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From AJR,   October/November 2011  issue

Taking Readers for a Ride   

The world of car reviewing is replete with expensive perks and fantasy vehicles. Consumer advocates need not apply. Wed. August 31, 2011


By Frank Greve
     

Each week, the world's automakers put about 1,000 U.S. reviewers into the driver's seats of their hottest new cars. Most are dropped off in the reviewer's driveway, option-laden, gassed, prepped and insured for a week's free use. Some are delivered to airport valet parking lots for vacationing reviewers. Some go to bloggers with a following, some to influential voices such as NPR "Car Talk" hosts Ray and Tom Magliozzi on the off chance of a mention.

So abundant are free cars, at least for A-list reviewers, that they can easily score two a week, according to reviewers and car company publicists. "Sometimes they'll even demand a car for a car-crazy son," says Fred Heiler, a publicity manager for nearly 30 years at Porsche, Audi, Subaru and Mercedes-Benz. Second-car requests, he adds, are decided case by case.

Reviewers rarely disclose this extraordinary livery service on which their livelihoods depend — or the many other carmaker subsidies that reviewers and publicists say are commonplace. They don't mention, for example, free business-class flights and expense-paid stays at places like Archerfield House, an exclusive seaside golf resort north of Edinburgh. It served as home base for reviewers' drives through the Scottish Highlands, which in time yielded gushers of worshipful reviews for the 2011 Bentley Mulsanne (base price: $285,000). Nor do reviewers mention, when reviewing Mercedes-Benz products, the free iPads with prepaid service contracts that the automaker offered to favored writers at the Detroit auto show this year. Or the special "promotional" prices that reviewers get on personal cars, or the parking-garage decks full of long-term "test" cars that car magazines have scored for decades. "It can get out of control," says former Car and Driver Editor Stephan Wilkinson, who recalls that during his tenure in the 1970s, "You'll have secretaries taking cars for the weekend. Or someone who has to get home by 6 borrowing a Jaguar."

While acknowledging that such freebies look bad, car reviewers insist that they can't be bought and some bring authentic expertise to their work. Steven Cole Smith, for example, a syndicated Tribune Co. reviewer, takes free weekly cars, but no junkets. The automotive editor of Tribune's Orlando Sentinel and its Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, he says the company forbids junkets, and that's fine by Smith. Unlike some reviewers who, he notes, rely on test cars and own none, Smith owns several, is a licensed race driver and has checked out nearly every car model sold in the U.S. since 1984.

If he likes most new cars nowadays, Smith says, it's because they're better made than ever, a trend that rising owner-satisfaction rates confirm. And although he checks in periodically with the Sentinel's advertising department and offers to talk to anyone he's upset, Smith says his independence remains intact. "If I'm right, I don't yield," he says. "I've put in a lot of hours in thousands of cars. I write carefully, and I can pretty well defend every line."

Smith believes that his reviews, and a weekly Q&A, do consumers a lot of good. But he and other old pros are not so sure about their colleagues. "A few — or more than a few — would never say anything bad about a car, because they wanted to keep getting free cars to drive," says Jim Mateja, the Chicago Tribune's car reviewer from 1970 until March 2010.

In truth, few reviewers, nearly all of whom are freelancers, could make a living without free cars from carmakers. In return they're saddled with a big-ticket version of the freebie ethics problem that comes with all consumer product reviewing, whether of cars, travel, outdoor gear, wines, fashion or home furnishings. In the case of cars, automakers subsidize reviews not to promote good journalism, but simply because reviews have proven more effective and cheaper than ads at motivating customers to buy, according to Heiler, the veteran car publicist. Since the auto industry realized this shortly after World War II, he adds, car reviewing "has evolved into one of the most powerful marketing tools for one of the most powerful industries on the planet."

