By on December 9, 2010

The relationship between automakers and automotive journalists can be extremely difficult, as automakers often hold access to cars hostage based on a journalist’s coverage of them. If, as an automotive journalist, you like every car you drive, the world is your oyster. Automakers invite you to every launch, PR guys gaze longingly into your eyes, and all is right with the world. If, on the other hand, you write negatively about a car, you can find yourself watching the gravy train pull out of the station without you… or, as it turns out, you could even be sued. At least in Italy.

Carscoop reports that Fiat is suing the Italian TV show AnnoZero for “defamatory” remarks about the Alfa Romeo MiTo Quadrifoglio, after the program asserted “the overall technical inferiority of the Alfa Romeo MiTo” in comparison to the MINI Cooper S and Citroen DS3 THP. The details of the case are sketchy, but you can find Fiat’s press release on the matter after the jump.

Fiat’s release on the matter reads:

Fiat to seek damages from the producers of AnnoZero

Fiat Group Automobiles announces that it has instructed its lawyers to initiate legal action against the producers of the television show AnnoZero for statements made on air on December 2nd that were highly defamatory and damaging to the image and reputation of the company, its products and its employees and based on a fabricated comparison.

In particular, Fiat Group Automobiles takes issue with the manner in which AnnoZero portrayed the performance of three cars, one of which was an Alfa Romeo MiTo, claiming that the “test”, apparently conducted in the Autumn, demonstrated the overall technical inferiority of the Alfa Romeo MiTo, on the basis of speed alone.

The broadcast sought to give the appearance that it was connected to a test actually conducted in the Spring, using different vehicles, by the monthly publication Quattroruote – the results of which were published in the magazine’s June issue.

Incredibly, what the broadcast did not state is that Quattroruote‘s overall evaluation of the Alfa Romeo MiTo (1,368 cc Quadrifoglio version) – based on a comparison of technical performance, safety and comfort – was higher than for both the Citroën DS3 THP (1,598 cc) and the Mini Cooper S (1,598 cc).

Fiat therefore intends, motivated also by its desire to protect the thousands of employees that contribute daily to producing safe, technologically-advanced products, to seek damages (to be donated entirely to charity) as a defense against conduct which is both unwarranted and prejudicial to the truth.

Turin, 7 December 2010

Obviously the details of this controversy are a bit clouded. Given the general quality of both automotive journalism and Italian television, it wouldn’t be overly surprising if AnnoZero did what Fiat accuses it of, namely, re-using a magazine’s test and presenting it in a manner that made the MiTo look less than competitive. Still, should Fiat sue? After all, nearly every other comparison of these four cars seems to rank them differently, largely based on the priorities of the publication. Enthusiast-oriented mags pick the MINI (or a Renault Clio), “practical” buff books pick the DS3, style-oriented publications pick the MiTo.

So, if the MiTo Quadrifoglio was found to be inferior to its rivals “on the basis of speed alone,” is it defamatory to limit the comparison to that basis? Of course not. Choosing that test criteria does, however, affect the credibility of the outlet, AnnoZero, in the sense that their comparisons are clearly only of value to those who prize speed over all else. If you’re looking for a Consumer Reports-style comparison, it’s fairly obvious that you should look elsewhere. But Alfa isn’t owed any minimum number of points of comparison by any publication. If the MiTo was slower than its competition, it was slower than it’s competition. Suing AnnoZero is a step backwards for industry-media relations.

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20 Comments on “Auto Journalists Beware: Fiat Sues Over Negative Review...”


  • avatar
    stuki

    The fact that there exists such a thing as a court that will spend even a fraction of a second listening to this kind of nonsense, sure as heck is an indication of how many steps backwards the “West” has taken.
     
    Freedom of speech is supposed to mean freedom of speech. If someone thinks your statements are wrong, they can very well say so to all who wants to listen. Dragging lawyers, governments and courts into it……………….is, I guess, up there with dragging lawyers, governments and courts into any other area. Good for lawyers, governments, judges and their cronies. And a disaster for anyone else.

  • avatar

    This is unbelievable.  If reviewers can’t express an opinion as non-specific and general as “overall technical inferiority” without fear of being sued, where will this lead?  I can see it if they made some specific statement that is demonstrably false, like “the brakes are inadequate and unsafe” or something, but this?

    Does Fiat think this one opinion carries so much weight with their customers?  I just don’t get this.  Hopefully their case will get dismissed as groundless.

    Hey Fiat: Your cars suck and are boring.  Come get me.

  • avatar
    Vega

    Citroen Clio?

