Driving Emotion

Posted on October 8th, 2002 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

The Reality and the Rest

AutoSpeed is now just on four years old.

Given that we devote nearly all of each issue to modified feature cars, technical stories – both OE and modification – and columns about car tweaking, it’s ironic that over those four years in many ways our greatest difficulties have been the result of our new car tests.

New car tests; they seem simple enough. Manufacturers have available fleets of press cars. These are loaned – one at a time – to motoring journalists who drive them for a week. Following that test, they write about the cars, highlighting the cars’ strengths and weaknesses, comparing them to their competition, and expressing these thoughts in clear and unambiguous prose. Depending on their current line-up, the car companies may get mostly good reviews, mostly bad reviews – or any mixture in between. But they cop it sweet, knowing that a journalist’s role is to represent their readers’ interests – the public good – and not to simply propagate the car company spin.

Believe all that? Well in that case you must also believe in fairies and the Loch Ness Monster… For nearly all motoring journalists – and so motoring publications as well – that above paragraph is absolute crap.

Would you be happy to know that some journalists tell their mates one thing about a car – and then write a story with predominant sentiments that are completely different? One’s ‘pub talk’ you see, and the other’s for reader consumption. I completely fail to see how the concept of ‘honesty’ changes with the audience being addressed.

Did you know that just last week it was reported that Toyota had offered (with certain conditions) to buy 10,000 copies of Australia’s major monthly motoring print mags, Wheels, if the new Camry was made cover car – rather than the equally new Ford or Holden product? Toyota’s car duly appeared on the cover, the editor being quoted that the promised money had nothing to do with it. What credibility has that magazine’s coverage now got of that car? Since when did the cover of a magazine become an unacknowledged full page advertisement?

About six months ago the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Media Watch program contacted us. They’d read my previous editorial on this topic – [“From the Editor”] – and wanted to know what evidence I had of dubious motoring journalist ethics. They had already collected information on one journalist who always wrote about a particular car company in glowing terms – and were intrigued by the strong friendship that the same company’s PR flack and the motoring journalist appeared to have. Then they had another story of a “journalist” who actually owned a PR firm that had work commissioned of it by car companies! Nah, what conflicts of interest?

Media Watch was intrigued at my claims that car companies regularly withdrew the lending of press cars to those journalists the companies deemed overly critical (and by doing so, manipulated public opinion by gaining only relatively positive tests of their cars by what were – ostensibly – independent writers), and the way in which some journalists are regularly flown around the country, attending new car launches without their publications forking out a cent for transport, food or accommodation. Oh, and never acknowledging any of that in their stories, of course. S-u-r-e we can change your return flight from the Gold Coast from Friday to Monday – enjoy the weekend up there in the sun. Fact…but nothing will appear in the story.

Unfortunately both from Media Watch’s perspective and mine, getting such incriminating statements in writing – so that they’ll stand up in a court of law when the car company sues – is much more difficult. So, AFAIK, they haven’t yet run with the story. It is, of course, right up there with the ‘cash for comments’ row that removed what credibility some major talkback radio hosts had previously retained.

In our new car tests (I was going to say ‘AutoSpeed new car tests’ but they also appear on www.autoweb.com.au and in Australia on AOL – they’re the most widely read Australian tests on the web) we will never alter what we say so as not to offend car companies. Even when the result is no more cars from that company to review. (Right now we’ve been told “unofficially” that if we give one more car from a particular car company a bad review, then their press cars stop. Stuff that – if the car is lousy, that’s just what we will write.) We also won’t dress new car reviews up in language which, unless it’s read very carefully, conceals the negatives under a veneer of false bonhomie.

And we won’t do another thing that is so prevalent: only retrospectively acknowledging deficiencies which were obvious w-a-y earlier. So, right now it’s bleedingly clear that Holden’s six cylinder engines are falling way behind the opposition. Duh – that’s why they’re building a plant to make a whole range of new engine designs, isn’t it? But now is the time when journalists should be telling their readers – when those very same readers are considering shelling out perhaps the whole of their annual salary on one of the cars. No point in saying in six months’ time, after the new engines are released, “Well, of course the old 3.8-litre pushrod V6s were well outdated for the last two years of their life.” That doesn’t help those making the buying decision today and tomorrow.

Now is the time to be saying that Subaru are falling behind in the technology and driveability of their turbo performance cars. It doesn’t help the potential buyers one whit to say in five years’ time, “In the early 2000s the WRX and B4 represented a sideways shift for the car company which had made such stunning advances in the 1990s.”

Now is the time to be saying that the Lexus models (at least some of them – I haven’t driven the full range) of the last few years have been disappointing, especially when compared with those stunning early cars.

It’s easy for journalists to be brave after the event; once no one in the car company cares anymore, everyone can write the judgements that should have been made four or five years earlier. Hey, you’re not going to lose press car access by saying that a particular 1998 car was a dog; try just the same (correct) statement about a current car and watch how mysteriously no more review cars appear from that manufacturer.

For some journalists, honesty doesn’t just depend on who they are talking to; it depends on when the statement is made.

This is rubbish. This is disgusting. If this is motoring journalism, I want no part of it. But it sure as hell isn’t new car reviews on this magazine. From management right thru to editorial staff, honesty and forthrightness is a philosophy that we all share, that we all sleep comfortably with. If we awarded the Subaru WRX STi a prize next week (call it God’s Own Car – why be realistic?), Subaru fans would love it. Our subscriptions might even go up that week. Subaru would invite us to long lead launches for their cars. But we wouldn’t do that, because in our considered and careful opinion, in many ways as a current model it is not a very good car. And that comes from a magazine staff where two of us have owned Liberty RSs, one of us currently owns a 1994 WRX and another a 1999 STi. Oh yes, and yet another staff member is looking at buying a 2002 Rex, too. It was going to be a current STi, but after we drove it, not any more.

Some Ford fans had difficulties coming to terms with the fact that we recently wrote positively about the new range of Falcon engines. But why wouldn’t we? On paper they look really great. But rewind the tape just a little and they were nothin’ like that. At the time of the release of the old 5.6 Windsor V8 (hell, only about six months ago, wasn’t it?) we said that that engine was amongst “the oldest in the world that’s still in production” and that higher revs it “honestly feels as if the V8 is about to explode – pistons erupting out of the side of the block”. Just as we could clearly recognise those deficient characteristics, we can see that the new engines are technically very advanced. We have been consistent in our evaluative criteria; it’s others who have flexed with the puff of breaths coming from PR mouths. Course, if we drive the new Falcons and they are far worse in the metal than on paper, then that’s just what we’ll say.

It’s really, really simple. A motoring journalist’s role is to write forthrightly, clearly and unambiguously – I’d go further and say ‘bluntly’. It’s to honestly and clearly assess and compare, to context and to judge, to evaluate and then ratiocinate.

It’s not about feeding feverish one-marque fans with what they so desperately to hear – even if commercially that might give better sales. It’s not about repeating company spin with an added veneer of amusing and lightweight gloss – even if that will have demonstrable positive flow-on effects for later editorial content.

But it is easy to say all this.

Like motherhood and apple pie – everyone will listen and nod, nod, nod. But the reality is starkly different. What I have written here is really what happens at Web Publications – not just what we say happens. New staff that don’t wholeheartedly embrace that philosophy won’t find an on-going place here.

In our new car tests we tell it as we see it – and we seem to be an increasingly lone voice doing so.

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