Automotive journalism: do the perks poison the product?
October 3, 2011 9:15 AM   Subscribe

The American Journalism Review asks, is automotive journalism fundamentally corrupt? Car manufacturers pay for lavish trips and grant extensive seat time in their most desirable cars – in exchange for good reviews. Journalists who write critical reviews are blacklisted. Among the worst offenders is Porsche, who blacklisted journalist Jack Baruth after lukewarm (or simply balanced) print and video reviews of the Porsche Panamera in 2009. Since then, Baruth, who owns three Porsches, has taken to compiling lists of Porsche’s deadly sins (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, but not 7), fabricating Porsche test drives, bashing fellow automotive journalists who he sees as being too soft on Porsche, and borrowing privately-owned cars in order to write reviews. Baruth writes mostly for The Truth About Cars, which guards the independence of its writers so fiercely that its reviews of the Prius, for instance, ranged from the unremittingly hostile to defensively positive to relatively balanced. But what about journalistic independence in mainstream outlets, which often rely on freelancers who simply don't have the funds to be functionally independent of car manufacturers, and which don't want to displease advertisers?
posted by Dasein (85 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
Sometimes Metafilter takes things I have no interest in and makes them interesting. Well done Dasein.
posted by Blake at 9:21 AM on October 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


It absolutely is. With a few exceptions (e.g. Dan Neil), it's all just paid articles. Sites like Autoblog are particularly good examples -- their critiques are akin to walking on eggshells at best, but are usually just regurgitated PR crap. In fact, they recently had an issue where one of their writers was shilling for an ad company that he was moonlighting for.
posted by spiderskull at 9:22 AM on October 3, 2011


Answer: yes.

yourwelcome
posted by clvrmnky at 9:23 AM on October 3, 2011


TTAC is great. I've been a regular reader since the Jonny Lieberman post here on Metafilter way back in 2006.
posted by saladin at 9:29 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yes.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:30 AM on October 3, 2011


Most consumer journalism is, although car journalism is particularly egregious (movie and electronics reviews come close, though).
posted by Skeptic at 9:31 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't read a lot of car reviews, but the fact that I never recall having ever seen a new car review that said, essentially, "This thing sucks, don't buy it" would lead me to conclude:

Yes.
posted by lordrunningclam at 9:33 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


And let's not forget "women's magazines", which are mere glorified brochures for the fashion and cosmetic industries. In general, if it's ranged under "lifestyle", it's shilling...
posted by Skeptic at 9:33 AM on October 3, 2011


Well, at least we'll always have Jeremy Clarkson.
posted by koeselitz at 9:35 AM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Automotive journalism IS corrupt, no doubt. But Baruth is a seriously weak writer, one shouldn't confuse "blacklisted automotive journalist" with "failed automotive journalist". And TTAC is too often (thought not always, of course) a showcase of just desperate striving for the best Clarkson/Hunter S. hyperbole ever in the history of car blogging. I used to read too many car blogs, and have forgotten most of what i have read, but I will never forget The Worst Simile In The World.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 9:35 AM on October 3, 2011 [7 favorites]


The American Journalism Review asks, is automotive journalism fundamentally corrupt?

As run by corporate America, yes.
posted by DU at 9:35 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ooh! Do sportswriting next!

Very nice piece from the AJR. Still, the TTAC hagiography seems a little misplaced to me, or at least I certainly hope they're not the future of car journalism just because they have a sane perk-disclosure policy and like to promote themselves as "independent." A lot of TTAC's policies are a step backward, not forward, from traditional journalistic ethics — e.g. their self-defensive use in the comments sections of the most amorphous definition of "flaming" ever minted, basically as an excuse to insta-ban people who they see as critical of their articles. TTAC is much too clubby, oddball, and self-promoting to be the future of journalism; at most they might end up being to cars what Robert Parker is to wines.

Wouldn't a comparison to Consumer Reports — which buys all the cars it reviews, and tries to work from empirical criteria — be more to the point?
posted by RogerB at 9:36 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't read a lot of car reviews, but the fact that I never recall having ever seen a new car review that said, essentially, "This thing sucks, don't buy it"

Jeremy Clarkson once made his mark by just that kind of review, notably angering GM.

However, he's mostly picked on soft target, mainly small Asian carmakers with rubbish PR departments and no hack perks.
posted by Skeptic at 9:37 AM on October 3, 2011


TTAC hasn't been as entertaining or balanced since Robert Farrago left, and like most car rags, they let their right-wing politics color too much of their writing. Still, it's miles better than the mainstream magazines... but far short of Consumer Reports or Click and Clack (I wish they'd review cars on their site again.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:45 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will admit upfront, I have subscriptions to at least 4 car magazines. I don't pay for any of them, I use the 'free biz mags' guys for my stuff - and I'm not sure I would. Automobile still seems to have its share of 'eh, not so great' reviews. Road&Track almost seems like it should just be credited to the PR guys and cut out the middlemen.
posted by pupdog at 9:49 AM on October 3, 2011


the fact that I never recall having ever seen a new car review that said, essentially, "This thing sucks, don't buy it"

Behold, Jeremy Clarkson's review of the Chrysler Sebring Convertible, in which he opened the review with:

"Sadly, however, most tourists end up with a Chrysler Sebring convertible, which is almost certainly the worst car in the entire world."
posted by The World Famous at 9:49 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm equally suspicious of anyone who claims objectivity and points fingers at mainstream media as the problem. I'm sure someone will dis-illusion me here, but I think Consumer Reports does a fair job, you have to pay for it though, it's not free, they don't accept advertising. TTAC says:
Even though we accept advertising, the ads do not influence our editorial content. All advertising is handled by our parent company, VerticalScope.
ie. trust us. Ok well maybe they are trustworthy. At least with CR I don't have to worry about hidden monetary motives (that I know of).
posted by stbalbach at 9:50 AM on October 3, 2011


I suspect the auto section of my local crap tabloid is the only thing keeping that shitty paper afloat. (It's The Province, for those keeping score at home.) It's expanded to three days a week, with the requisite glowing praise Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for whatever piece of shit GM wants to flog.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:51 AM on October 3, 2011


In general, if it's ranged under "lifestyle", it's shilling...

