. clifton VA

So, I was right?

Thanks everyone for the wonderful questions. You always give Warren and I more to think about. Dominique, have a great time on your vacation. Warren and Maryann, have a great weekend.

And remember - never drive faster than your angel can fly.

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 Recently Lou Ann has developed an automotive and energy issues related website,, that covers a broader range of subjects than solely the automotive or the energy industry.
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