Why most car reviews suck

Holden Piazza

Having just come out of a brief stint working for a car company, I am now entitled to claim that I know everything 🙂 …. So sit back, put your feet up and I’ll give you the good oil on why most car reviews suck.

Reason 1 – The BMW E30

I believe it’s possible to divide the history of car reviews into two periods – ‘pre-E30’ and ‘post-E30’.

I wasn’t that long out of short pants when I found myself doing a double-take one day, when what I later learned was an E30 BMW drove past me on the streets of Melbourne. It was compact, lean and aggressive. It looked toight. I even found myself *gasp* admiring it.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that car would prove to be a cornerstone in the undoing of the entire automotive press industry.

Over the years that followed, the mid-late 1980s, I got more into the Fords and Holdens that I and my friends had and enjoyed. Life was filled with Toranas, Falcons (and yes, even Holden Geminis). The growth of BMW wasn’t something I noticed at all. They don’t write about BMWs much in Street Machine magazine.

I drifted from the car scene during my 20s as I moved to another state, went to University, got on with life, etc. It was never that far from my consciousness, but remained mostly in the background. As a broke uni student, I couldn’t afford to be too much into cars, anyway. With the emergence of the internet and greater access to information, I found myself reading more about cars once again. I started to think about writing, too (voila!).

As I familiarised myself with the decade-or-so of motoring history that I’d missed, I noticed a whole bunch of references to BMW. It seemed like there was barely a motoring writer out there who hadn’t driven a BMW and absolutely adored it. The phrases “pin-sharp steering” and “handles like it’s on rails” were burned into my retina, though they were a distant second and third to the group of phrases that I encountered the most.

Phrases like “it’s not as finished as the Beemer…” or “it’s nice, but the 3-series has it covered in …”

BMW had become the benchmark for everything except the most exotic supercars. The BMW M3, it seemed, had dulled the experience of driving anything else to a point where even in a non-BMW segment review, there’d still be someone waffling on about how your money would be best spent on something Teutonic (and yes, this was the era when ‘Teutonic’ moved into the common motoring man’s lexicon).

Before the E30, the motoring world seemed to have this wondrous variety of brands, each bringing something to the table that would gain your attention. We looked more at points of interest and accepted that everything was a compromise, that the perfect car was yet to be invented. Cars were luxurious. They were fast. They were economical. They were spacious. They were cheap. They were rarely a combination of more than two of those attributes.

We lusted after the car that could satisfy our most basic urges and it didn’t matter if it left us wanting in other areas. It served us or excited us in the way we needed it to. And even when a car had some superb attributes, it was most likely still fundamentally flawed in other areas. Ask anyone who’s had a big, superb sounding V8 from the malaise era and tried to take it around a corner. Or anyone who’s owned an early boxer Alfa Romeo and left it out in the rain.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that the best cars are indeed flawed. They’re cars that frustrate us, make us angry, perhaps they fall to bits in one particular area. But they also do something – it just has to be one damn beautiful thing – that makes us amazingly happy.

The BMW E30 did several things amazingly well. What’s more, it paved the way for years of BMW’s that captured the imaginations of automotive writers the world over. So much so, that any upwardly mobile professional with the slightest bit of self-respect wouldn’t dare turn up at the golf club in anything else. His/her friends had all read the same reviews and compared the same competition.

The E30 and its progeny made the motoring press believe that we could have it all and we’ve been demanding exactly that, ever since.

I guess if I’m going to make Reason 1 make more sense, I best move on to Reason 2….

Reason 2 – The internet

We have a lot to be thankful for when it comes to the Internet. It offers us an endless variety of information on any subject and it’s certainly not short on automotive content. If fact, that might be part of the problem.

The web is now teeming with would-be automotive writers, all clamouring for their piece of the new electronic pie. Many of them actually do a pretty good job, but there’s a large portion that are in the space simply because the web has few barriers to entry.

The fundamental rule that ‘Content is King’ still applies to some extent, but along with it comes the need to be socially connected, search-engine-optimised and of course, clickworthy. We’ve seen television and print media take shortcuts to gain viewers/readers. With the web it’s happening all over again, but twice as fast.