My experiences in food writing also bear this out.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:53 AM on October 3, 2011


Heh, the automotive "review" (Motor Matters) that shows up in my local paper is clearly bought and paid for by the automotive industry.

They used to at least pretend to be critical with a "positive/negative" section in the sidebar, but that was replaced some time back with a "Worth Noting" section.

They are so unrelentingly gung-ho, they honestly ought to be selling prozac, not cars.
posted by madajb at 9:54 AM on October 3, 2011


I once asked a friend that runs a car site if I could get in on the action, maybe take a few test drives and write them up for free (my only payment would be the opportunity to try out some new cars) to help out his site because I didn't notice a lot of reviews on it. It was at that moment that he schooled me on how the auto industry review process works, how there are basically like two dozen guys that are even allowed to drive new test cars and there are about two thousand writers waiting in the wings for the chance to someday be one of those two dozen. As the site owner, he basically pays one of the two dozen guys for the opportunity to run one of their reviews.

Basically I was told my chances were next to none and I'd have a better chance reviewing new cars by just going to a dealer and asking for a test drive that I'd write up later. I hate car sales guys so I sort of gave up on the idea of reviewing cars.
posted by mathowie at 9:55 AM on October 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


I would love to read a regular Matt Haughey car blog.
posted by The World Famous at 9:58 AM on October 3, 2011


Apologies to dasein, since this was perhaps not intended as a Top Gear thread. But, I was surprised by their recent review of electric cars (Nissan Leaf and Peugeot iOn). They were ...pleasant, and while they included the obligatory shot of the cars breaking down, they remained civil during the reviews, before completely denouncing battery-powered motoring by the end.

And if we're searching for the harshest car review on record, I would point to Clarkson's Chrysler Crossfire road test.
posted by obscurator at 9:59 AM on October 3, 2011


I used to read car mags in the eighties and I remember one comparison review that really punched home how bogus the reviews were. I can't remember whether it was Car and Driver or Road and Track but they did a head-to-head comparison between the Toyota MR2 and the Pontiac Fiero. That piece of shit Pontiac won over the Toyota.
posted by octothorpe at 10:08 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I was buying a car, one of the reviews for the car I was considering (and bought, and have had for 12 years) mentioned that it had "build quality from the Jurassic."

I cannot tell you how many reviews I read about this car that aped that line. But a lot.
posted by Danf at 10:08 AM on October 3, 2011


One of the worst (well best I guess) examples of automotive schilling is Tommy Kendall on Test Drive.

Every fucking car is just goddamned fabulous, fantastic, great, wonderful, etc.
posted by juiceCake at 10:16 AM on October 3, 2011


Apologies to dasein, since this was perhaps not intended as a Top Gear thread.

No apologies necessary - I love Top Gear (to which I was first introduced on MetaFilter, actually) but it's obviously entertainment, not journalism. That said, Jeremy Clarkson's Times columns are one of the very, very few mainstream outlets where you can regularly read harsh reviews - he can say whatever he wants, because he's the world's biggest car journalist, and no brand would benefit from cutting him off. I would argue he's the exception that proves the rule. And while I hope this thread doesn't become too much about him/Top Gear, I will share my personal favourite of his harsh reviews ("If it were a book, it would have no plot and a stupid cover and it would fall to pieces in the sun. But it isn’t a book. And neither is it a car. It’s rubbish.").
posted by Dasein at 10:17 AM on October 3, 2011


Years and years ago - 1988 to be precise - I read about a new car that was SO AWESOME AND SO INCREDIBLE IT WAS GOING TO CHANGE THE AUTOMOTIVE WORLD AND REVOLUTIONIZE AUTOMOBILE MANUFACTURING!!!111ONE!!! Ladies and gentlemen, they were talking about the Ford Probe.
posted by Xoebe at 10:18 AM on October 3, 2011


The automobile itself is corrupt.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:18 AM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh man. From the Jeremy Clarkson Sebring review:
Immediately, I was annoyed by a nonstop whining sound from the back. This turned out to be Richard Hammond, who, despite being 8in tall, claimed that he had never been so uncomfortable in his life, apart from when he was being born. “Only that,” he said, “was more spacious.”
posted by Mister_A at 10:19 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Danf, I had one too. My favorite car ever.
And I never thought of car magazines, websites or reviews of any kind as "journalism", so no shocks here.
posted by Seamus at 10:19 AM on October 3, 2011


The Chevrolet Vega was Motor Trend's Car of the Year in 1971. I'm just sayin'.
posted by punkfloyd at 10:21 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


So how does it work when they're comparing several cars, how do they choose the winner? Usually the tests are a combination of subjective and objective criteria; I wonder if they're pushed to favor one manufacturer over another.
posted by dabug at 10:22 AM on October 3, 2011


they were talking about the Ford Probe.

I had a Ford Probe. Aside from the unfortunate name, it was a great car. It handled well, particularly for a FWD car, had a great interior, and a gigantic hatchback trunk. It was a brilliant car for ski trips and carrying gear to and from my band's gigs.
posted by The World Famous at 10:25 AM on October 3, 2011


> Years and years ago - 1988 to be precise - I read about a new car that was SO AWESOME AND SO INCREDIBLE IT WAS GOING TO CHANGE THE AUTOMOTIVE WORLD AND REVOLUTIONIZE AUTOMOBILE MANUFACTURING!!!111ONE!!

While I don't disagree that the Probe was probably oversold, it was a welcome departure for Ford. It was based on a Mazda platform so manufacturing and supply chains could be standardized across continents. It also was considerably better made than most of Ford's other offerings at the time, and had pretty trendy styling. Ford has undoubtedly been putting out better cars since it bought Mazda, and the Probe was a test case for that, more or less.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 10:37 AM on October 3, 2011


YEah why the Probe hate? That Mazda powerplant was years ahead of any of Ford's in-house designs.
posted by Mister_A at 10:38 AM on October 3, 2011


Motor Trend: shill and I wouldn't wipe my ass with it.
Road & Track: shill BUT the writing and photography suck.
Car & Driver: shill BUT the writing still sucks.
Automobile: shill BUT it's hard to hate writing that good.

