By on August 20, 2010

The man on the other end of the phone was the “Wheels” editor for the Smallville Citizen-Journal and he was furious. There was no Mythos RoadSquisher SUV in his driveway! His press car had not been delivered! Instead, there was an email at the top of his in-box explaining that the journalist who had been driving the Mythos the previous week had crashed it, along with an assurance that he would be rescheduled for the next available vehicle as soon as possible.

“You stupid bitch,” he screamed into the phone, “what the f— do you think I’m going to drive this week?” My friend, a pert young woman who works for one of the major press-car agencies, was flabbergasted.

“Sir, if you drive your own car for a few days, we will make sure to get you—” The volume on the other end went up another notch.

“I DON’T OWN A CAR, YOU IGNORANT STINKING C–T! GET ME A CAR NOW! TODAY! OR FIND ANOTHER JOB WHERE YOU CAN SUCK C–K ALL DAY LONG!”

“Sir, what can I do, the fleet is completely empty—”

“GET UP AND WALK YOUR DIRTY WHORE ASS TO THE AIRPORT RENTAL COUNTER AND GET ME A CAR! AND HAVE IT DELIVERED! IN THE NEXT TWO HOURS!” And that, my friends, is exactly what she did.

As I write the story of that exchange, I’m strongly tempted to tone it down a bit, to make it more believable. In this case, however, truth is stranger than fiction, and more upsetting. Here’s more truth: The average print journo or big-blog editor in this business either does not own a car, as is the case with our “Wheels” writer described above, or has a little 2,000-mile-per-year creampuff garaged somewhere for that rare week when there’s no free car in his driveway. This business is overflowing with… free cars.

Across the country, there are lots chock-full of the very latest automobiles, all pampered, polished to perfection, and then lovingly topped-up with fuel not more than five miles away from the home of the journalist to whom they are delivered. They are picked up a week later dirty, damaged, and often with so little fuel that a splash from a portable jug is required to get them to the nearest station. When the cars are repaired and detailed, the oddest things are found. I left a pair of sunglasses in a press loaner and called in a panic later that afternoon, only to be told, “Unless it’s a gun, drug paraphernalia, or actual drugs in a Baggie, we just FedEx it to your house.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve found in a press car?” I inquired.

“Two used condoms and a loaded roach clip, all jammed together into the crease of the front passenger seat.”

Press loaners are the reason many people enter the business. Fifty-two new cars a year, each with a full tank and free insurance. The pattern is almost always the same. Journos wait at home for their first-ever loaner, chat-up the delivery people, blog orgasmically about how Mythos just seems to have the nicest roll-up windows in the business, and prepare for the end of the week by cleaning the car from top to tread before filling it with Shell Ultra 94. By the middle of their first year, they’re using 7-Series Bimmers to haul mulch and they’re spilling Starbucks into the center console. By the time they are “veterans” they are carpet-bombing Facebook and Twitter with outraged complaints about their free cars: “Came home tonight to find a Sienna. THANKS FOR NOTHING!” “This week’s presser is some shitty base Benz with poverty-spec wheels. Don’t look for me to valet-park this one LOLZ.”

As a child, I subscribed to Car Advertising and Breathless Reviews, which often would end a “Road Test” with something along the lines of, “For the whole time we had the 1979 Dodge Omni, it was always the last set of the keys pulled off the board in the evening.” That’s right! They had a free car for nearly everybody in the office! Maybe 10-15 people! A new car every week for each of them! A total of 40-60 cars? How many reviews did they publish in a given month? Four, at the most.

As the number of free-car-worthy outlets simply exploded in the past decade, so did the number of free cars. Everybody expects a car now, and many expect to have two every week. Last year, I sat in the back of an airport shuttle with a small-city print journo who bragged to me that not only had he not owned a car in a decade, his adult daughter had never owned a car. She simply drove the less desirable of the vehicles dropped off for the week. Some people get caught letting their kids drive Porsche Turbos and still get fifty-two free rides a year.

Where does TTAC stand on all this? Our august founder, Robert Farago, was extremely ambivalent towards press loaners. When he wanted to review a car, he rented one or test-drove one (or, when a TTAC writer did get a press car, he insisted on full disclosure, a tradition TTAC maintains). I personally receive between six and twelve press loaners a year, mostly from domestic automakers. Of those, some are trucks. I request trucks whenever possible, for the sole purpose of pulling my race car to NASA events. I write at least one article about every loaner I receive. When I can, I track them. (See here and here and elsewhere.) Most of the time, I pick up my press cars in Detroit, which means I drive 190 miles each way to get them, at my own expense. I do this because I feel diffident, at best, about having them delivered.

I’m also a bit ambivalent about the ethics of driving a subsidized vehicle and then reporting honestly on that vehicle. The alternative is limiting ourselves to bringing TTAC readers reviews of rental cars and wildly-extrapolated descriptions of five-mile dealer test drives, so for the foreseeable future we’ll continue to do our best to provide honest reviews of press loaners. In the end, you will determine what we should do. I would like to think that my history of personally owning “upscale” vehicles renders me a bit less susceptible to starry-eyed articles — a free 5-Series BMW seems like a much bigger deal if you don’t have a Phaeton or 911 in the garage — but truth be told, I’m simply pleased as punch when I head out to the fleet companies for a loaner.

If you think press-fleet cars are perhaps too cozy an arrangement between the watchers and the watched, wait until you hear about the levels beyond. We’re talking, of course, about the phenomenon of the “long-term loaner” — the massively-expensive vehicle simply gifted to a major magazine or blog for a year or more — but that’s not the top of the pyramid. Near the top of the pyramid we have the completely free car, given to a journalist permanently for no particular reason, and at the top of the pyramid there is the Holy Grail of automotive journalism, the direct glance into the sun, the Kwisatz Haderach: a brand-new sports car, fitted-out with everything you need to go SCCA or NASA racing, and simply given to you for the modest sum of one dollar. Stay tuned, and beware of tubby old newspaper journos in rented Camrys!