Every website is vying to be the newest, hippest, most switched-on and connected site it can be. They’re all watching trends and responding to ‘what the people want’ – even if nobody really knows what that is.

How does this manifest itself in the new online automotive media?

For a while there, it was all about the BMWs mentioned in Reason 1. Straying outside the mantra meant that you weren’t connected, you weren’t knowledgeable and as a consequence, your review had no authority. Your readers, who statistics will tell you are only 5 seconds away from clicking the ‘back’ button anyway, will see your anaemic drivel for what it is.

Fail to mention ‘turn-in’, the measurement of Lateral G’s and a vehicle’s platform mates (especially if it’s a GM vehicle) and it’s obvious you’re not familiar with what the reader needs to know. Extra points are awarded for an historical reference or an adjective in the native language from the vehicle’s country of origin (in italics, please).

The information age – which allows people to read about what other people think they should want – combined with a legislative system that almost forces designers to converge in the name of safety, has led us all to pursue a particular set of idealist automotive values. This checklist of common terms could well be given out at motor shows, so ubiquitous is today’s method for car reviews.

The fact is this – we’re all converging in our thinking in a manner that’s as ludicrous as it is scary. And the consequences can be serious for both consumers and manufacturers. When Toyota had what should have been just a small scare and subsequent investigation into why some vehicles failed to stop in some instances, it became much, much bigger because of the wildfire nature of the press, the online press in particular.

The unintended acceleration debacle proved once and for all that 10,000 monkeys can indeed be wrong. Luckily for Toyota, they had the financial resource to make good the repairs that ‘had’ to be done in order to soothe the public’s apprehension about their products (and truth be known, they’re still battling the misconception that their cars, rather than some consumers, were at fault).

The end result of this quest for perfection over identity, combined with a saturation media landscape that’s almost infected with groupthink – car reviews, for the most part, suck.

The truth is, in the modern automotive world, most cars made by most manufacturers can satisfy the needs of most consumers. The needs that any vehicle doesn’t satisfy completely are usually a reasonable trade-off for what the rest of the deal offers. Thanks to modern design and manufacturing techniques, cars have become so good that writers are falling all over themselves to pick some sort of fault, either to prove that they were paying attention, or simply in order to have something to say.

To combine reason 1 and reason 2 together…..

We have an automotive industry that’s striving for perfection, even at the expense of character, and believes its product can indeed be all things to all people. And we have an automotive media that desperately wants to be the one to tell you it can, or can’t (as long as it’s got a suitably intelligent and hip-culturally relevant reason why).

——

It would be rather disingenuous of me to identify what I think is a problem without offering a solution. But I don’t have one.

Maybe the solution lies in writers acknowledging that they don’t know everyone’s needs?

Maybe it’s something to do with discovering the joy of driving once again and writing about it, identifying what a car can do to contribute to that experience rather than concentrating on what it can’t?

Maybe the best reviewers will be the ones that put a car in a situation typical for that vehicle and write about the experience. That’d be more interesting then regurgitated numbers from a press kit. Perhaps magazine writers had it right all along, and websites will get it one day.

Maybe people should get along to their dealerships and just test drive the damn thing for themselves.

I can’t claim to have all the answers. All I know is what I see – a lot of very worthy vehicles falling by the wayside as people forget the joy that can be had in owning a motor vehicle while they concentrate on the metrics of owning one.

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16 Comments

  1. So true !!

    I even think there is a Reason 2b called dependance.

    Because of internet, and because so many people want to make money out of writing about cars, they have become dependent on the information they can get from the automotive industry.

    You can write reports on cars without even having seen that car on flesh, you get enough information from the car manufacturers press site.

    But this is not a one sided dependance, it is more a symbiosis. I’ve been in at the Frankfurt motor show during normal days, on trade days and on press days. And being there on press days makes you feel like king for a day. Press people are treated incredibly well, and this is only because the car industry needs them to spread the news the car industry wants the press to spread and also in the format they want, one example; the ATS videos. They had zero information at all, they were based on 3-4 weeks of development of the total 2-3 Years, but you could read everywhere that people where thinking that the ATS was developed by driving rounds in a race track.

