The Truth About Cars » automotive journalism The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Thu, 17 Jul 2014 13:26:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » automotive journalism Avoidable Contact: Torture, forgiveness, meaning. Fri, 29 Mar 2013 15:04:04 +0000

Earlier this week, I wrote about the General Motors XP-75 Eagle and the idea that GM might have engaged in a relatively small bit of realpolitik during said plane’s conception and gestation. I’ve been writing for TTAC long enough to have a fairly accurate sense of how the B&B as a whole will regard whatever I write, but in the case of this article my guesses about what I’d find in the comments section were completely and thoroughly mistaken. I’d like to address them as part of larger concerns I have about the future of writing and criticism on the Internet, and I will do so in what you’re about to read.

But first, let’s talk about the way the Japanese treated prisoners during World War II, shall we?

The incident is still fresh in my mind, but it happened some sixteen years ago, at an auto parts store in Hilliard, Ohio. My wife and I had gone into the shop to find some parts for my ’86 Vanden Plas and on the way out I saw an older man struggling with some heavy boxed items. I offered to help and he accepted reluctantly. As we trudged across the parking lot I noticed that his entire body appeared to be crooked. He walked at an angle, shuffling and dragging a leg. We arrived at his Nissan Stanza wagon, parked in a non-handicapped spot far from the door, and he opened the right-side slider. It was an early one, already well past a decade old, tired but clean.

“Hey,” I said, “I remember these. Sliding doors on both sides.” At the time it was a very unusual feature, perhaps unique in the early Eighties when the “Prairie” tall wagon arrived in the United States bearing the Stanza nameplate.

“Yes,” my new friend replied. “Good car. I have thirteen of them. Nine of ‘em are running right now. Good car.”

“Did you say thirteen? Thirteen Stanza wagons?”

“That’s right. You see, I…” Then he stopped and looked at me for a long moment. I was in my twenties at the time and didn’t understand the look, but I understand it now, because I’ve given it a few times in the years since then. It was a look of evaluation. He was deciding whether or not to spend his time on me. He was deciding whether or not to tell me a story. For that long moment he was Anubis, weighing my heart as we sweated under the Ohio summer sun and my wife loaded our own boxes into my car. Then he decided to continue.

“I was captured,” he exhaled. “In the Second World War. By the Japanese. Do you understand what that means?” Indeed, I did understand. At the age of eight, I had snuck my father’s copy of John Toland’s The Rising Sun from his bookcase. Past my bedtime, crouched on my bedroom floor next to the night-light, I thrilled to the explicit descriptions of the Bataan Death March, the island-hopping campaigns, and the flight of the Enola Gay, long after Mom and Dad thought I was safely asleep. I knew who General Wainwright was and I knew the failings of the Brewster Buffalo. I had an idea of what was being suggested. I had an idea of the clash of concepts involved; a nation of people who helped the other man up at the end of a tackle and a nation of people for whom the notion of self did not include anything as humiliating as surrender, locked in a war that began in foolish optimism and would end with the bodies of children burned beyond recognition in the atomic flame. I nodded and said nothing. He continued.

“For a long time, I hated them. It made me sick. Hating them. Now, I always could fix a car, and my daughter bought one of these and asked me to fix it. When I took it apart… well, I liked what I saw. They make sense. And no junk in them. So many cars are just junk. These are solid cars. I started fixing them for other people, and when those people were ready to let ‘em go I took ‘em. Have some land. Took a few that didn’t run, too. I’m retired. Gives me something to do.” The proper thing for me to do at this point, I sensed, was to say nothing. So that’s what I did.

“For a long time, I hated them. But I took these cars apart, these Datsuns. You know what? It’s funny. I didn’t hate the people who made these. Sometimes I look at something and I realize I know just what they were thinking. It makes sense. You understand? It makes sense. I feel better, working on ‘em. Good, dependable cars. Now I know what you’re going to say,” and he knew more than me, for I planned to say nothing, “you want to maybe know how much I’m asking for one. But I don’t have one for sale right now. Sold a few, don’t plan on selling any more.”

There were a few pleasantries after that, but he was clearly in a hurry to return to his Stanzas and I had tasks of my own. I wrote his name and number on a scrap of paper, intending to call him some time. And that scrap was stacked with other papers and one day surely that stack was taken to the garbage and that was that. I don’t remember his name. I don’t know anything else about him. Don’t know where he was captured, when he was released. I don’t know if he came back to the victory-flushed United States a broken man outside as well as inside. I don’t know if he shuddered in his dreams and woke up in the dead of night with the terror fresh in his mind and his mouth dry like sandpaper. His story is opaque and gone. Still, I told what I had of the story dozens of times in the years afterwards; the crippled veteran who found peace repairing Stanza wagons. I would imagine he is long gone now. I would like to believe that his final thoughts had nothing to do with what he suffered. Perhaps he thought of his family, his friends, or even of the procedures involved in swapping out the starter in those transverse Nissans; the script of wrench and hand and effort, told again and again across a fleet of faded boxes in an Ohio field, preparing them for a day of use that probably never came, a phantom squadron abandoned at its post.