Hmm. So while car reviewers like to see themselves as independent critics, carmakers see them as pawns, or maybe knights, in their marketing campaigns. And the freebies seem to help: An informal survey of several hundred reviews for this article found that reviewers who take carmaker freebies sang the praises of nine out of 10 cars while Consumer Reports, which doesn't, praises just two out of three. Freebie-takers also tend to shy away from such questions as whether a car is likely to prove reliable or is worth its price, matters on which Consumer Reports routinely weighs in. Lifetime ownership costs, emissions, safety and theft rates often go unnoted by freebie-takers, too, especially if the results are bad. For that matter, until 2004, when MotherProof.com started looking into how hard it was to do things like open an SUV door with a baby on one hip, you might have deduced from car reviews that women never drove.


But on a more positive note, the print-to-digital shift has paid big dividends for car journalism. Big car sites such as Edmunds.com, thanks to their nationwide audiences, evade the stifling hold on news- paper publishers that local car dealers long asserted because of their ad clout. Today, Edmunds, with a staff of about 450 and sold-out ad schedules, offers more fresh and in-depth automotive news, tougher reviews and better car-pricing and car-comparing tools than print ever did.

In addition, Web sites like Jalopnik and The Truth About Cars deliver more independent, aggressive and timely coverage for car enthusiasts than traditional car magazines like Motor Trend. If you can type www.truecar.com, you'll learn more about what local dealers actually are selling new cars for than dealers themselves knew in pre-digital days. There's even an over-the-top entrant, "Top Gear," a British-born TV show that crosses car reviewing with Monty Python and races hot cars through sandstorms.

At the same time, revenue for Edmunds and other sites depends almost entirely on car ads and the sites' ability to deliver ready-to-buy customers to local dealerships. And, while Edmunds has withstood carmakers' threats — "I tell them, 'If you want to cancel your buy, try to give us as much notice as possible,' " Jeremy Anwyl, Edmunds CEO, told AJR — no other for-profit car sites could be so cavalier.

Quite the contrary. The digital automotive world remains, in the main, a vast and struggling Gold Rush of car geeks and digital entrepreneurs chasing the same dream: A heaping share of the payments of $10 to $25 that a site earns from a dealer for delivering a ready-to-buy prospect. (It happens when a car site visitor clicks on the site's offer of a price quote from a local dealer. The prospect must provide a Zip code and e-mail address to get the quote, and invitations to visit showrooms follow in minutes.) With new car sales alone projected at 12 million vehicles-plus this year, the business model's a no-brainer. It's also why at least 1,800 reviewers and wannabe reviewers, according to publicists who serve them, are chasing the 1,000 press cars to which automakers hold the keys. And that competition, according to Dan Neil, staff auto columnist for the Wall Street Journal, has an adverse side effect: "Pressure for a favorable review is more and more intense."

That's no surprise. Car publicists are paid to get good news out, after all. But their power over reviewers proves remarkable and ruthless when viewed up close. Both words came to mind as a publicist who's promoting a new and newsmaking high-end model from a maker with only a tiny U.S. press fleet explained how he picks reviewers. He asked that he not be identified so he could be completely candid.

"First, you go to your A-List," the publicist says. "These are people you know will write positive things about the car for important outlets. They get the car for a week or two. They might even get a freebie like a weekend at a resort.

"B-List reviewers never say anything negative; they're usually positive and they write for pretty important outlets. This list includes affluent-living writers who don't know much about cars but their magazines sell cars in beach communities. They get the car for the afternoon or maybe a day.

"C-List reviewers are unranked print journalists and bloggers of some influence. They get to see the car or I'll ride around with them in it.

"Then there's the blacklist: People who've been completely cut off for writing unfavorably or are just rejected because they don't matter to our marketing plan. That's almost everybody."

On the other side of the deal, writers keen to get or stay on the good side of carmakers frequently echo a carmaker's marketing strategy in their reviews. That's the tell, for example, in this Motor Trend cover: "FORGET THE LAST 30 YEARS, BUICK IS BACK! We Review, Compare, Drive the Hot New Buicks That Will Truly Tempt Import Buyers."

