Testing cars

Posted on April 25th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

One of the areas that AutoSpeed varies very substantially from other automotive media is in our new car tests. Basically, we try very, very hard to tell it clearly and bluntly like it is; something which when we do, often puts us into hot water. For example, Nathan Huppatz, our man who contacts car companies to organise the cars for tests, is currently having difficulties getting cars from Subaru, Mazda, Kia, Alfa Romeo, and Citroen. (That’s why you no longer see tests of those cars in AutoSpeed.) You see, those importers – and/or the distributors associated with those cars – didn’t like a test on one of their cars that we ran previously. So, no more cars for this non-complicit media. (Other companies place conditions on cars – Ford, for example, won’t lend me any new cars to drive – instead, Michael Knowling does those tests!)

Given that Michael and I have a completely zero bias for or against any manufacturer, it’s all pretty bizarre.

But how do we go about testing the new cars, anyway? Every new car test is a little different, but primarily we try to use each car exactly as we would a ‘normal’ car. The length of a road test is a week, so we try to use the car for that week much as we would our own. That includes going to the shops for groceries, having our partners drive the car (perhaps to work for a day), going out in the evenings, and so on. Additionally, we try to do a long country drive, make sure that the car goes through some rush-hour heavy traffic, and we push it hard on roads to test braking and handling. Additionally, if a car has a special function or aim, we try hard to exploit that as well – so a load carrier carries loads, a sports car is driven hard on winding roads, and so on.

Over the week we normally rack-up about 1000 kilometres. (Of course, no time can be set aside specifically for driving press cars – it needs to be fitted in around other work!)

Click for larger image

At the end of that period I sit in the car, writing notes. The notes are a distillation of what I have learned, together with some basic points like tyre size, spare wheel types, etc. The notes also take into account the views of other drivers – I put a number of other drivers into press cars, including a few on a regular basis. When the road test story is written, the notes are read in conjunction with the full-length press release put out by the car company.

For example, here are the notes that I wrote about the Honda Accord V6 Luxury New Car Test – Honda Accord V6 Luxury . As you can see, they are cryptic and blunt.

  • hard seats
  • pale and ugly wood trim
  • in-dash CD – competent
  • steering wheel controls not lit at night
  • no tiptronic on 5-speed
  • no 4th gear access
  • backlit instruments – good
  • non-breathing leather
  • Stability control fitted but ineffective
  • Sunroof quiet when fully open but noisy when popped
  • Four airbags
  • Wide deep door pocket, sunglasses holder
  • Tricky centre console compartments
  • Slide forward centre armrest
  • Dual climate control
  • Front doors shut with clang
  • Excellent rear legroom and foot room
  • Very wide deep rear door pockets
  • Good headroom front and rear
  • Ski port lockable – but lock broke
  • No centre rear air vents
  • Dropping the rear seat (only one piece) requires key
  • Tight access to boot
  • Alloy spare wheel
  • Stepped boot floor
  • No handle to pull down boot
  • Small solid rear discs
  • Michelin Energy 205/60 15
  • Decent front brakes
  • Independent rear end
  • Electric seat driver only
  • Cast-in exhaust manifolds
  • Very thin panels
  • No trip computer

Most of these points are about the visible features or deficiencies. There is little about handling, ride, power, stability, etc, in this list because I have been mentally noting those things all week. If you write a road test about just on-road dynamics, you invariably find that in the real world, many people will be disappointed – they want to know what the car is like to live with. And that’s a lot more than screaming around a few corners at warp speed…

In addition, after writing this list, I always PDA a few more additional points on the final drive when I take back the car – which in my case, is about 100 kilometres. For the Honda I added only three more points:

  • Thick A-pillars
  • Good cruise control
  • 11.2 litres/100 km average

My previously taken mental notes on the car dynamics included:

  • Handling OK only up to 8/10ths then massive understeer
  • Damping rates give corkscrewing on bad roads
  • Lumpy ride
  • Undersize tyres
  • Superb engine
  • Very strong acceleration for class
  • Tiring to drive long distances
  • Doesn’t feel settled during high speed turn-in braking
  • Stability control seems to make no difference
  • Overly light steering
  • Excellent high speed stability
  • Excellent fuel consumption/performance compromise

Very importantly, these are exactly the same points that I make to anyone who asks during the week what I think of the car. In this case, someone I know was seriously looking at buying an Accord V6 – he currently owns the previous model. Almost word for word, these notes reflect what I told him about the car. It is a measure of journalistic cred – imposed internally, but valid nonetheless – that the finished story should reflect what I voiced during that week. (Not for me the style of a particular journalist who when quizzed, told me the car he was road testing was ‘shit’, then wrote a story which said nothing like that…)

When placing the car within its class we’ll often also look up the pricing and features on competitors, reflect on what cars we have driven, think about re-sale and build quality, and decide whether in the overall balance it is a good car, a bad car, or a middling car.

It doesn’t sound all that hard – and to be honest it isn’t. What you must always do is be feeling the car, analysing the car, thinking about the car – every moment that you’re driving it, getting in or out, or loading goods into it.

And to be absolutely and utterly honest with yourself, irrespective of what other media may have said about it, what the car company puts out in its advertising and press releases, even what people expect you to say about it.

Comments are closed.