Before we settle too much into that comfortable idea, however, let’s consider an alternative. Let’s say he was just some ornery old bastard who liked to spin a yarn. He was annoyed at the kid who got in his business and dragged a bunch of shit that he was perfectly capable of carrying himself out to his wagon and then stood around expecting to be thanked or something. Looking at that kid, he detected a certain gullibility, a willingness to be deceived, and for reasons of his own he set out to tell me the most stupid and ridiculous story he could imagine on the fly. World War Two! Torture! Stanza wagons! Some old hick under a fourteen-year-old piece of crap, banging away with a set of old wrenches and swallowing transmission fluid accidentally in the name of redemption! He must have laughed all the way home. A fleet of wagons in a field! Only an idiot would believe it, I tell you, and that kid just swallowed it right up! Oh Christ! Hand me a beer.

Or here’s another idea: it never happened at all. I was sitting around at the New York Auto Show, having a couple of shots of Ketel One courtesy of Kia Motors America and waiting for the arrival of one particularly coltish and sullen young girljourno, and I decided to make something up so I could sell it to this website and recoup part of my eye-watering bill for parking a rental Dodge Caravan in an underground lot for thirty-six hours. Makes perfect sense. The readers complain that I’m being too harsh on GM? Let’s throw ‘em some red meat! The Bataan Death March! Men dropping to the side of the road and being beaten to death by the surviving members of an army that was already waist-deep in the blood of innocents by 1941! A nation of sword-wielding savages who had their asses kicked all the way back to Tokyo by American steel, the P-51 Mustang, the Jeep, and the M-1 Garand! And it’s all tied together in the character of a peaceful-warrior type, offering forgiveness through his own efforts, a Christlike figure really, too good to be true but you might swallow it because face it, you (and I) are part of the same general demographic that’s allowed Gawker to herd them through the gates of Kinja like so many stupid cattle led up a spiral pathway of least resistance to the killing box and the knife and the hanging carcass and the resulting product served at five hundred degrees to some self-satisfied marketing type at a Manhattan restaurant, we aren’t half as bright as we think we are.

Who knows? I know, but I’m not telling. Consider this: even if the original story is “true”, that doesn’t mean that it is factually accurate. The man telling it was seventy-something years old and he told it to me before some of you were old enough to read. You could fly an XP-75 Eagle through the gaps in that chain of custody, couldn’t you?

Any story — any story — is broken and incomplete by its very nature. It is a distillation. It is not what Douglas Hofstadter called a “natural transformation”. Not all of the information is retained. It’s what the kids call a “codec” or a “compression”. When you buy an MP3 from Amazon you’re getting a distillation of the 44.1Khz track that is itself a distillation of what the equipment picked up and transferred to the computer, that original sound itself being adulterated and twisted and echoed and lost in all sorts of little ways after leaving Robert Plant’s vocal cords or the speaker cone of Jimmy Page’s Supro recording amp. You can never get any of that back. It’s lost.

This concept is difficult for some modern readers to grasp. They think that there’s a single hard truth at the center of everything, a 0-60 time or curb weight, and that it can be measured and extracted. They also expect that anything that upsets or confounds their comfortable preconceptions will be “balanced” with an appropriate amount of sweet-tooth pap tailored by a thousand expert systems to their own cherished ideals. Was the XP-75 Eagle a deliberate and cynical attempt by General Motors to profit from the war? Perhaps. Does that mean that a story on the XP-75 must be “balanced” with a discussion of concentration camps or a panegyric to the General’s massive and acknowledged legitimate contributions to the Allied victory in World War II? No. Grow up and get over yourself.

Too many of the blogosphere’s readers are looking for what I call “sucks and rocks”. They refuse to permit a word or an opinion or a review to have a nuanced meaning. Like a Photoshop filter set to “posterize 2″, they immediately replace each description with “sucks” or “rocks”. They read this:

While the CTS Coupe’s appearance is tailor-made to generate controversy, it’s also a very “honest” coupe. Nearly every panel is different. The doors open electrically, as with a Corvette. I disagree with this; I think a solid handle would impart a quality feel, which is just as important as aesthetics. While the automatic may be faster around the ‘Ring, in the real world it’s easily confused and on a track of less epic proportions it requires constant attention from the steering-wheel-mounted control buttons.