Short, shameful confession: I haven't read any of them in ten years, but in the twenty years prior (and when Automobile started) the above held fast and true every. single. month.

And, if you read Automobile long enough and become familiar with the staff, you get a good feel for what they couldn't say because they want to publish a magazine next month.

...

I was ED of one of the game review outlets that wouldn't accept junkets. It's hard to explain to PR people who just want to help, honest! "No, we won't join you in Hawaii and golf for a week to compare the real thing to Tiger Woods" #FMJ
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:40 AM on October 3, 2011


I've been reading TTAC for only a few months, but it is a refreshing divergence from the typical automotive review. I like their outsider status and gladly tolerate their less professional demeanor in exchange for the blunt truth about what the author thinks. There are cars that suck out there and it is astonishing that some publishers never call out the makers on it.
posted by dgran at 10:41 AM on October 3, 2011


I used to watch Motor Week on PBS. I noticed that all of their reviews fell somewhere between A+ and B. You had to learn to watch for phrases like "slightly less than class average" or the seats were comfortable "after a little adjusting", they would never come out and say "this car is slow and uncomfortable".
Top Gear is kind of the other extreme. They drop metric tons of hyperbole, both good and bad, on cars with no apparent sense of proportion or consistency. Clarkson is the worst. Virtually every car he reviews is the best thing ever, EXCEPT!, it has one tragic flaw and is, therefore, crap UNLESS! it's a British car and then it's a wonderful car that rises above it's flaws.
posted by doctor_negative at 10:53 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've read automotive rags on and off for longer than I care to say. One of the changes I've noticed is the editorial columns of late seem to be more anti-environmentalist than they used to. Makes me wonder which oil company they're beholden to.
posted by Sir Cholmondeley at 10:56 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


YEah why the Probe hate? That Mazda powerplant was years ahead of any of Ford's in-house designs.

funny that. same for the '91 to '96 Escort. And then in '97 next year back to a Ford drive train and transmissions blowing out after 60K.

But it's strange that Consumer Reports seems to be willfully useless... actually when it comes to their reviews of anything. I blame the scientific method.
posted by ennui.bz at 10:57 AM on October 3, 2011


Those are advertorials -- just like travel, bridal, tech, business, fashion, entertainment, and anything else where there is a product to sell. Big hint: if the section has a tendency to build up big anticipation for wanting someone to spend money a product in the desperate hope that will make even the most hopeless person appear cool/happy/superior to their so-called friends, and the information came from a press release, it is advertising, not news.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:00 AM on October 3, 2011


One of the changes I've noticed is the editorial columns of late seem to be more anti-environmentalist than they used to.

That, or they're just afraid that between global warming and peak oil, they won't be able to drive like assholes the way they used to. It's like the objections to red light cameras, which is often a bunch of smoke* disguising the fact that the fundamental objection to red light cameras is that they always catch you running red lights, and that bothers people who do so frequently.
posted by eriko at 11:05 AM on October 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's like the objections to red light cameras, which is often a bunch of smoke* disguising the fact that the fundamental objection to red light cameras is that they always catch you running red lights, and that bothers people who do so frequently.

Huh. The objections I've heard to red light cameras are that they are revenue-generating devices that do not actually increase safety at all, that they are often run by private companies that are ripping off the government, that the fines assessed are ridiculously and unjustifiably high, and that the companies and municipalities running the cameras have been repeatedly caught shortening the duration of yellow lights so that they can "catch" more violators and thereby generate greater revenue.

But you put an asterisk by "smoke," so I assume you were going to note that in a footnote.

That, or they're just afraid that between global warming and peak oil, they won't be able to drive like assholes the way they used to.

Why would global warming and peak oil make it more difficult to drive like an asshole?
posted by The World Famous at 11:10 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure, a lot of what passes for automotive journalism is just basic PR fluff, but not all of it.

For example, there's this portion of an email exchange between my boss/editor/friend concerning a new car preview/review they asked me to write:

Editor: "How was the car, anyway?"

Me: "The __? Plastic-ee. You can cram another two people in the back if you don't like them very much, and the driver is sitting on top of the gas tank, but other than that, I guess it was okay."

Editor: "I hope that was in the review."

It was.

And that wasn't all that uncommon ... I had to test drive and review what was essentially a knock-off of a Smart car that was electrically motivated, and we just excoriated the poor thing. I mean, the structural integrity was so damn bad that driving it over train tracks caused the dash visibly move and the windshield to creak and moan. And this magazine/website likes EVs a lot (I've got no problem with them either), but a bad car is a bad car.

My personal view is that if you were to ask most automotive writers what they really thought about any given car, they'd more or less say, "Screw it. BMWs are the best cars anyway, so just go buy an M3 like I did." (I don't agree with that sentiment though.)

But they know that if they did that, no one would buy magazines or click through on web sites, and they couldn't talk editors into sending them to the Monterey Historics or Europe for more press junkets.
posted by Relay at 11:29 AM on October 3, 2011


they'd more or less say, "Screw it. BMWs are the best cars anyway, so just go buy an M3 like I did."

Yep. And that's one of the things that's really troubling about automotive journalism. The M3 is a fantastic car, sure. But BMWs are not the best cars across the board. The Bangle BMWs were terrible in myriad ways, iDrive sucks, the seats are awful, they're all - even the big ones - cramped on the inside, and the current 3-series sedan is terribly ugly and overpriced. Is it better than a Honda Civic? Sure. But everything is better than a Honda civic, particularly when you spend an extra $40k on it.
posted by The World Famous at 11:36 AM on October 3, 2011


I've long read gobs of the U.S. car and motorcycle magazines and in 1985, I moved to England, checked out the magazines there (which have plenty of ads for cars and motorcycles). It was a surprise to see that the reviews were far more candid.