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101 Comments on “How To Be An Automotive Journalist, Part II: The Press Loaner...”


  • avatar
    James2

    A lot of people here dis Consumer Reports, but at least they buy all the cars they test.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      I made this point in Jack’s last thread, and for the same reason.

      Smack-talk CR for not being “car people” all you like, but you’re right: they buy their own cars, they run them all through the same test track under consistent conditions and they have exactly nothing to do with the manufacturers.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      …and for the majority of people, who care not a whit for b-pillar materials, torque curves, and whether there’s parts-bin switchgear, CR measures what they’re interested in.

      I looked at CR for info on washing machines (right now it’s down to a GE top loader or a Samsung front loader) for the same reason. TheTruthAboutWashingMachines might well savage the Samsung for having the same drive motor as a $450 Whirlpool, or the GE for using printed plastic laminate for the control panel surface, but I mainly care whether the thing has enough space, gets my clothes clean, doesn’t walk all over the laundry room, and doesn’t fill my downstairs with water.

      The same goes for cars; CR might not answer the questions enthusiasts ask, but it probably answers the questions Camcord buyers ask.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      and for the majority of people, who care not a whit for b-pillar materials, torque curves, and whether there’s parts-bin switchgear, CR measures what they’re interested in.

      Have you read their comprehensive reviews? They measure, in a far more useful way than the buff books. Click the little “Ratings and Specs” tab and then the “Performance” section and you’ll get 0-30, 0-60, 45-65, quarter mile speed and time, avoidance speed and wet and dry braking. The kicker? You get this for every single car they test, on the same track, under the same conditions, using consumer-spec cars rather than manufacturer ringers.

      Try, just try, to get that from C&D, MT, or the like.

      They’ll also tell you when a car has cheap trim. The word “flocked cardboard” appears in the Matrix review, for example. They even quantify it, as best they can, so you don’t have to worry about the amount of hookers and blow affecting the buff books’ decision. What they don’t say I’ll get from Michael Clark’s “Inside Story” on CanadianDriver.

      If I want to read someone’s clever metaphors about cars, I’ll read the buff books. If I want to know about it’s actual performance, I’ll read Consumer Reports, thanks.

      Sad that it’s come to that.

    • 0 avatar

      I sell cars for a living, and in so doing, I spend considerable time writing and reviewing every new car possible, without any freebies. or gifts. The local dealers hand me the keys and I return the car as clean and fueled as I received it, as quickly as reasonably possible to accurately cover the pros and cons from my perspective. I often try to include a video test drive, focussing on the features and characteristics I believe my customer would want to know about. I get nasty comments about my voice, my looks and my camera skills, but at the end of the day, I do this for myself and my clients, no pay or gifts, just satisfaction in staying current in industry I truly love, 20+ yrs. later. http://www.youtube.com/mycarladytestdrives

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve regularly defended CR’s road tests, aside from the “secret formulas” they use for scoring.

      It’s their reliability survey methodology that I have a big problem with.

      These are two separate groups within their organization. And the road test group is quite a bit more rigorous than the survey group.

    • 0 avatar
      holydonut

      Edmunds Inside Line also does thsi with their long term road tests; and their writers actually use their vehicles as intended instead of … well … not. The minivan reviewers all loaded as much cargo inside as they could and commented about that aspect. Trucks are used to haul stuff and sports cars are driven on windy roads. This is also a reason why CR is useful – they’re testing the pragmatism of a vehicle rather than absurd racetrack.

      Useful reviews tend to be much more on topic since they don’t intentionally use the vehicle in such a manner as to expose flaws. If you wanted to make a Nissan GTR look bad, then take a family of 4 on a vacation. Similarly, if you wanted to expose flaws of a family sedan, take it on a skidpad and find out how many G’s it can pull on stock tires.

      I don’t think the word “understeer” should ever be involved in a review about a schlepp-mobile since the users won’t be testing that aspect of the vehicle’s chassis tuning. However, there are dozens of reviews involving trucks and minivans that talk about understeer since the author wants to demonstrate their driving prowess and knowledge.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      If I want to read someone’s clever metaphors about cars, I’ll read the buff books. If I want to know about it’s actual performance, I’ll read Consumer Reports, thanks.

      It has been awhile since I’ve read it, but does CR employ brake torquing, high(ish)-RPM clutch drops, launch control, or sport modes when doing their performance tests?

      Or do they just floor it?

      Do they ever turn off TC/ESP?

      I’m not trying to be a chest-pounding internet racer here, but I do like knowing how vehicles perform when you want to push it.

  • avatar
    niky

    It baffles the mind that even non-car magazines and non-travel magazines get press cars nowadays.

    I had one scheduled once, had a whole week planned around it. Had picked the best spots to take photos, where I’d go to do my economy testing (unlike most, I buy my own gas and return the car with as full a tank as possible), and what article I’d write around it.

    Only to be told that the car would be unavailable for another week, which led to us doing all our testing on a weekday. The local FHM office had borrowed it and had screwed up the suspension doing something or another.

    I’m glad they cleaned the seats before they gave it to us.

    Free car? Who do I have to sell my soul to to get one?

  • avatar
    msquare

    I think it’s perfectly ethical to accept press loaner cars, as long as the manufacturers accept the possibility their product might be criticized. And you guys already publish disclaimers, so you’re doubly in the clear.

    I definitely understand RF’s approach and the desire to be objective, but it’s hard to evaluate any car without spending a few days with it, and rental cars are rarely optimally equipped. They’ll have the base engine, no suspension upgrades, a base sound system, etc.

    And not all journos abuse their access, though I do know the more independent you are, the more you do to preserve it. Not by patronizing the manufacturers, but by conducting yourself in the most professional manner possible. I work in sports and know that you can be very critical of someone’s play if you’re fair about it.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      A car in a rental fleet is a base model, but base models are also almost always the majority of what the manufacturer sells. As Jack alluded to in his previous article, the press fleet is unlikely to have a $20,000 base model, but will have plenty of $31,000 fully loaded models with leather seats, a sunroof, and upgraded engine, wheels, stereo, and suspension.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      ” base models are also almost always the majority of what the manufacturer sells”

      Not sure about that. I’d have to think Toyota sells more LEs than it does CEs.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      True, but the LE is effectively a base model (no sunroof, leather, or fancy sound system), and there are a lot of Corolla LEs in rental fleets.

