Another Winner Not in Your Driveway
By Ian Grasso
So, Automobile Magazine named the Audi R8 as its “Automobile of the Year.” This is not exactly breaking news, and there is no doubt that the R8 is a fabulous car, but it confirms one of my many criticisms of mainstream auto publications – their standards are not geared to realities of the mainstream buyer. In a day when even GM has a blog, the major U.S. automotive magazines have been relegated to selling fantasies that no one can afford, testing in ways that no one drives, and giving awards that mean less and less.
A look through a recent issue of the Ann Arbor, MI-based Automobile Magazine is on par with browsing the Du Pont Registry – pages upon pages of halo vehicles described in tired puns, with minimum space devoted to cars that people actually drive. A columnist rants about the existential crisis caused by having a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera delivered to him at his Hollywood Hotel. Later, an in-depth look at the Porsche GT3. Next, the magazine publishes the results of its annual “All Stars” testing (read: 0-60 sprints, quarter miles, skidpad, etc) to the obvious conclusion of the typical Corvettes, Porsches and BMWs and even a Lotus Elise. The Chevy Malibu, the Mazda CX-9 and Volvo C30 being the common-man outliers. Finally, we are enlightened by a classic car auction section, where buyers are in turn criticized or lauded by author for their choice of 50’s Detroit, 60’s Italian, or the like.
Every time I read a monthly car magazine I am reminded that traditional publishing is, along with major music labels and network TV, an industry whose best days are most certainly behind it. For those who are not yet indoctrinated to its joys, the Internet provides far more information than any issue of Automobile, Car and Driver, or Motor Trend. Car enthusiast forums, blogs like this one, and even corporate websites provide more detail and should be the preferred source for the non-Private-Jet-Owning masses when searching for a new car.
Some may argue that forums and blogs do not have the same level of fact checking, editorial balance, and attention to detail as the major magazines. I would counter that while this is probably true, anyone with a healthy dose of common sense can quickly wade through the chaff to find useful and accurate information. In fact, the chaff often includes the monthlies own websites (Road and Track’s looks like it was built by a junior high student for a class assignment) which are covered with pop-up ads and in most cases offer limited information to non-subscribers. When the huge and popular New York Times offers its content and archives (from 1891) to all for free, this is inexcusable.
While I may be a cynic, the fact that major magazines are almost entirely bankrolled by manufacturer print advertising leads me to read their reviews with a particularly large grain of salt. Case in point: directly after the write up of the Malibu as an “All Star” in Automobile, there was a two page pull out (read: expensive) advertisement for the car. Hmmm, what a coincidence…
I would like to see a major monthly auto mag, just for fun, say something akin to what Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil wrote about the Chrysler Sebring back in August:
Not just bad, but a veritable chalice of wretchedness, a rattling, thumping, lolling tragedy of a car, a summary indictment of Chrysler’s recent management and its self-eradicating product planning, all cast in plastic worthy of a Chinese water pistol. The Sebring drop top does something I thought impossible: It makes me long for the exquisite craftsmanship of the Pontiac flipping G6.
Of course this would never happen – insulting two major manufacturers in one article would cause some major headaches at the editorial desk. If indeed something overtly critical was written it would be followed by paragraphs scratching for some sort of positive in the “I can’t believe I got stuck with this as my rental car” horror that is the Sebring. After all, a car manufacturer has to find a good quote to cull out of the article for its TV advertising.
I do feel for the editors and writers of these car magazines – it takes guts that I probably wouldn’t have in their situation to say something that will get millions of advertising pulled from your magazine and perhaps also cost you a job. That being said, the R8 was a wise choice for “Automobile of the Year.”
You, normal car-buying guy, probably can’t afford the 15% Lamborghini-sourced Audi and most likely won’t ever drive one. Even if you did happen to get the keys you would be crazy to take it out in the rain, snow or even a very windy day. But put yourself in the shoes of that Automobile magazine editor who made the choice – If you pick the Malibu, you piss off Toyota and Honda and maybe even Ford. If you pick the Accord you most definitely piss off Bob Lutz and probably the cyborgs running Toyota. So, the safe choice is a limited production $109,000 supercar that is such a ridiculously overwhelming automobile that the high volume manufacturers can’t do anything but shrug – and keep buying advertising.
But who says some boring domestic or Japanese volume brand always has to win just because most people drive them? Furthermore, does any of the nonsense in these magazines even matter? No, because for the 99.99% of you in the market for a car other than the R8, you probably aren’t looking at the major auto magazines for information on your next car. You are going to Google and the dealership – finding out for yourself like a smart consumer. The major automotive monthlies have not only written themselves out of the legitimacy for car buyers, they have become fantasy magazines that do nothing more than catch your eye at the airport newsstand with brightly covered exotics on the cover. In fact, the only people who care about the awards they give are their own advertising sales departments and the manufacturers who can add the notation “Automobile of the Year” or “10 Best” to their print and TV campaigns.
I would appreciate your comments on which, if any, magazines or publications you rely on when making the major decision to buy a car, new or used. I am preparing a series based on the actual process of buying the car, including research, dealership experience, and the test drive.
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