I've wondered how the U.S. and English magazines came and continue to be so different, if the English magazines managed to establish their approaches far enough back that they became entrenched and the companies/advertisers haven't been able to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, much love for the Ford Probe; it managed to make me and my mom very happy.

I had a second-generation Probe, 1995 model, that had one non-maintenance problem through more than 190,000 miles. With the seat folded down, I could get five full-sized suitcases in it and it averaged about 25 mpg in mixed driving, over 30 on the highway.

And mom is a fan of Jay Leno so I took her to see him do stand-up, he was riffing on car names, mentioned the Probe, my mom started laughing to the point that Leno noticed and asked her . She managed to relate that I had a Probe and Leno started chatting with her.

She was about 72 at the time, lived in a small town in Florida so chatting with Jay Leno was a real thrill, something she would not have experienced if I didn't drive a Probe.
posted by ambient2 at 11:41 AM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's funny about the English magazines. For the longest time, you had to really read between the lines to get any sense of what a car might really be like, back when the "green 'un" and "blue 'un" were the weekly rags.

I had to give up TTAC when the insane libertarianism got too much for me.
posted by maxwelton at 11:46 AM on October 3, 2011


I've always assumed that the "X of the year" rotated among the manufacturers, based on some esoteric formula including things like when the most recent redesign was and the last time MfrX won it and editorial biases (during the 1970s and 1980s, CR very rarely said anything positive about a vehicle from any domestic manufacturer). Apparently, I wasn't too far off.

MrR bought a new car in the fall of 1988. The only car that he didn't hate was the Ford Probe (and this is a guy whose previous cars had been a 1970s Beetle and a Horizon). We really liked that car. The only problem we had with it was that it was so short that it hid in a low-level whiteout along Lake Superior, and the trucker going 50mph (because he "could see over the 'ground level' whiteout"!) rear-ended us. Oh, and it snuck up on pedestrians. At 150K miles, we sold it to his teenage nephew who drove it into the ground (as was his wont).
posted by jlkr at 12:14 PM on October 3, 2011


Why would global warming and peak oil make it more difficult to drive like an asshole?

(I deleted the original footnote, but not the reference, sorry.)

Less engine power. Hard to pull the cut off maneuver if you can't get in front.

And, to be honest, having driven cars with power, and currently driving one with a fair bit of power*, a car with a good suspension and acceleration is a joy to drive, and things you can do it them quite easily can make you drive like an asshole around cars that simply cannot do that. However, I understand that we might not be able to keep doing this. I'll miss a fun car, but I accept that things change. And, to be honest, I really liked my Honda Civic hybrid, which is quite possibly the ideal car for Chicago. I just had a mid-life crisis, and resolved to at least have a reasonable one -- plus, I drive so much less now that I'm back in Chicago that the hybrid advantage really wasn't.

The objections I've heard to red light cameras are that they are revenue-generating devices that do not actually increase safety at all, that they are often run by private companies that are ripping off the government, that the fines assessed are ridiculously and unjustifiably high, and that the companies and municipalities running the cameras have been repeatedly caught shortening the duration of yellow lights so that they can "catch" more violators and thereby generate greater revenue.

Saftey -- Red Light cameras replace full speed T-bones with braking rear enders -- and, of course, that only happens when the guy in front stops for the red but the guy behind *assumes* that the car in front will run the red and thus, decides to run the red as well. In some studies, there were more accidents, but there was much less injury and damage to the cars involved. Every study I've seen saying that red light camera caused more accidents, and therefore, were less safe, very carefully avoided categorizing injuries or car damage. Overall, if you drive down the number of people running red lights, you improve safety, period. Multiple studies have shown that. If you trade one full-speed side impact for two half speed rear ending impacts, you win, both in human cost and in repair costs.

And, really, you got rear ended because you stopped at the light? By that logic, the way to eliminate accidents is to never stop at red lights....wait, what? The guy behind you should have been stopping as well, right? And certainly shouldn't have been on your tail, right?

Revenue: This is a real concern in many places. In Chicago, the fine is, well, cheap compared to what happens if a cop catches you. However, the important thing -- it's only a fine. What people forget it "OMG $599 for running a red light!!!!" is that it is $599 and that's it. If a cop writes you up, it's a fine *plus* points, which means you'll end up paying far more than $599 come insurance time until those points disappear. In Chicago, IIRC, it was $100, I think it's now $130, but given that I haven't paid it, I'm not certain. I do know that I've always believed the correct answer is either a minor, say $50, fine or no fine and points, because running a red light is a serious safety hazard. Bring that up to a red-light hater and they'll rip your head off. :-)

There's a real reason we don't give points -- the fine is being issued to the owner of the car, not the driver, and I think that there is a difference between penalizing you for lending your car to a bad driver and having your insurance reflecting another driver's sins.

I do dislike the private-public partnerships, but arguments for: The city buy no hardware, does no maintenance, and hires no personnel to work them. Ask most red-light haters, and they would be all for that in pretty much *any* circumstance that doesn't involve them paying a fine for running a red light, but when they are paying the cost, suddenly, that's a bad way for a city to do business.

Yellow lights: This is a real concern in some cities. However, I remember an amazingly bad reporting job done by WGN in Chicago, where they timed several yellows at red-light camera stops and said "OMG, they're three seconds, that's two seconds under the Illinois Average! THEY'RE STEALING YOUR MONEY."

Now -- go out to any intersection in Chicago that is signed at less that 35mph and time the yellow. Three seconds. Chicago has had three second yellows for fucking ever. (Over 35mph=4 seconds, btw.) This would be a risk if you could actually drive fast in Chicago, but unless you have a much faster car than mine it is really hard to get to 45MPH on a city street, other than LSD and the like. In the one other case I could check , the claim that the red light times had been reduced wasn't true -- the intersection with the cameras was within .3 second of the ones without, and I'm willing to be that the controllers have some slop and can only be set in 1 second increments.

However, I have heard that other cities did shorten yellows at red-light camera intersections, and that should be banned.

