When I first picked up Car and Driver’s (C&D) fateful December 2006 issue, I was convinced that the splashy, graphics-heavy revamp sounded the death knell for my favorite buff book. But the resulting reader backlash was so loud I felt sure Ann Arbor’s finest would be scared straight. A plaintive apology followed the editor’s arrogant dismissal of the reader revolt. C&D seemed poised for a revival. Nope. The October 2007 issue isn’t just the lowest point in the mag’s inexorable descent; it’s a dive below the limits of acceptability.
The buff books’ decline is inversely proportionate to digital media’s rise. Why fork over good money for a magazine subscription, endure two-month old editorials and wade through dozens of ads when the web provides fresh, instant and less ad-intrusive content for free? For the mags, there's an obvious answer: an upmarket re-imagining of the paper-based genre, like the UK’s elegant, ballsy evo magazine.
No such luck. Like The Big 2.8, even a precipitous decline in market share and profits hasn’t convinced the powers-that-be at Car and Driver, Road & Track and Motor Trend that there's a pressing need for radical change. The buff book Old Guard eschews brave revolution in favor of gentle evolution. Even worse, they throw poisoned fruit at the web-slingers– even as these digital vanguards saw away the branch upon which they sit.
In C&D’s October review of the Mercedes-Benz CL63 AMG, the editors make their opinion of webheads– their own no less– abundantly clear. “When [the CL63] arrived on Hogback Road, it caused all the web-site interns to run outside and gawk… The rest of the staff wasn’t easily beguiled by the CL63… because the CL600 can do everything the CL63 does without the fanfare and flamboyance of the AMG car.”
Yep, that’s us: tacky, juvenile, given to fleeting fads. But where is the cold-eyed, experience-hardened objectivity of these experts in their own evaluations? Well, as concerns the CL63 vs. CL600 debate, here’s how the pros’ prose goes: “You can’t really go wrong with either, so which would you rather live with?” Thanks, Motor Trend.
On the next page, we see more journalistic brilliance, this time applied to the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren Roadster: “…the SLR’s dynamics are hard to love… It’s hard to be smooth with this car. But whaddaya want for a half-million bucks?” I’ll tell you what I want for twelve bucks a year: the occasional negative comment about a car that deserves it.
You won’t find any in the October issue’s “Short Takes.” The executive summary of the Subaru Tribeca’s driving dynamics: “Its fun-to-drive index is low, but its road manners are almost beyond reproach.” And there I was thinking that a low fun-to-drive index equaled middle-of-the-road road manners. The closing paragraph of the Taurus write-up compares the refreshed Five Hundred to the 1985 Taurus, rather than the new car’s current competitors.
The Buick Enclave review quotes a 0 to 60 time of nine seconds, 14 mpg fuel economy and an as-tested price of $43,950. C&D’s conclusion? The Enclave “undercuts the pricing of key competitors: Acura MDX, Lexus RX350, Volvo XC90. And the Enclave measures up well against any of them.” Uh-huh. The intro to that piece damns a New York Times writer for telling GM to build vehicles that people “actually want to buy;” a “dazzling insight,” says C&D.
C&D’s “Road Test” is a format that usually allows more candor. In this case, the mag reviews the new Volvo C30– a car aimed straight at the MINI– without once describing how it handles in the twisties. “The steering zeroes in on ‘straight down the road’ when you cruise,” they assure us. “Expect understeer,” they elaborate, kind of. Their “Verdict:” it’s “a Swede to be seen with.” As for the Audi S5: “What the Audi brings to the party is a real sense of style… isn’t that what coupes are all about?” Um… what do you think?
Methinks C&D’s increasingly bitter tone stems from the passionate, seasoned, talented auto writers’ need to sacrifice every last shred of journalistic integrity on the altar of diminishing ad revenue. They can’t possibly enjoy it.
To their credit, the October issue does include a well-written comparison of the Dodge Viper and Corvette Z06. It seems clear that as long as the iron involved is sufficiently unattainable to the mere motoring public, C&D can muster its mojo and call a spade a spade.
But that’s not enough to save a magazine that’s gotten too big for its britches. If a car mag can’t be bothered to spill the beans on the sort of cars real-world enthusiasts drive– you know, the lowly souls that might write for a “web-site”– it simply can’t expect to survive.
Brando got fat. Jacko got crazy. And America’s best buff book has lost it. Good night, C&D. Thanks for the memories.