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.