A similar marketer/reviewer chorus sang lustily during Porsche's 2009–10 campaign to position the new four-door family car Panamera as every bit as impressive a performer as Porsche's famously sporty two-seat models. To make the case, Porsche needed reviewers' endorsements, and many chimed in.

"Yes, a Porsche sports car that seats four uncompromised," extolled Kimatni Rawlins, a reviewer/promoter whose AutomotiveRhythms site targets minority buyers, especially athletes. (Porsche's marketing department has paid Rawlins to promote its vehicles at the Super Bowl and other top-draw athletic events, according to Gary Fong, product experience manager for Porsche Cars North America Inc., but Rawlins says that's irrelevant. "You always have to separate editorial from marketing, and I can.")

Autobytel.com, another popular site, drove the same line: "Porsche's first-ever four-door sedan makes no compromises." New Car Test Drive, the leading car review syndicator, declared the Panamera "a no-compromise luxury sedan." And what's Porsche's sales slogan for the Panamera? "No compromises."

One freelance reviewer sang off key, however: Jack Baruth, a racer of Porsche 911s, and "a known malcontent" by his own admission. Baruth crashed a Panamera event for reviewers at the Road America track near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and reached a damning-by-faint-praise conclusion. "More fun to drive than any other four-door sedan," Baruth declared in a five-minute video for LeftLane News.com. But the Panamera "couldn't be any less like a 911," he added. Although Baruth, a Web reviewer popular for his audacity, had previously gotten along with Porsche publicists, he's been a nonperson with the automaker ever since.

Fong says there was nothing personal about Baruth's exile. "One of the key questions we ask is whether a reviewer writes for a demographic that can afford a Porsche," he says.

Baruth draws a different lesson from the experience: "Carmakers can make you noncompetitive," he says.


Car reviewing was great fun back in the '70s when Car and Driver, then based in Manhattan, sometimes did late night acceleration tests on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the lads from Motor Trend wound for days through the South of France in spring at carmakers' expense. About all that's left of that era is the prose. Specifically the kind of over-the-top prose that founding father Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated, a slumming Yalie, offered up when he declared the 1957 Pontiac's ride "smooth as a prom queen's thigh." Lawrence Ulrich approached McCahill's high bar last fall in a New York Times review when he likened driving the Ferrari 458 Italia to "barreling Woody Allen's Orgasmatron over Niagara Falls." And the Wall Street Journal's Neil, who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2004 while writing about cars for the Los Angeles Times, sailed high over the bar last fall when he compared the joy of accelerating an especially muscular Mercedes-Benz, the CL63 AMG, to "being fired from a Roman catapult into a mattress of cocaine."

While serving up catchier copy than ad writers could ever get away with, writers like Neil and Ulrich, a Times' freelancer, also do carmakers — at least of luxury brands — a second favor: They turbo-charge their appreciation for cars like Ferraris and high-end Mercedes that rev up past $100,000. Affordable transport, by contrast, gets damned by faint praise. The 2011 Ford Fiesta, for example, is "as safe as it gets in its class." The Buick Regal "might be the best-looking sedan from any American automaker."

Meanwhile, up in the stratosphere of the $201,350 Aston Martin Rapide, even a cramped rear seat holds charm for Ulrich. As he puts it, "Those in back are likely to be too dazzled by the Aston's cocoon to consider how tightly they're wrapped."

Maybe for the first mile.

Neil fell into a deeper hole when, while swooning over the $112,700 Audi A8, he declared: "At this moment, Germany is to car building what Renaissance Florence was to painting." Actually, at that moment, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen ranked in the bottom half among automakers for dependability after three years, according to a respected J.D. Power and Associates survey. Neil's defense rests on the qualifier "at this moment," reviewers having reached consensus that a new model's future reliability can never be predicted―even if the maker has for decades turned out lots of models that barely outlived their warranties.

Also routinely ignored, at least by newspaper and car magazine reviewers, are the country's best-selling cars. In the last 12 months, for example, cars reviewed by the New York Times cost about twice the national average of $28,400. "That's because a lot of new luxury cars came out last year," says Times Automobiles Editor James Cobb. He adds that the section focuses on newsmaking cars, and none of the best-sellers were new designs. He also notes the Times' reader demographic skews higher than average in income.