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    But at some point automotive journalists have to meet some standard of competence and integrity.  I think the outcome will be based on the idea of negligence, and I’d think that would both be hard to prove and would require extreme incompetence and/or corruption.
    From what I can see, TTAC reviewers, though not hesitant to be critical, are by far too competent to worry about this.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    Buying a FIAT or Chrysler now constitutes ushering in an age free of honest opinions; a crime against truth and beauty.

  • avatar
    Gunit

    Fiat would do better to fire some of their lawyers and replace them with engineers. As bad as an article like this might be for Fiat’s reputation suing someone instead of using a poor revue as motivation to build better cars does a lot more damage. What’s next, suing their customers that are critical of their cars?

  • avatar
    fredtal

    So what if the do go to court and lose?  Proof that Fiats are inferior.

  • avatar
    roadrabbit

    Surprised this didn’t happen in the US (to a different brand, of course).  No wait, with the “objectivity” of the major US buff books (we drive 4 cars and pretty much like them all), there probably wasn’t a negative enough review of a major advertiser/major brand to warrant legal action.  The gravy train rules!

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    I predict that the suit (if actually filed) will be quietly withdrawn by Fiat as soon as press interest in the matter wanes. Fiat wants to call attention to what they believe is shoddy journalism that damages their image/ego, which is just what they’re getting by filing suit.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      That may be your perspective on it, but clearly many people see them as being thin skinned and unable stand up to scrutiny of their products. They’re also willing to compromise a fundamental principle of a free society over their bruised egos. Revolting. I’ll be telling my aunt and uncle what I think of their spot on the Fiat’s waiting list.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      CJinSD:

      I don’t endorse Fiat’s actions with the suit, I just don’t believe that they seriously think they can win a real victory with the suit. This is the kind of battle that cannot be won by the fight; the only victory is in the declaration.

      As to thin skins, I presume that you are equally revolted by food libel laws, such as was used by beef producers to sue Oprah?

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      Can I sue that over-achieving couch divot for endorsing Obama? I’m not aware of the beef lawsuits, so I can’t comment on them. I don’t run in Oprah watching circles, so I can only judge her by her efforts to insert herself in our culture beyond the daytime TV audience. Based on what I’ve seen, I just hope she leaves the public eye as soon as possible.

      The idea that there was a ‘victory’ to loudly announcing corporate character failures to rival those of their products doesn’t work for me.

  • avatar
    PeregrineFalcon

    So that’s what Chrysler gave Fiat in exchange for their small cars:

    The American propensity to sue, sue, sue.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    While I don’t necessarily approve of flying off the handle and suing over little things, but I DO think if the issue at fault is warranted, suing, or the threat of it could cause the offender to back off isn’t a bad idea, but to sue for the sake of suing, not so much.
     
    In this case, I think Fiat may have jumped the gun a little too quickly on this one over the aspect they stated but in the end, if this were to be taken more seriously, they need to really look at HOW the “test” was conducted, in this case, taken from a test another source, a magazine in this case and without letting the viewer in on the real source, made it look like their test and then gave an entirely different result that just happened to be unflattering to Fiat, and on that basis, I think Fiat has a ground of argument but on the speed issue, not so much, that said, the automotive TV show should be held responsible for doing what they did and in the end, I think both sides, be it Fiat or another automotive company need to be transparent in how they make/design their cars, but so should the auto journo’s as well, in that rigging or slamming a particular car without merit can be just as damaging as the automotive company saying, if you be nice, I’ll let you drive such and such a car (read, leave a flattering report), that said, if AnnoZero had been honest in its “test” and said that while the Alfa is a fantastic car, it could stand to have a bigger engine, not necessarily the one that was supplied with this particular example and say why, I think the companies like Fiat would be less quick to sue or anything like that for it’s a constructive criticism without being negative, just for the sake of being negative.
     
    In this case, I think both sides may have hurt themselves.
     
    That said, it appears current Fiat models are a huge improvement over their predecessors.

  • avatar
    vrtowc

    Is it true or did you see it on TV?
    Far from applauding FIAT to be “trigger happy” suing media. On the other hand the sad truth usually is, that most auto magazines write according to their advertisers wishes. And FIAT is a small advertiser compared to any of the German brands…
    There was an incident a couple of years back. The story has it AutoMotorUndSport (AMS) wanted some “gifts” from FIAT in order to write a positive review. As no gifts changed hands, the consequences followed. AMS Greek subsidiary published a review where FIAT Bravo allegedly failed braking test completely. Now the most scary part: The picture of the “failed brakes” accompanying the article (showing old, dirty and rusty mechanics) turned out to be a picture of a 20 year old Toyota. Go figure…


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