The rest of the car is standard CTS-V: controversial interior made more so by the addition of the (recommended) Recaro buckets, center stack that has been replicated everywhere from LaCross to la Cruze, not-quite-convincing stitched-leather dash. I drove a 3.6 direct-injection V6 automatic on the way home from Monticello and in many ways preferred it to the V. If you want an automatic, the six is a much better dance partner and it’s far cheaper

and they reduce it to

While the CTS Coupe’s appearance sucks, it’s also a very “honest” coupe. The doors rock, as with a Corvette. I disagree with this; I think a solid handle would not suck. While the automatic may be faster around the rocking track, in the real world it sucks and on a track that sucks it sucks.

The rest of the car is standard CTS-V: sucks interior made more so by the addition of the (rocks) Recaro buckets, center stack that sucks, not-quite-rocking sucks dash. I drove a 3.6 direct-injection V6 automatic on the way home from Monticello and it rocks. If you want an automatic, the six rocks and it’s far cheaper

Having reduced everything to black and white, they then argue viciously against the reduction. They set up straw men, rush them headlong, then struggle mightily in their grip. Nothing short of a full-throttle, unequivocal endorsement of their personal beliefs will satisfy — and why should it, when they can get just that from outlets ranging from the Huffington Post to ClubLexus? Why should they trouble themselves with anything else?

I spoke to a lot of journalists at the New York Auto Show in the past two days, and I heard concerns like these repeated again and again. Many of my fellow writers have decided to surrender to the zeitgeist; they write articles in which everything rocks for the people who want to hear that, and they write articles where everything sucks once in a while just so the Deltas who make up their reader base don’t bother to wake up and stop taking the soma. I was told again and again that the future is in single-interest websites like “1Addicts” and AudiWorld where the readers vomit the naked soul of their bellowing ids into a forum and the resulting pap is stirred strongly and fed back to them in feature articles gravid with undisguised OEM input.

I refuse to believe it. I won’t yield to that idea. I believe in you, the reader, and I’ll continue to do so. You could say that my stories are like a row of old Stanza wagons; outdated and faded, invisible on the street in the face of flashy new content zooming by, hopelessly dependent on the reader’s willingness to look under the hood and really think about what’s going on in there. Still, I’ll continue to tinker with them, swapping out parts, improving them where I can, a phantom squadron, my own labor of love, forever and ever, Amen.

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How To Succeed At Automotive Journalism: A Primer For Neophytes Fri, 08 Jun 2012 16:15:52 +0000

Since I started my career, I’ve been asked countless times, whether by acquaintances, friends, reader emails and just about every male with a pulse and a drivers license; how do I get your job (or, for our readers, how can I start writing for TTAC). I’ve seen a few lame, generalized articles about “how to be an automotive journalist”, but this one will tell you how to actually make a career out of it, rather than simply spending your days as an “independent blogger” while working at the Verizon store to pay the bills.


Literally every single hack with a Twitter account, a dubious blog with three-figure monthly traffic, or some kind of “diversity” angle that can be used to shame OEMs into getting press trip invites, can write car reviews. And they do. Badly. Here’s a little known fact: all the trips to France and open bars and all the PR ego-massaging is meant to disguise the fact that car reviewers are the peons of the automotive journalism world, the lowest on the totem pole. Car reviews get the lowest pay from publications (in many cases, they won’t pay at all) because they are the most fungible content. Unedited car reviews, even by “name brand” journalists that you know and look up to, are usually written at a level that a 3rd grader would find embarrassing. I know this because I’ve spent years editing them.The participants of the press trip circus are often times the “useful idiots” who can get the OEMs message out there, not necessarily the best writers, or drivers or nicest or brightest people. It’s a little like the real world. In any case, real press trips, usually to far-away places like Indianoplace, are rare. More common are car keys handed over by an agency. With that in mind, don’t give up because there’s a way to actually make a living out of this…

2) Have a skill that has nothing to do with reviewing cars

This year, I’ve ignored a whole bunch of pitches and sought out two people, because they bring something to the table that the TTAC crew can’t necessarily do to the best of their abilities. Andrew is an engineer, and when he’s not repairing dangerously dilapidated infrastructure in rural Canada, he’ll be writing about automotive technology in layman’s terms. Tim is the sales guy and he makes a living at it. If you’re not good at math, well, look at it this way: Steve knows the used car business inside out, Sajeev has a lot of real world experience (something that few have and counts for so much), Jack has a racing license, Murilee is the only person in the world who has tons of knowledge about obscure vehicles and automotive trivia that don’t condescend to the uninformed, Michael owns and operates his own business in the auto industry and Bertel…well, start here and figure it out for yourself.

Corollary: Being a “social media expert” is the only qualification more worthless than “automotive journalist”. Good content gets traffic, not Twitter, not link spamming, not SEO.