    All that said, I have also to admit that during the last year I was also kind of dependant. 😎

  2. I don’t know how much credit to give to any reviewer(s) on the success of failure of a car. Certainly, with theater and restaurants, a major reviewer’s praise or condemnation will spell success or failure, without exception. I’m just not sure who it is who is reading all these car reviews, and which ones, if any, actually change buying habits. I’m too much an insider myself and have far too many prejudices to have a clear view.

    I do recall that when I was a kid, long before the internet age, car reviews mattered to me. There just weren’t that many of them. I truly believed in what was said at Road and Track and Car and Driver, later Automobile. But we also knew in those days that the folks at Consumer Reports were boobs, and if you wrote about cars for a major newspaper you were clearly second rate. It was the monthly magazines which held sway, and yes, I convinced my parents to buy a car based on an initial review in Road and Track.

    Nice to be reading you again, Swade!

  3. A great read Swade. Ever thought there are people throughout the globe who are interested in how you see things, regardless of what it’s about. There’s a guy in the UK who writes for the Telegraph who also has a love for cars. He writes about all sorts of stuff and it’s always worth a read.

    Back to the plot.
    In most aspects, I consider myself slightly above the average. That’s means to me that there are more people in the world who cannot see that an abundance of media attention can manipulate your judgement. We often believe the masses over the minority and we are more likely to believe to words of a friend over the media. However; all it takes is your friend to believe what a journalist has written for you to take it as fact too. Multiply that a thousand fold and it doesn’t take long for the masses to believe that BMW make the best cars in the world. Sadly; I believe the media has become lazy and will regurgitate other sources instead of investigating it themselves. So instead of finding out that company X has got it wrong, what we get is thousands of articles reporting false information, which in turn changes the opinion of readers, who will divulge their interpretation as fact to friends, family, social media sites and forums. The internet has become a wild fire of chinese whispers.

    There is a solution to stop this and it is very simple.
    Stop being a lamb.
    Take what journalists write with a pinch of salt.
    Cross reference it with other independent sources, who haven’t copy and pasted.
    Go check it out yourself.
    Form your own opinion.

    Bottom line is we need to become individuals again, unfortunately there are many who are subservient to peer pressure and as obnoxious and arrogant as it may seem, Sadly a lot of those people are just too thick to educate that they need to open their minds to free thinking and not believe everything they read and watch.

  4. Thanks gents. Appreciate you dropping by.

    WooDz – the part you say about checking things out for yourself is the key. It’s so easy to live vicariously today. Sometimes the amount of connection we all have is a dangerous thing.

  5. Cannot agree more Swade. It’s almost as if most reviews fail to focus on the actual car at hand, and what little sustenance is provided is simply somebody else’s warped opinion. Id would rather be provided facts and draw my own conclusions, not be told how I feel about something. I think perhaps the authors of the stereotypical “not a bimmer” review lack the objectivity to step back and view the product for what it is.

  6. Google is just an extraordinary machine 😉

    So good to be able to read you Swade here again. You write like noone else about cars in a personal way style which is unique and make our reading so enjoyable.

    I can not figure that such a skill would not interest anybody.

    Take good care of you and be sure that for any brand you could write for your skill will be as recognisable as successful.

    Cheers,

    Rémi

  7. Many times I’ve heard that BMW ruined a whole generation of ride quality (for other marques) by making their cars so sweet to steer that you forgave/forgot the lumps and bumps being transmitted through the oversized wheels and sport suspension. Journalists of course were not immune to this and thus it came to the point where everything has to turn in like a 3-series coupe, even a Range Rover or such. Somehow I get the impression the wheel has turned a full revolution. CAR magazine often comment these days how they prefer to spec cars with their smaller wheelsets in order to get a more compliant ride.

    Much as I love sports cars & the feel of accurate turn-in, I like my rider quality too.