    • 0 avatar

      Rental fleet cars are often fairly well equipped. They’re often ordered with an eye towards what will bring the highest resale when sold.

    • 0 avatar
      WetWilly

      The problem is that sometimes the base model is the most appealing or at the least, intriguing. Case in point, the Kia Soul. The base Soul has the most powerful 1.6 currently offered in America (even tops the Fiesta 1.6’s hp and torque), and weighs ~10% less than the 2.0 model which means a base Soul matches the weight of a Honda Fit almost exactly. It was also highly unlikely to end up in rental fleets because the base Soul is not available with an automatic transmission. Those numbers should have triggered someone’s curiosity, but good luck finding a mainstream review of a base Soul.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      Base models are very far from the biggest sellers. A typical trim lineup for a vehicle will consist of a base model to appeal to the ultra penny pinchers and for use in ads, a basic mainstream model that actually gets a decent number of sales, a ‘value package’ addition to that mainstream trim that is actually the biggest seller, and a luxury trim version on top that represents big profits to the OEM, and still likely sells better than the base model, but not as much as the mainstream with value package.

      Some automakers make a superbase model to hit a certain price point, like Nissan with their $9,995 Versa that comes without A/C, radio, or really any modern convenience feature. These cars are extremely rare, and likely built as a loss just so dealers can buy one and put it in the weekly ad.

  • avatar
    KalapanaBlack

    I knew it was bad, but I never guessed it was that bad. Does anyone remember when C/D had GM come pick up that Saturn Ion because of the terrible review they gave it? How truly terrible did it have to be for that to happen, given this arrangement?

    JB, +5,000 for the Dune reference. May Frank Herbert rest in peace.

  • avatar
    thecavanaughs

    Press loaner cars? Who cares? Of far more importance, that woman was being abused on the phone. It wasn’t rude- it was abuse. I have a half dozen young women in my employ and we routinely review policy and educate them that women have a right to a safe workplace environment- not just protection from their employers, or the sleazy mid-level manager or two, but a safe environment. That includes appropriate treatment from the customers, vendors, clients, and anyone else who walks through the door or calls. The caller and the caller’s employer should have been sent a letter calling him out on his behavior- but more importantly, she should have hung up about a tenth of the way into that conversation, fully confident that it would not threaten her position with her company. If he called back with language like that she should have informed him that she was calling the police and reporting harassing sexual phone calls. Until I hear how that man was called to task for his behavior, the rest of the article is unimportant.

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      As a father of two daughters,I couldn’t agree with you more. Having said that,I know girls that would have parked the rental on his desk.

      BTW….JB..Great stuff, keep e’m coming.

    • 0 avatar
      dastanley

      The good thing about the airlines, especially after 9/11, was that EVERYTHING could be related with safety. EVERYTHING! Including passengers that were verbally abusive to the flight attendants. And as Captain, I had carte blanche from the airline I worked for, and the FAA, to do whatever it took to restore order. If we had a passenger mouth off to the F/As at the gate, we just simply called airport security and the gate agent working that gate and had the offender(s) removed. If it happened during taxi out, we returned to the gate and had them removed. Screw the schedule. During flight, if serious enough, we talked with center, company dispatch, and landed at the nearest suitable airport, with security standing by to remove and arrest the offender, or we could have security stand by at our destination to do the same if not as serious. Everything (and some BS as well) could be done under the need or guise for safety. The FAs made peanuts and took lots of BS and abuse from passengers. With all of the challenges of being an airline pilot, at least we had a tangible way of keeping the passengers from verbally abusing us. Now smart ass comments were another story. Usually passengers would throw those out as they left the plane at their destination.

      Now… back to cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Monty

      I’ve “escorted” people out of my store for being less belligerent than the person described by Mr. Baruth. Should they resist, or threaten me, I have no problem brandishing my 44 oz. Louisville Slugger, which I’ve, sad to say, had to use on more than one occasion. They are those customers who treat service personnel as though they’re the equivalent of the Hindu “untouchable”.

    • 0 avatar

      That woman should have said “no problem sir”, then, go to the nearest junkyard, pick up a 1986 YUGO and park it in front of his house, then, call him to ask “how is the car?” and, “I’m sorry if you don’t like the color d___ head!”
      And, how is it that nobody do anything about this?
      In the company I work for, every call is recorded and customers that speak like that get a very BIG NOTHING!
      She can also press charges!

    • 0 avatar
      Gottleib

      I agree with you. verbal terrorists need to be removed from society.

    • 0 avatar
      kwbuggy

      Like many others here I cannot believe that in 2010 any employer in the US would make their employees (male or female) listen to such abuse, let alone give the abuser what he wanted (a free SUV). Jack should have published the abusers name and employer as well as the gutless car company who made the young woman listen to this bully! Please TTAC email me this person’s name so I can call him at 3am some night to let him hear my army vocabulary.

  • avatar
    Sundowner

    If someone ever talked to my wife or sister like that, they’d wake up wrapped in a tarp in back of my pick-up. There’s just no excuse for treating someone like that.

    To be fair, it’s hard to offer a review anymore that makes cars better. (Which at the end of the day should be any journo’s goal) They glowing parts of reviews are used by marketing teams and fanboys to push the brand, and the negative parts of reviews are either blasted by fabboys or drowned out by the din of expensive ad campaigns.

    case in point is wagons. Pretty much every journo out there had a soft spot for them, but preaching the advantages of a wagon over an SUV gets lost in the noise from the latest Canyonaro jingle.

    • 0 avatar

      Or neither the reviews nor the ads make much of a difference, and people simply buy what they like.