More generally, best-selling designs rarely reach sales peaks in their first year, so they're somewhat passé to car reviewers and plainly need no help from car publicists. Thus, they're rarely in press fleets. Popular cars also tend to be regarded by reviewers as mundane or, as the late and legendary automotive editor David E. Davis Jr., described them, "shitty little cars for shitty little people." More decorous editors who share his view observe blandly that Taurus owners love to read about Ferraris while Ferrari owners couldn't care less about Tauruses.

The reviewers quoted so far in this article, except for the late Tom McCahill, write for outlets that attempt to pay their own way. This short and possibly incomplete list includes, according to publicists, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Edmunds.com and Cars.com. Tribune Co.'s Smith takes no junkets but he lacks a budget to pay his way. In addition, several Web sites known for their candor, including The Truth About Cars, Jalopnik and HighGear Media, sometimes take the perks but disclose carmaker favors in their reviews.

But sometimes those who pay to drive cars do so at a discounted rate. The New York Times, for example, while it pays for press trips, maxes out at $600 a week for using reviewed cars. That's barely a tip for Ulrich's Ferrari or Aston Martin, and no share of test track rentals that can top $15,000 a day.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, said for years that it took no junkets but paid staff reviewer Warren Brown's way. Well, not always. The issue arose when AJR questioned his 2007 trip to Bologna, Italy, to review the $1.45 million Lamborghini Reventon. Brown, who became a freelancer for the Post in 2009, told AJR that he reviewed the Reventon because "I wanted to see Bologna," adding that a Lamborghini USA executive had talked up the city to him. Did the Post pay for that? No. Although Brown's review ran in the Post, it turns out that Brown simultaneously consulted for an independent minority-oriented supplement, African Americans on Wheels, which allowed Lamborghini to pay for his trip. Brown's then-editor, Sandra Sugawara, referred questions about the arrangement to the Post's communications department. It issued a statement saying that the situation was unique and that Brown had disclosed it to editors before the review was published. But it was never disclosed to the Post's readers.

Quibbles aside, a great gulf has always separated reviewers and editors who resist carmakers' influence, however symbolically, from those who depend on their kindness. It's a gulf most evident in the awkward prose of critics applying positive spin to the dullest of free cars. A writer for New Car Test Drive.com, the leading review syndicator, for example, in making the most of Sweden's perpetual ugly duckling, settled for this: "The new Saab 9-3 is arguably the most attractive, capable and sporty ever built." A reviewer for Wheelbase Media, another syndicate, whose challenge was the 2011 Chevy Impala, offered this sigh of a headline: "In a gadget-crazy world, cars such as the Chevy Impala are simply comforting."

Review syndicates, which are newly prominent, often fill car section fronts when newspaper staff reviewers take buyouts. They're also very popular with Web sites that seek to deliver ready-to-buy customers to dealers. That's because U.S. showrooms offer more than 200 new models a year, and many sites offer used cars, too. That means the sites need far more reviews than they can order up or afford, and syndicates are the cheapest way to obtain them. But there's a trade-off: Syndicates sell the same reviews to automakers and dealers for their sites, too, so syndicate reviews can hardly be independent third-party appraisals.

At the very least, syndicate reviews tend to be bland, especially when a tested car reveals a significant flaw. Freelancer Sam Moses showed how it's done in a recent Volvo S60 review for New Car Test Drive. In his introduction, Moses trumpeted: "Volvo has broken new ground in safety yet again." The innovation is a detection system that brakes the car automatically when it might otherwise hit a pedestrian. Seven hundred words later, Moses returned to the topic:

"We tested the system on a dummy named Junior. Foot off the brake, holding the speed at 20 mph. The car came to a halt, but we knocked Junior over, just barely (he forgave us). A Volvo engineer said it was because there were raindrops on the car's windshield, obscuring the sensor's visibility. We've found that raindrops sometimes set off another Volvo safety system, the optional BLIS, or Blind Spot Information System."

