Another Winner Not in Your Driveway

By Ian Grasso

12.31.2007

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.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant.net – All Rights Reserved

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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9 Comments

  1. There is probably a lot of truth to what you say, but part of the reason I buy the magazines is for the automotive eye candy. I’m willing to bet that lots of other subscribers do the same. It’s true that I will never be able to afford a Lamborghini (so unfortunate, because I really deserve one), but I like to look at them.

  2. Dan Neil is the best automotive writer around and he has the stones to call it like it is at this stage of his career. None of what he wrote in his lambasting of the Chrysler Sebring was untrue.

  3. It has been my experience living in both Austria and the U.S. that European drivers tend to drive their cars at somewhere around 7/10ths of vehicle capability and Americans tend to drive their vehicles at around 4/10ths of vehicle capability. Part of this cultural and part of this is vehicle and fuel cost: most Europeans cannot afford to own cars with the engine displacements that Americans own so they work the ones they have all the harder. Anyway, my point is this: if you test vehicles the way most Americans drive them you’ll have a very low performance bar indeed.

  4. Well, you could drive an affordable car $25k-$40K at %70 or %80 of it’s performance capacity and cover %99.9% of %99.9% of the average driver’s performance capacity in doing so. And that goes for every geographical region of the world. So it’s not that far-fetched.

    99.9% of all drivers could not drive a Lamborghini Gallardo at even 7/10s of that car’s capability.

  5. The only magazine I really pay much attention to is Consumer Reports. I subscribe to Automobile and Car and Driver, but as previously said they are mostly (especially Automobile) eye candy.

    Otherwise I’m out on the internet checking out online reviews and car-specific message boards to get a good idea of what cars I’m interested in.

  6. I read consumer reports when I am interested in buying a new microwave or a printer for my computer, but’s that’s onlly because I don’t know anything about those products and they don’t cost enough for me to care about finding out about them on my own.

    Cars are different. They cost a lot, they’re a lot more important to me emotionally and economically, I know something about them, and so I pretty much ignore CR when it comes to cars. I look online, read the mags when relevant, drive the cars, and make my decision.

  7. I’ll step into the role of “supercar apologist” for a moment: I think the reason why these 99th-percentile kind of vehicles elicit so much attention is because they sit at the bleeding edge of automotive research and development.

    It’s not easy to tell, but there is a trickle-down effect present. Even the loathsome Sebring can make it to 130mph now without a fuss, due to the aerodynamic, chassis and (perhaps most importantly) tire developments that have piled on over the years. To me, supercars are just another part of the “beta testing program” for these technologies and refinements.

    I have a feeling that in the future, most speedos will read 200mph and 0-60 times for your average family sedan will be extremely short, no matter what energy source motivates them.

  8. Motor Trend, Automobile and Car out of England are the ones I read.

    Consumers Reports is for housewives and people that buy Toyotas, which covers a lot of people that know very little to nothing about cars.

  9. Actually, I in the main agree. Month after month the car mag’s feature ridiculously expensive cars that have nothing to do with me or my VW New Beetle (Diesel) manufactured in Puebla back in 2004. However, they do slip little crumbs of information on real-world cars into their pages that can be quite useful.

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