Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award has been a lightning rod of criticism among automotive gadflies ever since… well, you decide. Corvair? Vega? Mustang II? Every year, MT picks one “best” car from a market that serves a wide variety of needs, and every year, the autoblogosphere rushes to help the tottering “contest” collapse under the weight of its own pretense. This year, with Motor Trend picking Volkswagen’s new de-Euro’d Passat (a car that has received a decidedly mixed critical reception) for its highest honor, is it any wonder that the peanut gallery is frothing over the choice?
Jalopnik, the gaddiest of automotive gadflies, swung for the moon with their headline of “Golden Shower” superimposed atop a picture of Editor-In-Chief Angus Mackenzie. Mike Spinelli’s satirical rant, praising Motor Trend for giving the award to a car that has been watered-down and decontented for the American market, would be funny if there weren’t legions of people who earnestly believed the Passat could qualify as some kind of enthusiast vehicle beyond the mere fact that it was a Volkswagen, and therefore obscure to most consumers.
The previous Passats were great cars. I lobbied hard for my folks to buy a B6 Wagon in high school but they ended up going with a Hyundai Santa Fe. The inside of a Passat was, to quote a popular movie at the time “lined with rich mahogany and filled with leather [bound books]…” and the 2.0T engine provided a nice kick. The dealer even had a parts counter guy who offered to re-flash the ECU for another 40 horsepower and 90 lb-ft, but alas, it wasn’t to be. Otherwise, the Passats were just “meh” to drive. More fun than a CamCord to be certain, but eating diabetic candy is more fun than eating celery sticks.
But a rant like Jalopnik’s, as funny as it is, is just as disingenuous as Motor Trend’s award – it’s not really about the quality of the car or of Motor Trend’s journalism, but a sly bit of branding and status whoring, intending to position Jalopnik as a site of integrity, by the enthusiasts, for enthusiasts. We’ve seen this before with the Jeff Glucker hit-piece, in spite of the rampant XBOX whoring and other questionable tactics like misleading headlines that lead to single sentence posts. Motor Trend may have made a bad call, but trotting out the typical “enthusiasts are being ignored” canard is the wrong move when our target for attack has given the COTY award to illustrious candidates like the 2002 Ford Thunderbird and the 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser. Spinelli asks rhetorically “Why would Motor Trend cater to the whims of “enthusiasts” over the marketplace?” Because, as we’ve established long ago, enthusiasts complain endlessly and buy seldom. Meanwhile, the new Jetta is setting sales records, despite it apparently being the enthusiast Antichrist on four wheels [Ed: to the point where Forbes calls it a "flop," despite its 27% bump in sales]
On to the next bête noire – Motor Trend brags about this year’s field of cars being one of the largest and most competitive, at 35. Looking at the field, I can see about, oh, 33 more worthy candidates (aside from the Fisker Karma, which is vaporware and looks like a kosher sausage that stayed in the frying pan too long). Why not the Ford Focus or the Chevrolet Sonic, two small cars that prove that American cars can beat the imports at their own game [Ed: Might this not have been the best year in history for MT to give a GM small car the honor, after so many embarrassments?]? Why not the Audi A7, which should win for no other reason than being heartbreakingly beautiful? Why not the Nissan LEAF for being a mass market EV that actually works?
If you ask me, the reason is because Motor Trend is out of touch with everything and everyone else outside of Planet Motor Trend, and has officially become irrelevant. They slam the Ford Explorer, but again, it seems to do just fine in the sales race. Their endless advertorial love affair with the CTS-V wagon “long term tester” is almost a parody of auto journalisms excesses. And don’t forget MacKenzie’s own piece for Subaru’s magazine (and MT) which detailed his all-expenses paid jaunt to the Australian Outback in – A Subaru Outback! More than anything else, this seems like MT is betting that the new Passat will sell well, rather than rewarding a manufacturer for a truly significant achievement. And who precisely learns what from that?
Ed described the new Passat to me as “A German Impala” and that’s a pretty apt, if uncharitable description. It’s a lot better than the “enthusiast” vanguard would have you believe, but there’s still something not quite right. It’s a little watered down, a little soft around the edges – just right for everyone else who isn’t totally immersed in the world of automotive trivia. And they’ve never bought a car based on an annual award anyways.