Why Car Journalism Today Sucks
Starts with the Ford Edsel; doesn't end there.
- Test Drives
The vast majority of reviews we read are trash. Movie reviews, restaurant reviews—you name it, there’s some no-name being paid to write about it. They probably aren’t paid much, and you better believe that anyone over the age of 25 reviewing anything is 1.) amortizing their lack of a vacation budget with a greasy treadmill of five-star junkets to Beverly Hills and Dubai, or 2.) writing reviews as a hobby and most likely doesn’t have the authority to advise you on much of anything.
Before we get to how this applies to cars—the disastrous Ford Edsel was a critical darling when it debuted in showrooms on Sept. 4, 1957—let’s establish my critical bona fides.
My brief screenwriter career had a second act. Some years after I was fired by wild-eyed Horscht—the producer who hired me to write a script about time-traveling Nazis called Nazi Stargate—he rehired me. This time I was getting paid. I was ready to sell out. Hollywood, baby. Everybody is one deal away from the big win.
Little did I know that, while I was ready to stretch my already low standards into a literary goatse, I remained, compared to my peers, a titan of principle. My second act went exactly like the first. I was too earnest. Too honest. I was fired. Again.
And so, seven years ago, I moved my principles and writing career over to the car industry.
What Do You Really Think of the Porsche Panamera?
You think you’re a Porsche guy, with your leased 991? That’s pretty weak. I own an old Targa and a manual 928. I’m a Porsche guy’s Porsche guy. Like a lot of car guys, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. My father was a Porsche guy. For guys like me and my dad, who were destined for allegiance to a specific brand, it’s difficult when that brand does something...controversial.
The first column of my career was a no-brainer. The new Panamera was coming out, and, as usual, I had a lot to say. I was working for a publication you probably know. I’m not afraid to name names. I just don’t want to out them now, so many years later, when they’ve evolved into something I respect, and the editor involved is long gone. He was an asshole, obviously, and still is, but that’s another story. I was hired with some fanfare, and I foolishly assumed my C-grade celebrity would grant me the freedom to write what I pleased. To wit:
Imagine a freak tornado passed through Zuffenhausen, tearing the roof off of Porsche’s vaunted design studio. By some miracle, the final sketches for a four-door sedan remain, unmolested, on designer Michael Mauer’s desk. Now imagine a flock of birds, having recently fed on the livestock felled by this freak occurrence, flying over said design studio. Their putrid droppings collect on Mauer’s sketch—recently greenlit by Porsche CEO Wendelin Wiedeking—and, since Mauer is on vacation, it is handed off as-is for production. What other explanation is there for the exterior of the Porsche Panamera?
As quickly as I was hired. I was fired. You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to know that Porsche had just signed on for a big advertising campaign. Even if they hadn’t, such negativity is apostasy in automotive journalism. It deters advertisers. I bitched, I moaned. Nothing could be done. I was out. What about Jeremy Clarkson? I asked. He says what he wants. You’re not Jeremy Clarkson. Surely there is a place for criticism, I argued. But it was too late. I didn’t get it, said my editor, and I never would.
I wondered if there was a home for real journalism?
A Second Act in Automotive Journalism
My next gig was for a lesser online publication. I chose once again to ignore the lessons of my screenwriting career. I was given the choice of picking any current production car and writing an op-ed. Carte blanche, baby. It was too easy. I chose the Maybach 57/62. Rumors suggested it might be discontinued, and deservedly so. What could go possibly wrong?
The two-tone exterior of the Maybach 57/62 is truly a dream. A dream in which a pair of Weimar-era prostitutes, having lived long enough to see the fall of Berlin and the Berlin Wall, decide to come out of retirement. The don their finest silk nightgowns, one in black, one in purple. But their customers are all dead. They should have stayed retired. Much like the Maybach brand. The Maybach 57/62 “sedan” is a bloated, dead-on-arrival, tackily-executed tribute to an idea that came, went and returned in the form of the SUV. Someone on the product side made a very big mistake.
You can imagine how that went over. Clearly, writing about cars wasn’t my thing. Not reviews, at least.
Why Do People Read Reviews?
There are two types of people in this world. People who know what they want, and people that don’t. Real car guys know what they want. As a lifelong Porsche guy, I know that unless the new 911 has a spontaneous combustion rate above 5%, I will always want the latest 911. It literally does not matter to Porsche guys whether the new Ferrari is 1% better in any respect. I won’t be seen in one. And nor will my girlfriend. The reciprocal is true of real Ferrari guys.
Real cars guys read reviews for two reasons: 1) to validate their loyalty to their brand, and 2) to have something to argue about at Cars & Coffee in defense of their brand.