    • 0 avatar
      DuManchu

      People DO just buy what they like.

      Rant incoming…

      I am absolutely shocked by how many of my peers buy a vehicle without researching them at all. Case in point, my buddy who just bought a used 2004 F-150. Sure, an F-150 is a decently safe bet as far as reliability goes, but when I told him about the coil packs going out or the leaky third brake light he said, “How do you know all this stuff?”, I responded that I was considering an F-150 and researched the hell out of it, learning the common problems they have. His response “I guess I should have done that too, you know more about my truck than I do and you don’t even own one.”

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      @DuManchu, true. That’s why it takes me so long to pic a vehicle. I research common problems (believe me they all have them) and then figure if I’m willing to do whatever is necessary to deal with them. Vehicle tends to eat brakes every 30,000 miles? OK, what’s the cost of that, can I live with it? What issues do alternative vehicles from other manufacturers have?

      Most people? What does it look like, how did it drive when I test drove it, and what is the monthly payment going to be? That’s why I have so many colleagues come to me and say… “Hey you know about cars, right?”

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      So true. When my daughter was looking for a car, I gave her a bunch of websites to peruse and told her to do some research and figure out what she wanted. Even though she didn’t have a job at the time, she wouldn’t take the time do it. I think part of the issue was that she felt like she didn’t know anything about cars, so she was out of her comfort zone. And she honestly doesn’t care, she just wants a cute car that runs good. Researching cars for her was as excruciating as researching sewing machines would be for me. Although if I planned to spend thousands of dollars on it and use it for thousands of hours, you can bet I’d be surfing the The Truth About Sewing Machines. But that’s me.

  • avatar
    John R

    “Kwisatz Haderach” Nice. The sleeper HAS awaken…

  • avatar
    findude

    Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Of course, the astonishing thing is that the auto manufacturers’ bean counters and advertising execs see the wisdom behind this.

    So, when a new car dealer offers me a “program” or “executive” car, do these journo loaners get thrown in that basket?

    Thanks for telling it like it is.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      A “program” car is likely to be an ex-rental. An “executive” car would typically be a loaded model and may come from a press fleet, a short term lease, or a company rep’s turned-in vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      galaxygreymx5

      When I was at GM these were called “PEP” cars. This stood for Product Evaluation Program if memory serves and new cars were doled out for free every 90 days to selected staff. These were always cars with a full load of optional equipment and/or special edition packages that were otherwise impossible to get.

      The cars were put into a pool for sale at a steep discount to other GM employees not lucky enough to be given an endless string of PEP cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      PEP cars are mentioned obliquely in a few of Elmore Leonard’s books. One of his novels (I can’t recall) a PI gets a Camaro before they’re available to the general public as a reward for following a Ralph Nader type character around at the request of GM. Wish I could remember the name of the book, I’d like to re-read it.

  • avatar
    hans007

    this happens in every industry too.

    my father worked at a big computer oem and still does. in the 80s they used to tell stories of the computer magazines that had reviewers ask if they could keep the machines forever for better reviews. maybe in not so obvious words.

    ever wonder why every issue of pc mag in the 80s and 90s had a giant dell ad on the back and a giant gateway one in the middle? some oems did not go along with those games you can obviously guess which ones did and got “editors choice” every issue (i mean most windows PCs are pretty similar so it made no sense that one brand was always better)

  • avatar
    dreamtech

    Jack, as usual, great writing!!! Thanks for giving us an inside look to automotive journalism. You style is quite witty, entertaining, and honest.

  • avatar
    olddavid

    Anyone who believes they can be objective under these circumstances is fooling himself. For a very brief period in my career, I shuttled the damn things, with the attendant BS that came from these self-important P’sOS. Beware of advice from anyone with a sense of entitlement based on nothing.

  • avatar
    jet_silver

    Bravo, thecavanaughs. Sometimes I wonder, when people are quibbling about what their rights are, where good taste and behaving like a human being went.

  • avatar

    I’d prefer my auto journalists to not be receiving gifts (and that’s really what they are) but if you do then at least make it a policy in each review to reveal how you got the car. Telling us it’s a short test drive vs. a week long loaner at least let’s us adjust our view of the honesty of the review ourselves. Your readers are not dumb and they know that getting a new toy will make anyone overlook some flaws. It would be nice to have the chance to know just how corrupt you all are. TTAC is certainly far less influenced than other sources. I’ve never even heard this issue brought up in 35 years of reading car rags/sites. However, you aren’t immune to human nature and guys just like shiny new cars, especially free ones.

    • 0 avatar
      jimbowski

      All reviews have had disclaimers since at least a year ago. Also, each one of the reviewer’s writing style usually tips the reader off to roughly how long they were with the car. The ones with custom photos are obviously tested longer than others.

  • avatar
    niky

    Objective? Since when have car reviews been objective?

    If all a car review has to be is “objective”, you could simply read off a car’s EPA fuel economy, list its vital statistics and append Consumer Reports’ (or, preferably, TrueDelta’s) reliability statistics and call it a day.

    A car review or test drive is many things… but it’s NOT objective.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t fear manufacturers’ responses to my reviews. I do somewhat fear owners’ responses.

      My defense when subjected to owner backlash: it’s just my personal opinion of the car. If someone else has a different opinion, and they love the car I gave a middling review to, I’m fine with that.

      Well, unless it’s a car I own. Then only my opinion is valid.

      I think people who want reviews to be objective often understand this, though. What they mean by “objective” is that the reviewer’s opinion wasn’t distorted by the special treatment, etc.

      The first few reviews I wrote of press cars, I wondered if I could afford to be my usual critical self. But so far I’ve had no kickback from manufacturers. To their credit, they seem to accept criticisms they feel are fair.

      The larger danger, in my case: after you’ve driven a car for a week some things that initially felt like shortcomings become part of the car’s “personality.” Or you simply get more used to them. So I do think reviews of cars I have for a week are a little less likely to be critical, but not for the reasons people might think.