  8. Let’s coin a new term: ‘turn-out.’ It’s the feeling when you mash the throttle coming out of a corner and get pushed forward to the next apex.
    It’s not a BMW thing, so it probably won’t catch on.

  9. Hello Swade!

    Good reasons… I think you’ve hit it pretty well. For me, it comes down to honesty. That’s what I always appreciate about your writing. You write what you believe. You write from the heart. You write passionately about something you’re passionate about. What’s not to like?

    Funny you mention the e30. I remember defending it even way back on TS when I first found the site. I’ve owned 3 of them, and to me, they hit a sweet spot in the recent history of cars for their simplicity and their drive-ability. On the other hand, my 9000 Aero hit a similar sweet spot by being about twice as practical, giving up props only in the handling department.

    PT – the e30 BMW came with 14″ wheels, with 195/65 tires. The “iS” (only in Europe) and “iX” later came with 15″, 205/55 tires. Even the e30 M3 came with 205/55/15s. I think that the tastes of the automotive buying public wrecked ride quality when they always demanded larger wheels to make the car look “better”.

    Cheers, and welcome back,
    ~Peter
    Current ride: ’89 325iX
    Past rides: ’85 325e
    ’89 325iS
    ’93 9000 Aero
    More to come:

  10. Indeed, it is all about the experience to drive the thing in itself, rather than copy-paste all the mantras again in the mind copied from some car review, who copied that from another car review, who copied that from another car review, who copied that from another car review, who copied that from another car review, who copied that from another car review, who copied that from another car review, who copied that from another car review, … which results maybe, only maybe, in 1% of genuity.

  11. I’ll go one further than BMW being responsible. I’ve written before that I think two makes have essentially “won” the luxury automotive wars and now all cars are being made to those standards.

    BMW: Dynamics, performance and general conceptual philosophy
    Lexus: Comfort, dash design, controls quality and mechanics (creamy smooth!)

    Even Audi’s ascent has been basically by being a better BMW/Lexus (better dynamics, creamier operation, better wood quality!). This has had the sad effect of essentially obliterating the character of certain brands, especially the national qualities of certain brands. The media has made it such that if you’re not aiming for BMW/Lexus benchmarks, why show up?

    The brand I’m most sad this has happened to is Jaguar. There is no doubt that Jaguar had gotten stale and needed to update, but the new Jaguars, impressive as they are, still don’t feel, well, Jaguar-y, or really different enough from the contemporary BMW/Lexus philosophy to stand out. Don’t get me wrong. They’re outstanding cars, but they don’t feel special or different in the ways the cars of old did. Cut off the front clip from the XF and remove the badging inside and out, and that car could be from any automaker.

    Too bad.

    1. You make a good point, Liari. I was watching the Speed channel on Youtube tonight – their preview of the 2012 NAIAS. They were talking about the Cadillac ATS and how it was “going after” the 3-series. My first thought was “if that’s really true, then they’ve already lost the fight”.

      If all you’re trying to do is reach someone else’s achievement, then you’re never going to move the needle. Someone’s got to keep pushing forward, or else we’ll all end up in the same thing.

      1. Peter Delorenzo commented on this on his “Autoextremist” site, slamming GM marketing for essentially calling-out the 3-series in its video previews. He predicts that unless the ATS is clearly superior, this will lead to a flurry of, “Cadillac aimed high but fell a bit short” downer articles about their new product. He’s probably right… I still nevertheless predict that if the ATS is 85% of a 3 series, it’ll we a smash hit in the US, especially if they do a world-beating V-Series halo version.

        Give Cadillac a bit of credit, though (which none of us who care about Saab are necessarily inclined to do right this moment, I know), for coming up with a visual style that, love it or hate it, is not only unique, but somehow uniquely American. Lincoln is struggling (badly) to do this right now and it’s the major challenge of every “national” luxury brand (we’re watching Volvo experiment with this in real time with their somewhat odd concept cars of late). For example, does the Jaguar C-X16 concept really look like England or more like the next gen Nissan Z?

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