And that's all, folks.

Mitch McCullough, editor-in-chief of New Car Test Drive, responds: "Typically we do not report on product defects or recalls, because that's a specialty unto itself; you can't just say you found a problem." In addition, "If something is a problem in a pre-production car that we happen to be driving, and buyers are not going to see it on a production car, we'll overlook that, too."

That doesn't mean that his site, which pays veteran freelancers a very respectable $500 to $600 per review, is in the auto industry's tank, McCullough continues. "Dealers publish our reviews because they are a third-party endorsement, they hope, similar to the way they used to hand out clips from Car and Driver or Road & Track. If our reviews were nothing more than puffball reports," he adds, "consumers would see that and stop reading them, and our partner sites oriented around consumers would stop publishing them... And we've been publishing reviews since 1994."

Surprisingly, two institutions known for probity may have gone off their normally rigid rails in their pursuit of digital car-sales commissions. One, the New York Times, offers New Car Test Drive reviews on its Web site alongside the vetted work of its own reviewers. The other, Consumer Reports, takes commissions from a Consumer Reports site partner, Zag.com, that charges car dealers $300 or more per sale. Some dealers feel Zag.com is a new middleman who'll cut their margins and/or drive up their cars' price.

The Times' case reflects a distinction between the editorial and advertising content of its Web site. As Automobiles Editor Cobb explains it, "I edit the left three [columns on the automotive Web page]; the remaining two are handled through a business arrangement that's outside the newsroom." The Times' masthead over all five columns suggests otherwise, however, as does the absence of the word "advertising" over the two right-hand columns. That's where New Car Test Drive reviews run, supplementing the Times' own work. Cobb says he knows nothing about the syndicate, the site's ad columns being the Times' business department's exclusive concern. Whether a review could provide "a genuine consumer service" when largely underwritten by carmakers and sellers, Cobb adds, "is a valid issue."

According to Rob Gentile, director of car information products at Consumer Reports, the nonprofit earns about $50 for each sale that Zag.com makes through its Consumer Reports partnership. The Zag.com feature appears on Consumer Reports' car-buyers' site as a "Build & Buy Report," and promises buyers no-hassle, below-average prices from participating local dealers on the car the buyer wants. According to Gentile, Zag.com is more accurately seen as an agency that cuts a car dealer's marketing costs than as a middleman. "Those savings can be passed on to consumers," Gentile adds.

While print reviews continue to be influential, very much including Consumer Reports in its print and online forms, expert reviewing is plainly on the wane in the digital environment. Some car sites now offer excerpts from multiple reviews on grounds that distillations of the Web's sea of car information are all that busy prospects want. Other sites aggregate reviewers' opinions of a car into a single numerical grade based on an abstruse formula. Yelp-like user-generated reviews written by recent buyers are increasingly popular. They're personal, brief and trusted by consumers. They're also likely to be positive because, however often consumers complain about restaurants, they rarely want to broadcast dumb car-buying decisions.

Asked whether car buyers these days believe traditional expert reviews to be truly independent, Ed Kim, director of industry analysis at Auto Pacific Group, a car-market consulting firm, paused. "They're seen as about as independent as ever," he answered. Another pause. "The perception that reviews are strongly influenced by advertisers has been around for 10, 20, 30 years," Kim said.

John Pearley Huffman, a prominent freelance reviewer, goes even further, suggesting that he and his colleagues have distinctive perspectives when it comes to guiding consumers. "Car writers are, first and foremost, automotive enthusiasts," Huffman says. "We love cars more than maybe even the manufacturers do."

Frank Greve (frankjgreve@gmail.com), formerly a national staff writer in McClatchy's (nee Knight Ridder's) Washington Bureau, owns two Hyundai Elantras. He knows nothing about cars, ditto car reviewers until he wondered why they'd all fallen in love at the same time with the Bentley Mulsanne.