      A solution is to keep good notes, so those initial impressions aren’t lost. I try to express changes in opinion over the course of the week in my reviews by stating that “x grew on me” or “I quickly got used to y.”

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      The problem is… if you can learn to ignore a minor irritant over time, the same may apply to owners. On the other hand… there are things that don’t seem quite so bad at first, but become a major irritant as you rack up the miles.

      That’s one of the major issues I find that forumers have with reviews… they feel that if you haven’t done x miles (with x being an inordinately large number) in a car, you really haven’t done enough to understand it completely. I’d retort that it will depend on where and how you’ve done those miles. And how experienced you are at “reading” a car.

  • avatar
    klkrause

    Love this series … keep ‘em coming!

  • avatar
    philadlj

    “As the number of free-car-worthy outlets simply exploded in the past decade, so did the number of free cars”

    This might explain all these Chrysler sales I keep hearing about.

  • avatar
    dave-the-rave

    I didn’t know that Mel Gibson reviewed cars.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    @dave-the-rave, LMAO

    TTAC is very good about reviewing the source of their cars.

  • avatar
    JKC

    I think that using press loaners is an unavoidable part of auto journalism (unless you’re independently wealthy.) As long as you’re honest about where the cars are sourced, it’s no big deal.

    I’ve always found long-term tests (at least as done by the print dinosaurs) to be problematic. First off, I’m sure those cars have been checked over within an inch of their lives by the manufacturer. Secondly, the maintenance costs and inconvenience involved with some makes (BMW, VW, and Mercedes, I’m looking at you) are just an annoyance if you have an entire press fleet as a back-up ride. For those of us in the real world, those issues can be a deal-breaker, or a major financial kick in the nuts if we’ve bought into the myth of European Safety and Luxury.

  • avatar

    Baruth nailed it! While I may have nice cars to play with on occasion, the sheer volume of vehicles most journos get makes me somewhat jealous. Maybe it’s because I asked nicely and only got them for 2 months in 2006.

    Rejection is difficult, no matter what.

  • avatar
    bozz

    Spot on. And the whole setup isn’t equipped to deal with writers who don’t freeload. My employer had a no freebies policy — not even a cup of coffee or tank of gasoline. I had to strip press releases out of Mark Cross briefcases and hand them back to disbelieving PR guys. No banquets, no junkets, no airport drop-offs. They finally asked that I please not refill the tanks, because the next journalist would have a less than brimming tank.

    Pretty sure all press fleet managers have a tiering system: A for the big national publications, B for the local rags, C for the weeklies, etc. It really smarts to lose your shot at the first WRX in the country because some D-lister decided a four-wheel-drive was meant for offroad use.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    “JB, +5,000 for the Dune reference. May Frank Herbert rest in peace.”

    Considering what his hack son Brian has done to his legacy, I doubt that Frank Herbert could rest in peace.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      Oh, you ain’t kidding. I got fifty pages into the “House Whatever” series before deciding I’d rather just stare at the back of the airplane seat in front of me.

  • avatar
    BMWfan

    @PeriSoft

    FWIW we just bought the Samsung WF220 at Lowes for $520. Price match them like crazy. My wife and I both love the machine. Gets wash much cleaner than the old top loader, very little vibration.

    Back to the orig topic. If the journalist had treated my wife or girlfriend like that, my boot would have been so far up his a$$ it would have taken a tow truck to pull it out. I would have driven the rental through his front door. The comments about CR are spot on. When you take something for free, how can you be objective?

    • 0 avatar

      The comments about CR are spot on. When you take something for free, how can you be objective?

      When you’ve spent time, money and ego on something, how can you be objective? Ever heard of buyer’s remorse?

      The value of CR’s buying their test vehicles is in getting the same car and service that regular retail customers get. Even though they may not use blueprinted ringers like they used to, I’m sure that the press fleet management companies work hard to keep the cars in tip-top, rattle-free shape.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      You better believe it, and with good reason. I can still remember back when Triumph was starting to show the second generation line of motorcycles (1997), having been back in the US for just two years. They were using one of their dealers on the West Coast to prep the reviews bikes, and somebody didn’t give a damn about what they were doing. The end result was that Cycle World (I think) did a review of the then-brand-new (second generation) Speed Triple, and absolutely panned the bike due to problems on the run. All of which turned out to be due to the setup person’s neglect, and nothing having to do with the design of the bike. As a result, the Speed Triple (which has probably become Triumph most beloved model to the sport bike crowd) took a real bad first year hit in sales. When you don’t have a dealer nearby, the best you can do is go with the magazine reviews to help make up your mind.

  • avatar
    xyzzy

    Car and Driver has been very tentatively stepping out of the closet on press fleet cars, usually because they feel they have to. Usually when they get taken to task for putting differently-equipped cars in a comparo, or for reviewing the automatic version of a car, they respond with “that’s all that the press fleet had available.” But they must be feeling some of the pinch from multiplying outlets competing for press fleet cars because they have made passing mention of “shrinking press fleets” available to them (usually when explaining why they reviewed an automatic transmission equipped sports car).

    I did once sumbit a query to Franz Kafka’s Garage asking them to explain how they get the cars on their long term tests (do they buy them, borrow them or what) and of course it went into the memory hole.

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Alls I know is, with all those uncalled-for, unprovoked personal attacks on the poor lady on the other end of the line, that Smallville Citizen-Journal writer would not last long commenting on this site!

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    Peter Cheney, a Globe and Mail auto reporter, recently accepted Porsche’s $10,000 waiver of deductible regarding damage his son did to a $180,000 press car.

    One legitimately wonders if future Porsche reporting will return the favor.

    http://tinyurl.com/33mgps7

  • avatar
    obbop

    In my ‘hood “loaner car” has an entirely different meaning and it ain’t so good.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    I am a bit more interested in test driving older vehicles… due to my current station in life.

    To see how a 10 year old BMW 5-series is holding up vs the Lexus equivalent, and how much of an impact the prior owner has on that vehicle, that to me is interesting. Also the materials… I can’t tell you how important components are to the long-term satisfaction of the owner.

