Real Wheels Live

Aug 19, 2011

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

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Just when we thought it was safe to push for better fuel economy, an average 54.6 miles per gallon by 2025, Tea Party Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann promises to deliver the already cheapest gasoline in the developed world at $2 a gallon. Let's see: We ask the car companies to spend billions on more fuel-efficient, generally more expensive cars. Then we give consumers gasoline at prices that make buying those cars unnecessary from a pocket-book point of view. Is that political leadership, or more populist pandering? Let's discuss.

Looking for a new vehicle and we have narrowed it down to the 2012 Honda Pilot and the 2011/2012 Toyota Highlander. Really interested in the 3rd row seating since we have little ones now and need to transport other family members on occasion. Both vehicle are pretty comparative as far as price, fuel mileage and amenities which are important to us. Any recommendations on which one to get?

From Warren Brown:

Either choice is good here. Both are high-quality, reliable, mid-size SUVs. I'd shop for the best deal. Caveat: Measure which vehicle has a third seat arrangement farthest from the rear door. Distance, in this case, could be a matter of life or death.

Good morning - love your chat. I love cars and have had many - all different styles and types. Now I am in the mood for a convertible. Do you have an opinion of the VW EOS ? Small, I know for an 'only car.' But I love the sunroof + convertible idea. How about dependability ? I am going to start by looking at used - 2008 or 2009. Will it still be dependable in another 3 years ?

Dependability, reliability are fine. Get the top-of-the line Eos for best enjoyment. Otherwise, to me, it's a pretty boring little convertible. I frankly much prefer the Mazda MX-5 Miata, which also can be had with the hardtop convertible feature. The MX-5 Miata is much more fun on the road.

After a couple months of research, test drives and a lot of tire kicking of most vehicles in the class, I'm close to buying a 2011 Mazda AWD CX9. Beside some cosmetic bells and whistles, the top trim line comes with 20" wheels vs. 18" on the other trims. Besides visual appeal, what is the real world driving impact of different sized wheels on the same vehicle? While I have you, I'm curious your thoughts on the CX9? Any big "gotchas" I may have missed in my research? The runner-up for me was the Highlander. I'm shedding a tear as I have to trade in my '03 Acura doesn't quite fit the 6'3" driver, twin infants and a dog. Sigh...

The CX9 happens to be one of my favorite crossover utility vehicles, primarily because Mazda understands that there is still sex after marriage and children and has designed and engineered the CX9 to express that vigor. Larger wheels/tires have more than visual effect. Larger wheels/tires also affect fuel economy--usually negatively. If you are buying in a harsh winter environment, arrange with your dealer to switch out the standard "all-season" radials for real winter tires. Hope this helps.

Which one am I more likely to still be happy with in 10 years? Primarily interested in performance and reliability. I don't have kids or pets and don't routinely haul bulky cargo, but would like a more flexible interior configuration than I can get in a sedan. Thanks.

I'd go with the Toyota Rav4 V-6.

Hi Warren, I've been a big fan of Honda since our family purchased an Accord way back in the late 80's and we have all since gone on to drive Hondas since then. I've always loved their combination of styling, excellent ergonomics, thrifty yet rev-happy engines and amazing dependability. Lately though, they've ushered in pretty blah designs that are a step back from the models they replace and their commitment to quality interiors is a bit lacking. It reminds me of what happened when GM stopped paying attention to design and offering quality products, though thankfully they seem dedicated to turning that around with their new offerings . Any thoughts on this?

I agree. It proves that we're all human, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Part of being human is having the gumption to get up when you're knocked down, or you screw up and fall, which explains a now resurgent GM, Ford and Chrysler. I'm not worried about Honda.  It's a good company with good people and generally good products that needs to rediscover its mojo. Honda can start by firing its outside advertising agencies which lately seem to be doing their best to make their client look silly.

Hi Warren, I currently own a '08 Elantra which has served me well, but want something a little bigger and dare I say it, fancier. I'm looking at the Sonata, but have also fallen in love with the Infiniti brand, especially the G25. It seems like an apples to oranges comparison, but would like your opinion about which will serve me well in the long haul. I plan to keep my next vehicle for as long as possible. Thanks!

It is a bit apples and oranges. But I'd take the faster, more fun-to-drive Infiniti G25 over the Sonata any day. Which isn't putting down the Sonata. It's a darned nice car, especially the Sonata Limited. But, for the time being, stay away from the good-looking, but poorly performing (in terms of driving pleasure) Sonata Hybrid.

Got any insight into when GM will introduce the new Chevy Malibu? The present model is a huge improvement over the last one. Can GM continue this trend?

GM can continue the trend. And it had better do so. The competition isn't sleeping, as evidenced by Hyundai's stunning success. A new Malibu. I look for a 2012 intro for 2013 model year. Keep moving. GM!

The family hauler is a CX-9 which we love. I have a 10 mile commute, 8 of it highway (actual hwy, not DC stop-n-go). I currently commute in a '98 Protege w/137K miles. Other than the commute, it is only used for short solo errands and VERY rarely my 3-yr-old rides along in the back. Mazda3, Focus, Elantra? Or Mazda2, Fiesta, Accent? Or keep driving the Protege 'til it won't? It's not really giving me any major problems; I'd just like to enjoy the drive a little more.