Those for whom cars are mere appliances are different. What they want isn’t driven primarily by brand, but by fulfillment of basic transportation needs. A few options would be nice, but the overwhelming majority of people will be satisfied with literally anything in their price range. Guess what? The overwhelming majority of cars are good. Better in almost every measurable way than the equivalent cars of ten years ago. Virtually everything is quantifiably better than anything made twenty or thirty years ago. Safer, faster, more economical.
I don’t care about reviews. If I do, it’s for entertainment value, and it must be by someone like Zach Bowman or Chris Harris. I recently asked my old friend J.F. Musial, the founder of /Drive, what he thought of the perennial AMG vs. M debate. He rolled his eyes. Musial has driven everything. Literally, everything. He’s also spent more time with the designers and engineers behind the scenes than any automotive journalist I’ve ever met. He doesn’t review cars, and he’s the most blisteringly honest friend I have in the industry. What are his exact words every single time I ask him about Model X, Y or Z?
It’s very hard to buy a bad car.
What Most Automotive Journalism Does
Musial hit the nail on the head. If it’s difficult to buy a bad car, what is the point of “automotive journalism?” Let’s be honest. There is very little “journalism” going in the automotive press. There are reviews/comparos, and there is news. Compared to Europe, racing coverage is pretty much non-existent in the United States. There’s a little bit of op-ed like what I write. Automotive news is 80% regurgitated press releases and shared Facebook posts about supercar accidents.
What does automotive journalism actually do that provides tangible benefit to anyone?
It entertains. The best sports car comparos are wildly entertaining. Every publication has one or two guys who are great at this. Such comparos are pure pornography, and the very best are obscenely fun. Even I don’t get to drive everything, and so I, like you, live vicariously through people like Bowman and Harris. Why shouldn’t we? Such entertainment is cheap, if not free. The very best of anything is out of reach to all but the 1% and a handful of reviewers. From Bugatti Type 35’s to 2016 Veyrons, all this has happened before, and will happen again. A great comparo never gets old, as old cars become classics.
Car comparos are the only porn we can all agree on. In a world full of strife, we should all be grateful such harmless fun is so widely available.
What Automotive Journalism Never Does
How does automotive journalism actually help people who just need transportation? Let’s look at what such people really need. They need comparative info. That doesn’t require much “journalism.” An intern with an English degree can do this, and often does. Compile specs, put them side-by-side, add some pithy remarks, enjoy your press junket and voila! Journalism. Pulitzer-prize winning work, this will never be.
(O.K., O.K., Dan Neil won a Pulitzer, but he’s a real writer who just so happens to write car reviews. Read just one of his "Rumble Seat" columns in the Wall Street Journal and you might not see it. Read five reviews and two op-eds and it’s clear why. He’s not using the AutoWriters Mad Libs.)
It might be hard to buy a bad car, but it’s easy to find a bad deal. A good car becomes a bad car when it’s a bad deal. Guess what car reviewers don't do? They don’t get into pricing. Retail new-car pricing, yes, but not real world pricing. Look at any of the major car mags. The reviews include history, the lazy use of a thesaurus, and comparison with the prior generation of the same model. What does the average consumer do with this information? They head off to two or more dealerships and begin negotiations for whatever’s on the lot, and the majority become victims to the arcana of car dealer salesmanship. There’s a reason car salesmen are among the most hated people in America. And not just America.
The First Thing Automotive Journalism Should Be Doing
The major car publications occasionally run a story explaining the vagaries of car shopping, but such pieces are utterly separated from comparos and reviews. If you want a real education on car shopping, you need to read Consumer Reports’ annual car buying issue. It’s not free, even online. Nor should it be. They’re a non-profit. Real information takes real research, and costs real money. But even CR doesn’t compile data on reputable dealerships. For that consumers must go online and search the forums. This takes time. Time most people don’t have. And so they take their chances on the battlefields of dealerships nationwide.
That this gap exists is truly odd. Car mags clearly don’t want to upset the manufacturers whose good graces are required for access to press cars, but car dealers? No one likes car dealers, and yet none of the big legacy car mags have integrated dealer-level reviews into their web presences. Where is the real-time data on factory incentives? Why not build it into a dynamic pricing engine on the same page as the car review? Wait. Someone is doing this, sort of. Numerous car-shopping sites exist, but again, their pricing content isn’t mated to real reviews. By real reviews, I mean the handful of reviews by real writers with authoritative knowledge at the big car mags. Check out the “reviews” at pure car shopping sites. They are written by interns, or seem to be. Impressive? Not so much.
But all is not lost, for there is GREAT automotive journalism out there. You have to separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ll get to that in Part 2 of Why Most Auto Journalism Sucks…
Alex Roy is the author of the LiveDriveRepeat blog and editor-at-large for The Drive.