    This is why most Lexus models from the 1990’s are kept… and most Cadillacs from that time period are sold before they reach 100k.

    I would love to do new car reviews. But I am one of those guys who would look at the quality of the workmanship and materials above virtually everything else. I don’t car that much about the ‘initial experience’ because what most car owners have to live over the long haul represents a far greater impact.

    0 to 60 in 6 seconds vs. 7.5 doesn’t mean very much if the car is made out of swizzle sticks.

    This is why certain ‘boring’ Acuras are kept for far longer periods of time than certain ‘exciting’ sports coupes. Cheap plastics held together by two to three screws and velcro fittings seldom age well.

    I’m thinking about jumping on the new car bandwagon. Would the TTAC faithful be bothered if I had the nerve to compare the new vehicles to the older ones?

    Here’s a glimpse of the past… and future…

    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/capsule-review-1992-lexus-sc400/

    • 0 avatar
      jkross22

      Steven,

      Since TTAC has an abundance of enthusiasts, I’m betting that reviews of 8-15 yr old desirable cars would be well received.

      BMW 530’s, E-classes, RX-8’s…. these are affordable cars for most folks used, so the tail of the tape of their longevity is a story worth telling.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Amen. If anybody wants to know how a base 2005 Vibe is holding up 5 years on, I can tell you. 2004 Ford F150 Heritage? Got it covered. 1997 Escort owned until last year? I know.

    • 0 avatar
      werewolf34

      I live and breathe in this vein of bang for buck. A lot depends on climate but a 98-05 Lexus with 100-120k miles is a good bet most days

      Anybody with a 1999 SC400 drop me a line

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve got a 2000 GS 400 with 117k in the garage. Smooth, strong powertrain, very sloppy handling. If I drove it more than I do I’d put some money into making the suspension better than new.

    • 0 avatar
      genuineleather

      The previous-gen GS is one of the Lexus’ best cars IMO. My mother drives an ’01 GS300 and it feels much more planted than any other Lexus model I’ve driven; WAY more fun to drive than grandma’s floaty, torque-steer-happy ’09 ES350 or grandpa’s oversized and eerily isolated ’10 LS460L.

      Reliability has also been superb; it’s gone 93K miles without one unscheduled dealer visit.

    • 0 avatar

      Your mother should have the front ball joints checked for wear, and have them changed if there’s any sign of it. Some owners say you should change them around 85k regardless. Though this might not be an issue with the 2001–at some point they upgraded the part.

      If the ball joint does fail, you’ll also be replacing the fender and perhaps some other suspension bits.

  • avatar

    As I said in the thread for Part I, one of the dirty little secrets of the journalism world is that folks cover cars, travel, sports and entertainment for the perks.

    That being said, it’s part of a publicity machine and can be justified by both the companies selling something and by the journalists covering what is being sold. You can’t review a movie without seeing it and if the review is going to run the day the film opens, the reviewer has to get early access.

    What grates on me are the number of celebrities that get comped cars. These are folks that can easily afford those wheels, whereas many auto journalists cannot afford many of the cars they test (Jack’s comments about Phaetons, Porsches and BMWs notwithstanding).

    I’m not talking about the high profile MVP or Armando Gallaraga Corvette publicity stunt. Those get many times the cost of the vehicle returned in free publicity.

    Does GM get $50K a year worth of publicity out of Wolfgang Puck driving an Escalade?

  • avatar
    BMWfan

    @Steven lang

    “I’m thinking about jumping on the new car bandwagon. Would the TTAC faithful be bothered if I had the nerve to compare the new vehicles to the older ones?”

    I for one would love to see this, if only to confirm my suspicions that a lot of people are getting fed up with new cars these days. Too complicated, too many questionable options, too many proprietary systems that only the dealer can service, and just too darn expensive being loaded up with all this excess garbage. I could buy a new car, but I won’t because I like my E46 BMW, and Gen 1 MDX better than anything I have seen out there. When I found out that you have to have a dealer reset the electronics on a newer BMW when you replace the battery, I LMAO at how crazy it’s getting out there.

    • 0 avatar
      Patrickj

      What, BMW’s profit margins didn’t permit them to put a battery box with 8 lithium AAs in the trunk?

      http://www.energizer.com/products/hightech-batteries/lithium/pages/lithium-batteries.aspx

  • avatar
    niky

    I just noticed the tag at the end of the article: “somebody crashed a MINI in a “turbo toyboxes” test”… so now we know what a Mythos is… so who stuffed it? ( http://www.motivemagazine.com/pub/feature/versus/Motive_Versus_2008_Turbo_Toyboxes_2.shtml – too bad they sold out to print…)?

  • avatar
    werewolf34

    Karesh

    I’ve got a 98 gs400 with 135k. I’ve seen some good results on improving the handling by changing the rims / tire (put on 3rd gen gs300 17″ with Kumho ASX) and replacing the ball joints. It still likes to roll but seems more responsive

    • 0 avatar

      The ball joints were done right before I got it, which was later than they should have been done. This is one thing that should be done as PM on the GS unless you also want to replace a front fender.

      I think it badly needs new dampers. I haven’t yet bothered to check whether it uses shocks or struts…

    • 0 avatar
      werewolf34

      Karesh

      Shocks. The balljoint issue is a big but known problem. E-class Mercs have similar issues — heavy cars

  • avatar

    Excellent article Jack and so true. One of these days I might share some ‘truths’ on the team that worked for me at Drivers Republic..

    The simple fact is that motoring journalism is a result of a symbiosis between writer and manufacturer PR. Every journo has their favourite car maker – the one who they can easily request a runabout from (i.e. a fully-fuelled 911 Turbo to make a quick trip down to the ‘ring), and it’s a give-and-take relationship – perhaps not necessarily to say something is good when it’s really bad, but there are many more frequent examples where a particular model (coincidentally) wins a group test or comes out with a gleaming review despite being mediocre.