I've never gotten a red light ticket. It's really not hard to avoid them. There are places where red-light cameras have clearly been abused -- fines were set abusively high, signals were altered to increase the number of people running them**. To me, the answer isn't to ban the cameras, it is to fix the abuses and use them to fairly enforce what is possibly the most important rule on the road -- do not enter an intersection on a red light.

Speaking locally: Arguably, Chicago's yellows are too short, but I'd be afraid of lengthening them because, well, we have a horrible problem with people running lights. How bad is it? People don't go on green here. They simply do not, because you'll get hit. The turning left through the yellow, I get, but they'll just run right through if the light was in any way yellow as they approached, and sometimes, not even then. So, in Chicago, where they haven't decreased the yellow times (indeed, I don't think they can!) and where the fines are some of the most modest in the country for a camera violation, I'm all in favor of red-light cameras, at least until the driving population of my fair city learns that yellow does not mean go faster and red does not mean go faster still.

The other reason I'd like slightly longer yellows is when you drive out to the suburbs, where I've seen 6-7 second yellows (Golf & Woodfield in Schaumburg, forex) they will drive you absolutely nuts if you are used to the city's three second yellows.



* A 2011 Volvo C70. 236hp, 238ft-lbs@1500. It's not the fastest car in the world, but it is nowhere near the slowest.

** Although I'd quickly expect that to correct itself, as drivers get used to the shorter yellows.
posted by eriko at 12:14 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Forget about the blogs on the new stuff. Try Hooniverse, the Hemmings Blog, Ate Up With Motor, and new-to-me Dean's Garage.
posted by rzklkng at 12:24 PM on October 3, 2011


If safety is what you want to achieve with red light cameras eriko, that can be better and much more cheaply achieved by simply leaving the red lights on in both directions for a longer time.

"Hard to pull the cut off maneuver if you can't get in front."

How is passing someone cutting them off?

If someone is going slowly, and I can get around them and pull in front of them, that's not cutting them off, that's simply passing. That's what happens to slower traffic.
posted by Relay at 12:43 PM on October 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't a comparison to Consumer Reports — which buys all the cars it reviews, and tries to work from empirical criteria — be more to the point?

because cars are not washing machines. well, some are. emotion is such a huge part of car buying for most people that you cannot exclude it from their analysis. raw data has its place when it comes to cars, but it shouldn't be the only analysis available.

Basically I was told my chances were next to none and I'd have a better chance reviewing new cars by just going to a dealer and asking for a test drive that I'd write up later. I hate car sales guys so I sort of gave up on the idea of reviewing cars.

fwiw, one of the reviewers on TTAC does exactly that. I adore TTAC, because they cover the auto universe from so many angles. China, sales data, junkyard voyeurism, new car reviews, Jack Baruth (he deserves his own category), coverage of the 24 Hours of LeMons series (I participated in a recent event), and one columnist who dishes out some incredible trade secrets involving used car auctions. seriously, if you ever want to know the ins and outs of the used car market, read Steven Lang on TTAC.

I used to read car magazines when there was no internet and they were much less advertorial. now there's just no need.
posted by ninjew at 12:58 PM on October 3, 2011


Huh. The objections I've heard to red light cameras are that they are revenue-generating devices that do not actually increase safety at all, that they are often run by private companies that are ripping off the government, that the fines assessed are ridiculously and unjustifiably high, and that the companies and municipalities running the cameras have been repeatedly caught shortening the duration of yellow lights so that they can "catch" more violators and thereby generate greater revenue.

Those problems all sound quite fixable, if anyone cared to fix them.*



*I don't think anyone does.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:25 PM on October 3, 2011


Less engine power. Hard to pull the cut off maneuver if you can't get in front.

I've driven some really slow cars, and all of them were capable of changing lanes in front of someone. In fact, a fast car changing lanes in front of me is a lot less likely than a slow one to cause me a problem, since the fast one might be going faster than me and, therefore, have no effect on my path.

But why should engine power matter? Power does not equal speed. Add lightness.

And how is your response an explanation of how global warming and peak oil make it harder to drive like an asshole? Fast assholes are not the only assholes on the road (where I live, at least).
posted by The World Famous at 1:30 PM on October 3, 2011


"Fast assholes are not the only assholes on the road (where I live, at least)."

And therein lies the problem that a lot of people just don't seem to get. People seem to equate fast driving with "aggressive" driving, but they never seem to consider someone toddling along in the left lane at 5 miles an hour under the speed limit as being aggressive (maybe it's passive aggressive driving?).

To me, using roads boils down to three simple rules:

Lead
Follow, or
Get the hell out of the way

And a lot of people in America have a real problem with that last one.

Personally, I've got no problem getting passed by someone who is going faster than me, other people seem to take it as some sort of personal affront.

"Add lightness."

Amen Colin!
posted by Relay at 1:47 PM on October 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thing is, companies can buckle faster than a 2CV being hit by a Hummer.

"We'll take you to event X if you guarantee us THIS much coverage in Y and Z."

"Er, no. I don't and can't guarantee coverage. Thanks, but no thanks."

(next day)

"We'll take you to event X if you promise you'll TRY to get coverage in Y and Z."

"Thanks, but, uh, no, what I do is our business."

(next day)

"Want to come to X?"

"Yes please"

"Lovely. Your flights are..."

And that's how hard it was for a friend of mine, who is not a big wheel in the world of car journalism but has a couple of decent outlets for his work, to slap down the machinery.

In other words, if media outlets learned how to say no, the nonsense would end. Because it's not that if everyone said no, that's how it would be. It's if most people said no, that's how it would be.

I feel this is a lesson that needs to be relearned, by no means just in this corner of the forest.

If it's wrong, say no.
posted by Devonian at 2:27 PM on October 3, 2011


because cars are not washing machines.

Yes they are. Cars are White Goods, same as any other appliance. It's just that they're all shiny and go fast and make vrooom vrooom sounds.

All cars should be white and say "Maytag" on the back.

Not me! I haven't been brainwashed from infancy to think that a car is just an honest expression of masculinity. Plus they're HARMLESS! Good clean fun - anyone will tell you that.
posted by sneebler at 6:13 PM on October 3, 2011


All I can say is that if you do not find Baruth's writing at the very least entertaining, you have no sense of humor.