Keep driving the Protege, which effectively is an early-version Mazda3, until it won't run. Then, replace it with a Mazda3, or a near-equivalent Ford Focus. You can't go wrong either way. Why not the Fiesta or the Accent? Kids grow. They turn 16. I like them in a bigger car.

Hi Warren, Will you recommend a car that can easily carry a bicycle in the back that costs around $20,000? I'm 5' tall so I'm trying to avoid SUVs. Thank you!

Try to get one of the last remaining Honda Elements, perfect for cyclists. If you can't do that, check out the compact, easy-to-drive Chevrolet Equinox or Ford Escape. The Rav4 from Toyota also will serve you well here. Best value may be at Kia with the Sportage.

Warren, how would you compare the MB E Series vs. BMW 5 series in terms of quality, value and driveability? Thankyou.

Both are comparable matches in terms of quality and reliability. I prefer the MB E-Series because, although I love driving, driving ultimately becomes work. The E-Series offers a more comfortable environment in which to do that work. That the BMW 5-Series is touted as one of the "ultimate driving machines" speaks for itself.

In the peak oil world, the only way we will get $2 gas again is if we have a demand quashing global recession. Bachmann way be just the one to do it.

I don't know if Bachmann is the one to muster in a growth-crushing global recession. Current world leaders seem to be accomplishing that pretty much on their own. But her $2-a-gallon populist pandering does not give me much faith in her economic or, as important, environmental common sense. Rather disappointing, I'd say.

Is it smart to get a car you know they won't make any more? Will it be hard to get parts?

Yes, especially if the price is right. Don't worry about parts. Honda will have enough available to service anything it sells.

Thanks for your earlier response. I take it from your answer then the there's no difference in traction, cornering, acceleration or braking between the sizes? I've also read that larger wheels/lower aspect ratio causes harsher ride. In everyday situations, is it that noticeable or just a subtle difference car reviewers focus on?

Low-aspect ratio radials (referring to the distance between tread and rim) are great for dry-road, high-speed running and handling, which is why driving performance nuts love them. But they generally offer a rather harsh ride for the rest of us, especially if they are the run-flat variey (referring to their engineered ability to keep going another 50 miles at about 50 mph) after total deflation. At any rate, avoid low-aspect ratio tires in harsh winter climates. They will leave you on the side of the road, regardless of the cost or excellent design and engineering of the car wearing them. If you are not into super performance driving, get normal aspect ratio tires for everyday driving. Get real winter tires for real winter weather driving.

We've owned a PT Cruiser for 10 years and looking to replace it. Benefits have been that it fits 5 comfortably, lots of head room, and good cargo carrying capability. However, no large SUVs for us (the PT 's small foot print has always been a big plus) because we are city dwellers and use on-street parking. Bonus for manual transmission. Any thoughts on what to consider?


Best Value--Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sportage, Kia Sorento for larger crowd.

Excellent value: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Escape, Honda CRV, Toyota Rav4

Hi Warren, I have seen you warn about this many times and always appreciate your safety reminders. Is this a concern with minivans as well, or are they built differently? Thanks!

Yes. The somber part of what I do is spending a lot of time looking at traffic fatalities and injuries. As a result, I am convinced from empirical observation that most third row seats, in minivans, crossover utility vehicles, or SUVs, don't make much sense. They are especially dangerous for occupants, usually small children who get put back their, if those occupants are not properly belted or otherwise restrained. I am sure that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are looking at this. Check with them. I will.

Good morning, Warren. As I drive around the San Francisco Bay Area, where I reside, I see more and more imports ~ Hondas, Toyotas, Mazdas, even BMWs and Mercedes ~ and fewer and fewer models from the Big Three U.S. automakers. What you do think needs to be done by the Big Three to be more competitive? And which of the Big Three ~ Chrysler, G.M. and Ford ~ do you think has positioned itself best to compete with the import market?

The Detrot companies have been weak on the West Coast, north and south, for nearly two decades now. That's because Detroit for too long had practically ignored cars and what people wanted in cars. They pushed trucks, which is why you see so many Detroit trucks in California, Oregon and Washington State farming communities. Detroit has gotten smarter lately and is doing much, much better with cars. But it will take some more time for West Coast consumers to realize and appreciate that change.

May have to replace my '03 P.T. Cruiser in the next year or so. Of our two cars, it's the most family friendly (what does that tell you?) so I'm looking to get something a little bigger. We only have one child but often have other family members with us. We don't need a minivan, and thank goodness because they are pricey. Was thinking maybe a station wagon, like an older Volvo. Or maybe an Element. Any tips? Would like to stay under $20,000.

For bike transportation the Honda Element beats anybody's station wagon.

Warren - We're looking at American (for work reasons) mid-size SUV's, focusing on the Acadia and new Explorer. Any tips? Thanks!

The Acadia.

Does (should) using A/C have any impact on my car's ability to accelerate? I feel like it does, but can't tell if I'm just imagining things. Also, what happened to the new minivan Ford was supposed to rollout? thanks.

Quick anser: Yes. Anything that drains power, AC or other, affects acceleration, which requires power. Perhaps, though, the major effect of trying to power both is more fuel consumption.

Thank you all for joining us today. Please come back next week. Thank you, Gaurav Jain, for a fine production. Thank you, Ria Manglapus, for all that you do to help keep the colum and chat line going. Eat lunch.

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

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