    The temptation (for relatively lowly paid journos) to blag a car or take advantage of the free gifts on offer is understandable, but don’t believe anyone who says it doesn’t influence what they write. Most journos rely on press cars as their daily mode of transport and regard it as a ‘core’ part of their compensation package.

    There are some great anecdotes to rival the ones used in this article, but i’ll leave that for another day..

  • avatar
    skor

    If that scribbler from The Loser-Ville Gazette had talked to any women in my family like that. His last ride would have been in a nice, shiny hearse.

  • avatar

    I have been in the auto industry for over 20 yrs, published books on car buying, had radio shows about cars and in all my years never found a car on my doorstep. I write and v-blog about cars for myself and my clients. Appreciating what the manufacturer is trying to do and understanding the needs of the marketplace make me a better professional in my business. The attitude of entitlement and arrogance demonstated by this individual is beyond horrific and I hope the internal mechanisms find a way of disconnecting this “car-jo’s” starter, forever. I am thankful for the opportunity to test drive a new model and discuss it’s attributes in an uncensored format. I am grateful when a dealer willingly lets me take a car off his lot for a day or so, knowing he might have a sale and need it back quickly, I have it clean and gassed at all times. Keep up your great work JB, and for setting the record straight about the rest of us just trying to do our jobs, professionally.- sarah lee aka: MyCarlady http://www.youtube.com/mycarladytestdrives

  • avatar
    sonomajoe

    I’m from the Smallville Gazette and I’ve been arguing with myself about whether I should respond to Mr. Baruth’s screed. I’ve decided to because you folks deserve to know the truth. While I understand there are writers who abuse the program, Baruth’s representation of the way we operate is not remotely accurate (or should I say no more accurate than his description of a press event). I agree that we writers are an easy target and that the press-vehicle program is rife with potential for abuse, but no one seems to have come up with a better system. It’s a great gig, no two ways about it, but most of the writers I know are professionals. I seriously doubt that the above incident happened in the way it’s described, if for no other reason that none of us out in Smallville has the muscle to force a vendor to rent us a replacement. Wouldn’t happen.

  • avatar
    BMWfan

    I give you credit for having the stones to respond. I don’t think anyone here begrudges a journalist getting a car to use. I hope I speak for the majority here when I say that what I think most of the guys objected to was the way the young lady in the story was mistreated. If accurately reported, (and I believe it was) The young lady did nothing to provoke such treatment, and even if she did, did not deserve to be berated in such a manner.This nameless ****bag should have just rented a car by himself until the whole thing was straightened out. My parents taught me to respect women, even those that don’t deserve it.

  • avatar

    Excellent work Jack. You missed one thing: the carmakers’ press fleets are “ringers.” They’re specially prepared and maintained vehicles. ALL the mechanical and physical imperfections are corrected. No squeaks, no rattles, no squidgy brakes, etc.

    You may recall a piece a long while back where a GM insider at the Arizona proving grounds admitted that GM execs NEVER tested a non-massaged vehicle. They’d fly in, test a ringer and fly out. Which accounted for their belief that their products were as good as or better than their competitors. I wonder if that’s changed . . .

    Meanwhile, the same thing happens at the local level with dealer demos. ALWAYS try the exact car you’re thinking about buying. And remember: car journos are driving ringers.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Publish the identity of the abusive writer. That would be a real and valuable act of reporting. Then he could learn the flip side of treating others as you wish to be treated.

  • avatar
    sonomajoe

    I’d be interested in knowing more about the “specially prepared” cars to which RF refers. Where and how are these vehicles specially prepared? I’m not saying they aren’t, but for my own edification I’d like to know more. In my region, there are two primary vendors. Each has contracts with a number of manufacturers to distribute vehicles among the various writers in the area. They are responsible for what I would consider normal maintenance. They are required to shake down a car before putting it into circulation. If there are squeaks or rattle, they try to hunt them down. If something’s up with the brakes, they’ll take it into the dealer to have it fixed. If/when I skin a wheel, they’ll repair it before sending the car to the next writer. I consider all that fair game. However, if you’re saying the cars are massaged before they get to the vendors, I’d be interested in knowing more. I don’t doubt your assertion that GM execs test only “massaged” cars but I find it more interesting that until recently they didn’t drive competitors’ cars, so there was no way they could know how their products stacked up. Finally, I agree with CJinSD. If the event Baruth describes actually occurred, he should name the miscreant. Or at the very least not pretend this kind of behavior is either typical or condoned. Until he does, I’m not convinced.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    There are two reasons why I won’t name the fellow.

    The first reason is that I was told the story in confidence by an associate of the woman involved. It’s bad enough to retell it after “anonymizing” the details: at least three people could read this story and consider their privacy semi-violated.

    The second reason is that if I put the guy’s name and picture next to the story, somebody would lose their job… and it would be the woman involved, not the journalist. Sad but true.

  • avatar
    msquare

    Having trouble buying any of this. What exactly is a “ringer?”

    Most of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at domestic cars, for example, have to do with poor choices in ride/handling, coarse drivetrains, interior issues, in other words, design choices. Save for long-term tests, in which differences in reliability do surface over time even in the ringers, journos generally don’t keep a car long enough for a tranny to fall out. And most cars are pretty reliable in their first 40,000 miles these days, so you’re not learning much there. And even the traditional methods of collecting that data have been drawn into question, hence TrueDelta.

    My educated guess is that those same design choices surface in ringer cars or cars fresh off the lot. And until it’s proven conclusively, you can assume EVERY manufacturer tries to put its best foot forward with the critics. Do restaurants try to put on a show for the critics and offer free food? Sure. Do movie critics pay to go to the theater or even see the movies they’re rating there? Of course not. Do sportswriters have to sit in the stands and buy tickets? Not on your life.

    If everybody is providing the same courtesies to the media, it kind of levels the playing field. What you might want to do for your road tests in that case is rate the car you get and sneak into a dealership to see if there are any dramatic differences. But a dealership will generally not let you keep a car long enough to do a thorough test.