TTAC is a great site, and certainly one of the few places where you can get an honest opinion on a car.

To the point of the post - auto journalism is horrid. Outside of Clarkson, TTAC is the next best thing for the real scoop.
posted by tgrundke at 6:33 PM on October 3, 2011


The few times I looked at TTAC it seemed to be writers in love with how clever they thought they were. Ech.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:43 PM on October 3, 2011


So how does it work when they're comparing several cars, how do they choose the winner?

Heh, German car magazines are particularly entertaining there. They pick a large set of "objective" parameters, and painstakingly note each and every one of them.

The German car always wins.
posted by Skeptic at 12:58 AM on October 4, 2011


Car people are crazy. By and large, they hate Consumer Reports, which is the only car review organization that actually buys the cars they're reviewing. Every other review site relies on loaners from the car companies. Then they go out and buy horrid useless cars that need maintenance every 3 weeks. One rich guy I know is SO PROUD of his two BMWs -- but he drives a Subaru most days, because the BMWs are always in the shop. Meanwhile my $15k Toyota accelerates stupidly fast and has literally never needed a repair in 5 years.

If computer geeks were tinkering with $5000 Packard Bell 486s while everyone else just went out and bought MacBooks, everyone would think they were idiots. But for some reason we're supposed to pay attention to what car people think, even though they're hopelessly out of touch with just how good ordinary cheap cars are.
posted by miyabo at 7:43 AM on October 4, 2011


The German car always wins.

That's 'cause Hondas don't pull people's arms out of their sockets when they lose. Mercedes-Benz are known to do that.

Then they go out and buy horrid useless cars that need maintenance every 3 weeks.

I'm a car guy. I have a fantastic, quick, quiet, beautifully-handling, rear-wheel drive German car that has never needed maintenance. But it is only three years old. So I guess I'll have to wait and see if it's as reliable in two years as your Toyota has been.

Meanwhile my $15k Toyota accelerates stupidly fast and has literally never needed a repair in 5 years.

I'm straining to figure out what 5-year-old Toyota that cost $15k accelerates stupidly fast. There are several Toyotas from the last five years that have respectable acceleration. But none that accelerate stupidly fast. Unless you put a blower on it or something. And none of them can go around a corner worth a damn. What Toyota do you have?
posted by The World Famous at 9:57 AM on October 4, 2011


Eh, a 5 year old V6 Camry is "stupidly fast" by '80s sports car standards. (...in a straight line -- the only "fast" many people care about.)

And no, sneebler, cars are not "White Goods", at least not according to the wiki article you linked. Cars are fashion statements, status symbols, and recreational devices in addition to being transportation appliances. People want nice cars just as they want nice clothing, nice homes, nice phones, and nice insert-item-that-you-care-about.
posted by LordSludge at 3:12 PM on October 4, 2011


Dude, you've fallen in love with an appliance.
posted by sneebler at 3:27 PM on October 4, 2011


Dude, you've fallen in love with an appliance.

Yep. And I'd fall in love with my washing machine, too, if it looked like a 1967 XKE.

Eh, a 5 year old V6 Camry is "stupidly fast" by '80s sports car standards.

True (well, not "stupidly" fast, but quick off the line, sure). But that's due in part to the fact that cars got slower starting in the mid-70s through the early 90s. By late-60s standards, a 2006 V6 Camry would be a lot faster (and a lot better handling) than a standard family sedan, but not quick at all compared to cars of the time that were considered quick.
posted by The World Famous at 4:00 PM on October 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


if anyone is still reading here, Jack Baruth has a relevant new editorial @ TTAC:

American Scapegoat: How Jeff Glucker Was Sacrificed To Redeem A Corrupt Industry
posted by ninjew at 5:26 PM on October 4, 2011


RogerB writes "Wouldn't a comparison to Consumer Reports — which buys all the cars it reviews, and tries to work from empirical criteria — be more to the point?"

CR has some kind of weird selection/confirmation bias because their ratings aren't based only on the cars they buy but also on feed back from owners. The classic example of this being the Toyota Corolla loosing significant reliability when you swap out the name plate for a Geo Prizm. They started grouping "family" cars together after that but the bias had already been demonstrated.

octothorpe writes "I can't remember whether it was Car and Driver or Road and Track but they did a head-to-head comparison between the Toyota MR2 and the Pontiac Fiero. That piece of shit Pontiac won over the Toyota."

Well duh, the Fiero was the superior car.
posted by Mitheral at 8:03 PM on October 4, 2011


I have a fantastic, quick, quiet, beautifully-handling, rear-wheel drive German car that has never needed maintenance. But it is only three years old.

(a) What's the car, if you don't mind my asking? (b) I will say that, much as I desire to own such a car, I've heard that German cars are notorious for having expensive faults shortly after the warranty expires.

Dude, you've fallen in love with an appliance.

With all due respect, I couldn't disagree more. If anything, the divide between people who views cars as appliances and those who do not demonstrates conclusively that cars are not appliances. People may buy too-expensive fridges as a symbol of wealth, but no one defines themselves by their fridge. Cars define people - they say something about who you are and what you value. For some people, a car is just an appliance. That says something about them - they're frugal, they don't indulge in the sensory experience of driving, they're probably less individualistic. For others, driving is a pleasure, and driving a good car is a joy. They're willing to spend money on a car because for them, it enhances their time on this planet. Jeremy Clarkson once said that only someone who's owned an Alfa Romeo knows what separates a car from a toaster. That's something you have to feel within yourself. Whether you do or not, a car is not a toaster.

CR has some kind of weird selection/confirmation bias because their ratings aren't based only on the cars they buy but also on feed back from owners. The classic example of this being the Toyota Corolla loosing significant reliability when you swap out the name plate for a Geo Prizm.

Bob Lutz suggests in his new book that this has a lot to do with people not wanting to sully a brand name they respect, and so not reporting relatively minor problems in a Toyota, whereas they're not inclined to cut American car makers any slack.
posted by Dasein at 9:09 PM on October 4, 2011


Cars define people - they say something about who you are and what you value.