    And the enthusiast mags tend to prefer cars equipped the way an enthusiast would order one, that is, with the top engine and suspension options. And how can you rate the worthiness of the optional navigation system when it’s not there? So yes, a press car or dealer demo should be very well equipped. If the mag tells me the navigation is nothing special, maybe I get one without it and buy a Garmin.

    I work as a sports reporter in the New York market, which gives me access to all nine professional teams. I’m writing this between innings at Yankee Stadium. And if I ever behaved to a team PR representative in the way the fictitious individual did in this article, I’d risk having my credentials pulled.

    One last thing: Newspaper car reviews are geared to the lowest common denominator and tend to be unreadable to the average enthusiast. Never understood how those writers aren’t held to the same standard as sportswriters. Because their bosses know nothing about cars, I guess.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Speaking to the 40,000 mile thing: Car and Driver did finally decide to to a 100,000 mile review with a Hyundai Genisis sedan.

      Ringers? Well it has been revealed that GM engineers would specially prep cars for executives to evaluate. Back in the 1960s during the “muscle/pony car wars” magazines routinely recived ballanced and blueprinted cars. Basically cars with hand built and tested engines as if they were AMGs.

    • 0 avatar
      Gardiner Westbound

      More info here:

      “Editorial: The Truth about Press Cars” – March 24, 2009

      http://tinyurl.com/cxdyaz

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      Having trouble buying any of this. What exactly is a “ringer?”

      Well, off the top of my head, the initial tests of the G8 GT and 300C gave out much stronger acceleration figures than in any subsequent test.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    if that guy talked to my wife that way he would need a handicap van from now on.

    As for loaners, good for somebody to get a free car from the manufacturers.

  • avatar
    sonomajoe

    @Jack: Fair enough, but I’m still looking for a reason that your friend would rent a car for this guy. First off, we all know the rules. A car gets munched or an exec comes to town and takes the car meant for you. It happens; not all the time, but it happens. Why would a vendor go to the expense of providing a free rental for a guy writing for a small-circulation publication? How would he possibly retaliate for such an offense? Whine to the manufacturer? He wouldn’t get very far.

    @MSquare: Those of us who write for general-circulation publications intentionally do not write for enthusiasts. That’s not our audience. Enthusiasts have buff books and the web. I try to write well enough to interest the older lady next door who drives a Highlander as well as the guy who drives a 911. I’m no Dan Neil, but the job is the same.

  • avatar
    s10crm880

    Sorry Mr. Baruth, your story is B.S. I work for one of the press fleet management businesses you speak of and there’s no way one of our account executives – and certainly not our long-time receptionist – would have ever taken that kind of abuse from a journalist. Had anyone even tried to level that kind of abuse on one of our employees, my general manager would have been on the phone to the manufacturer representative immediately to let them know exactly what happened. Trust me, the manufacturer would side with us every time.

    And Mr. Farago’s assertion that all press cars are ringers? Interesting words from someone who has never, to my knowledge, worked on this side of the business. I’ve been a post-loan test driver and responsible for checking in new test vehicles when they arrive on the trucks. Sure, we check them over to make sure they have no obvious issues, but no more so than a dealer would check a new car on his lot. And if something is wrong, we bring them to the local dealers to have them fixed, just like everybody else. The idea that press cars are hand assembled ringers is an old holdover from the 60s when PR guys from the big three would tweak the carbs on their latest muscle car to give it a little extra juice. Sorry if you’re still stuck in the 60s Mr. Farago, but things have changed, maybe you should update your sources.

  • avatar
    msquare

    All this reminds me of the days when the GM X-cars came out. Road & Track’s first test of the Citation X-11 was glowing. With the V-6 and manual tranny, it was fast as a Saab Turbo, could corner with BMW’s and was priced much lower than either. A few months later, they got another Citation, not an X-11 but it had the F41 sport suspension like the first one, and it wasn’t even close. The cornering was off, braking distance was longer and in general it was a big dropoff.

    So they called John Heinricy (yes, the guy with a sub-8 minute time at the Nurburgring in a CTS-V) at GM and he explained that the first batch of press cars were equipped with shaved tires to prevent test drivers from chewing up the treads of fresh ones in hard cornering. A change of tires on the second car revealed numbers and feel closer to the first one.

    Around the same time, Car and Driver complimented Buick on providing them a production Skylark to evaluate in a long-term test. It was so off-the-line that the fender decal said “Sport Sedan” and the trunk said “Sport Coupe.” It generally performed well otherwise. Two years later, C/D got a 1982 Z28 Camaro that was an absolute lemon. “A 25,000-mile tale of woe,” they called it. Had to be a bad egg, because we had a 1982 Trans Am in the family, built in the same factory, and it wasn’t nearly as unreliable.

    I’ll say it again, it would not surprise me to know that press cars get looked after better than most because they get driven harder. But a cheap interior or crap handing will still be there and will still get panned.

    And if mainstream cars get the red-carpet treatment, I can only imagine the kind of attention higher-end cars need.

  • avatar

    I know this point has been discussed before… but from what I’ve seen and experienced, nowadays, it’s more like the story in the article… you do get spoiled by getting a car that’s been waxed and topped off before your drive, but these things are pretty beat up.

    Journos drive hard. I’ve had cars with wonky synchros, torn engine mounts, replacement hubcaps… Sport Compact Car (surely not the most manufacturer-pampered buff-book, but still), used to complain about the condition of some test vehicles. By the time the big boys got through with them, things were a bit… worn.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    I’m amazed that the auto industry caters to these guys. Remember Peter Cheney from the Globe & Mail; his son crashed a press loaner Porsche 911 Turbo through his garage door. He turned the accident into a story that happened to eclipsed anything else he’d ever written. Irrelevant journalism with a diminishing audience, yet the press vehicles and perks keep flowing.

  • avatar

    No issues. The mass market reviewers always write in code. The geeks got it, and the “suspension is cushy on the highway” meant that this was a howling pig in corners.


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