Well, then, just so you know, I'm a 2010 Honda Accord, dark metallic amber with ivory interior. It gets me from point A to point B without a lot of fuss.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:40 AM on October 5, 2011


>>CR has some kind of weird selection/confirmation bias because their ratings aren't based only on the cars they buy but also on feed back from owners. The classic example of this being the Toyota Corolla loosing significant reliability when you swap out the name plate for a Geo Prizm.

>>>Bob Lutz suggests in his new book that this has a lot to do with people not wanting to sully a brand name they respect, and so not reporting relatively minor problems in a Toyota, whereas they're not inclined to cut American car makers any slack.


I believe it could also stem from dealer practices. A minor problem can become a major one if the dealer is an asshole.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:42 AM on October 5, 2011


Cars define people - they say something about who you are and what you value.

I'm a huge car guy and I completely disagree with that statement. The car you own or drive says nothing about you unless you have unlimited money and can buy whatever car you want. And even then, all it says is that you have unlimited money and someone convinced you to buy that car.
posted by The World Famous at 10:45 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


You don't need to be able to buy any car for a car to reflect you. Do you buy a car that's fuel efficient, or fast? Do you buy a coupe because you want to be cool, or a sedan because you want to be practical? If you have kids, do you buy a minivan (the sensible choice) or a 7-seat SUV because you can't stand being in a minivan. All those choices say something about who we are and what we value, within any budget.
posted by Dasein at 10:56 AM on October 5, 2011


You don't need to be able to buy any car for a car to reflect you. Do you buy a car that's fuel efficient, or fast? Do you buy a coupe because you want to be cool, or a sedan because you want to be practical? If you have kids, do you buy a minivan (the sensible choice) or a 7-seat SUV because you can't stand being in a minivan. All those choices say something about who we are and what we value, within any budget.

When I bought a 1991 Buick Regal in 2000, it was because the transmission on my 1985 Saab 900 needed replacing and the Buick was the best I could do for the money I had. The next car I bought was a 1989 Ford Ranger, after going for a few years without a car. I bought the Ranger because it cost $400 and I knew I could find a used engine for it at a junkyard for a few hundred dollars. When I sold it for $1500 and bought a 1993 Lincoln Town Car, it was because we had a new baby and needed the back seats but all I could afford to spend was what I made selling the truck plus another $1500.

Do I buy a car that's fuel efficient or fast? That question assumes I have enough money to have a choice in the matter. Until very recently, I could not afford a car that was fuel efficient and I could not afford a car that was fast.

If I have kids do I buy a minivan or a 7-seat SUV? That depends on whether I have enough money to afford either of those choices (or whether I want to go into debt for them). As it happens, I do have kids and we have a 7-seat crossover. But we didn't buy it because we're sensible or because we can't stand minivans or anything like that. We bought it because we have a family connection that got us a $10,000 discount.

So does the type of car I drive say something about me? Sure. It's the result of myriad complex decisions and factors that went into those decisions. Is it even remotely possible to figure out what, exactly, someone's car says about them merely by seeing what kind of car they drive? Absolutely not. I'm the same guy now that I was five years ago, even though the car I drive now is worlds apart from what I drove then.
posted by The World Famous at 11:09 AM on October 5, 2011


When I bought my first car, it was going to be either a Probe Turbo or a Prelude Si. I liked them both. But the fit and finish on the Probe was awful. And the Ford dealership was a bag of dicks. So I bought the Honda. That was a wonderful car, except for when the god damn paint fell off. Replaced it with a Civic HX CVT which was just about the perfect commuter, which was exactly what was needed as I was driving three hours a day. Then when I started working at home for $maxcash, I traded it for a BMW 3 series convertible, which was a fabulous beach and touring car; it took me around the country over 8 months in 2003. Ultimately it sat in a garage in Canada for [cough] months when I moved up here and then I sold it on eBay for a pretty good portion of what I paid for it. Then I inherited my partner's Dodge Neon which was pretty crappy but schlepped us mostly around town for five years, gradually falling apart and being repaired by me, until last year we gave it to a charity. And now we use our feet, the bus, the car share and bicycles.

I'm jonesing for a motorbike though; I need to do some open air touring and photography.
Maybe next year.

...

I have fun memories of reading through library microfiche files of car magazine reviews to determine whether or not I really wanted to buy a used DeLorean. Ultimately I wound up calling a current owner and asking what they thought about it: the key information the magazines omitted was that the motors tended to need a lot of TLC. Apparently that was a Renault thing.

...

Car magazines helped me make a lot of these decisions so I'm grateful to the genre. But they're certainly not fact-based. If you take them as sort of a gestalt, overall, then they became more useful about marques and models in general, especially when you read articles specifically about car X that reference car Y, which often give you much more information about car Y than car X!
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:22 AM on October 5, 2011


The World Famous, fair enough - if you're driving a car because that's all you can afford, then it's not a statement about you. Same thing with clothes - if you can't afford clothes, then the fact that you're in rags says only that you have no money. But like clothes, the cars people buy make a statement about who they are. Decisions made solely out of economic necessity would, I grant, be the exception to the rule.
posted by Dasein at 11:33 AM on October 5, 2011


[I]f you're driving a car because that's all you can afford, then it's not a statement about you. Same thing with clothes - if you can't afford clothes, then the fact that you're in rags says only that you have no money. But like clothes, the cars people buy make a statement about who they are. Decisions made solely out of economic necessity would, I grant, be the exception to the rule.

Wearing rags says a whole helluva lot about you. Having no money is kind of a big deal in this society. It's not just a non-statement because it's not a statement one would prefer. Same deal with cars. Pulling up in a rusty '82 Buick says something very different than arriving in a new Mercedes... or '02 Camry, for that matter.

Feel free to ignore this; lots of people do. But "I don't care what my car says about me / what you think about me" is its own statement.
posted by LordSludge at 10:00 AM on October 6, 2011


LordSludge, I don't think anyone's disputing that people make judgments about others based on what kind of car they drive. I think the issue is my (and others') assertion that those judgments are not grounded in reliable evidence.

All other things being equal, what do you think "arriving in a new Mercedes" says about a person, other than "this person is driving a new Mercedes today, that they may or may not own"?
posted by The World Famous at 10:06 AM on October 6, 2011


I think, all other things being equal, a person arriving in a new Mercedes probably means they have money. Most people would think this; odds are, they're right. I know I'd take that bet all day every day. Digging deeper, it may also mean 1. they want other people to know they have money (douchebag!), 2. they appreciate quality, 3. they are German, of German heritage, or identify with Germans, 4. they can't drive a manual transmission, 5. they have poor taste in cars, etc.

The "that they may or not own" is a red herring. Chances are slim that the car is rented, borrowed, or stolen. Non-zero, but slim. Now if the Mercedes driver is very young, wearing mechanic's clothes, or has a dead businessman in the trunk, I might change my guess -- but that's no longer "all other things being equal".
posted by LordSludge at 11:34 AM on October 6, 2011


I think, all other things being equal, a person arriving in a new Mercedes probably means they have money.

You can get a 2-year-old CPO C300 with low miles for the price of a Camry or less. Would you conclude that the person driving the Camry also has money?

I know I'd take that bet all day every day.

I'd take it just as much with any brand new car. Anyone who can afford to buy any brand new car has money.

The "that they may or not own" is a red herring. Chances are slim that the car is rented, borrowed, or stolen.

I know a lot of people who drive Mercedes and the vast majority of them lease, rather than buying.

1. they want other people to know they have money (douchebag!)

Or they want people who don't realize how much a Mercedes actually costs relative to other cars to think they have money.

2. they appreciate quality,

Or they think they appreciate quality and they perceive Mercedes as having higher quality than other options.

3. they are German, of German heritage, or identify with Germans,

That's just sort of a weird one. What has led you to believe that a Mercedes owner is more likely to be German than the owner of some other car?

4. they can't drive a manual transmission,

Given the increasing rarity of manual transmission cars of any brand, I'd say that one's a stretch. If we're talking about people in Europe in the 1990s, though, I'd agree with you.

5. they have poor taste in cars, etc.

That one doesn't really make sense, either, since it's completely subjective. Sure, I can accurately guess that someone who spends a lot of money on something I don't like has different taste in that particular thing than I do. But that's true of everything, and is not unique to cars in any way.

As I said above, people make judgments about others based on what kind of car they drive. But I don't think those judgments are justified.
posted by The World Famous at 11:57 AM on October 6, 2011


No, I would not necessarily conclude that a person driving a two-year old low-end Mercedes had a ton of money. Those things are made of straw, I hear. But if you take "new Mercedes" in the context/spirit in which it was meant -- i.e., to mean a nice, new, expensive, luxury car -- then yes it's reasonable to assume that the driver of a new Mercedes is loaded. Replace "new Mercedes" with "Ferrari 458" or "Lamborghini Murcielago" if that helps clarify things.
posted by LordSludge at 1:21 PM on October 6, 2011


Huh. I tend to assume that anyone driving a recent model Ferrari or Lamborghini is either renting it or is leveraged up to their eyeballs trying to pretend that they have money. I mean, I would love to have a Ferrari or Lamborghini, and if I was loaded I don't think I would hesitate to buy one. But for some reason I associate them with people who recently started their own business and are living on debt. But I think that just supports the idea that yes, people make judgments based on the type of car someone drives, but those judgments are spotty at best.
posted by The World Famous at 1:26 PM on October 6, 2011


I don't know about this whole "people buy expensive cars to show off how filthy rich they are," deal.

Some car owners do that, and it varies by brand (no surprise), but I've noticed almost from the get go that rich car enthusiasts don't always buy expensive cars.

I grew up in a blue collar, severely car-oriented family. Hell, my MOM pays attention to car racing. We (my dad, brothers and myself) always had antique or, preferably, sportscars. Sure, if we had our druthers, we would have driven Ferraris, but there's that whole "Speed equals money sir, how fast would you care to go?" deal. So that would push us downmarket to Alfas, but those are still pretty damn expensive (Lancias too). And once you get below Alfas, then that's solidly in Triumph/MG/(some)Healeys territory. Big Healeys were too expensive, and so were Jags (and besides, you have no idea just how much you have to work to maintain a Jag). Lotus? Would have loved to, but in the Pacific Northwest? Are you mental? Driving an MG in February was like driving a colander on wheels, and Loti leak even worse.

Anyway, I can't even count the number of rich guys we'd run into that loved playing around with TRs or MGs or this or that. They could have gone out and bough E-Types two at a time, and for whatever reason, they loved to drive TRs etc.

I noticed the same thing when I was in the Miata club. About half of the people that drove them were rich enough to stop working altogether, yet they really enjoyed these cars that cost what a Camry did.

(And by the way, the Mazda Miata is the best British car ever made. Easy.)
posted by Relay at 1:55 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know about this whole "people buy expensive cars to show off how filthy rich they are," deal.

And I hope my point is not interpreted as such -- rather, it's the reverse... or inverse... or something: You can tell somebody probably has money if they drive an expensive car. And more generally: The car you drive says things about you.

I do think "image" is an important factor for a lot of people -- not necessarily "I have lots of money," but a more complex brew.

(And by the way, the Mazda Miata is the best British car ever made. Easy.)

For sure; great little sportscars in the classic sense, without all the hassles. Add a turbo and things get really fun -- nothing like chirping the tires shifting to 4th!
posted by LordSludge at 5:27 PM on October 6, 2011


dasein: Cars define people

Sure they do. For example, I'm a 1999 Dodge Caravan with a rusting left front shock mount. "Add a turbo and things get really fun..." And btw, it's not "purple", it's Cranberry.

Lordsludge: The car you drive says things about you.

Things like, "I"d never get away with this kind of determinism in other kinds of arguments, but it's ok here because we're talking about CARS."

Seriously, this is nonsense.
posted by sneebler at 8:25 AM on October 15, 2011 [2 favorites]


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