3) If you insist on doing car reviews, you better be good. Or a hard worker. Or not…

If you’re going to review cars, your pieces need to either blow the reader away with superlative prose or focus on an angle that nobody else has seen. We have both here at TTAC. You can figure out where Brendan sits on that continuum. On the other hand, we have Alex. He’s no Brendan, but Alex isn’t interested in the “dab of oppo” British-style faux-hooning review. Alex will do a video about the BMW 650i’s technology features when most hacks will use it to try and impress whatever sex they’re attracted to. Alex will pour his heart and soul into a commercial van comparison when most writers couldn’t even muster half the effort to write about the Scion FR-S. Forget what you see on the Facebook albums and Instagram profiles of other established writers. Driving an Aventador in the desert is glorious but fleeting. They can be replaced by the next over-enthusiastic individual willing to eat the requisite amount of excrement the moment they run afoul of whatever agenda is set out for the publication. You can not afford to be expendable.

4) Read and network

The two most important things you can do. Reading is the gym for your mind. Read everything. Stop reading the buff books. You will develop a myopic, uninformed and stubborn view of the auto industry known as “ManualDieselWagonItis”. Buy a subscription to “Just-Auto”. Get a copy of Arrogance and Accords and take copious notes. Stare at monthly sales figures until you are literally bored to tears.

Then go out and network. Meet everyone. Social awkwardness never stopped me, or the most egregious weirdos from succeeding in this business. Every job (including this one) has come from somebody liking me more than someone else who may or may not have been more qualified than myself. At the lowest point in my career, Ed threw me a lifeline because he not only thought I was capable, but he liked me enough and more importantly trusted me enough to let me come onboard and help steer his ship while he went away.

Corollary: you will not get along with everyone. You will dislike some people. They will dislike you for any number of reasons. Your personalities may clash. You may have different values. They may feel threatened by you. Whatever. The right person will recognize your talents, and if they don’t, maybe you just have no talent.

5) If you STILL insist on doing car reviews

Take whatever money you’d spend on buying a brown Citroen SM with a Stratos V6 swap and LEARN TO DRIVE. There are many ways to do this. Go to racing school (expensive). Get coaching one on one (also expensive). If you’re fortunate like me, sign up for a karting series. Although you run the same track every time, nothing teaches you fine control of a vehicle, or how to sense how much traction you have (or don’t have) like karting. It’s also cheap (at low levels) fairly safe and most importantly, good fun. Chances are, you will never be a race car driver. As a child, I was found to have exceptionally poor spatial sense, which will prevent me from ever becoming a great racer. If you’re the kind of person who is more inclined with words than numbers, chances are you may have a similar ailment. The good news is that if you learn to steer smoothly, squeeze on the brakes and look ahead, you can savage most of your fellow junket participants, over-priced sports car buyers and both types who also attend the same track days as you. The downside is you may “…never be able to out of your window net and simply [destroy] another man’s confidence on the entry to a critical corner…” but I’m sure most of us can live with that. Or …

… simply forget about car racing. It is beyond me why would-be car racers end up as would-be writers. The OEMs that hand you the keys to that car roll their eyes at reviewers with racing ambitions. They are scary,  they cause accidents. People don’t want to read about your heels and toes. They want a car to drive to work.

6) Here’s surefire advice on how to get a gig at TTAC, or any other North American publication. Or a book deal.

 Go get a job in the industry. Working at a dealership is ok, but may not get you too far. Working at an OEM is also good. Working at a car factory is better. Working at a UAW plant is the Mount Everest. Even if it’s just sweeping the floors. You will have years of original content, insights that no professional “journalist” will ever have and the kind of life experience that will make you an interesting person to talk to at parties. Most importantly, you will have a story to tell. One that doesn’t involve how much better the Eden Roc is than the bullshit Mandarin Oriental that the OEM has dared to put you up in after flying economy. We desperately need new blood in this business. If you’re already out there, have an itch to write and are willing to break any NDA’s you’ve signed, write to and enclose 400 words of your prose. If you don’t hear back from us, we weren’t impressed.



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How To Be An Automotive Journalist, Part III: Pathetic “Platform” Prose Mon, 27 Sep 2010 14:40:09 +0000

There are times I really wish I had half the brains, knowledge, and skill of the average print-rag journo. Today is one of those times. You see, in my not-so-spare time, my race team and I have designed a lower control-arm brace for the first-generation Neon. It’s a neat thing, looks very industrial. I’m making it right here in Ohio, using 5000-series aluminum for corrosion resistance. The parts are laser-cut, and we have some semi-sophisticated CAD modeling tools involved to ensure it’s as strong as possible for the given weight. I’ll have the first batch of fifty in my hands this upcoming Friday.

Now here’s the big question. Will this brace fit the second-generation Neon? For the last decade, I’ve been reading various assertions by “automotive journalists” that the “PL2000″ Neon is really the same “platform” as the first-gen car. If that’s really true — if all Neons are the same under the skin — this brace should bolt right up and we won’t have to go back to the CATIA screen to design a different one. We could sell a lot of them to owners of the newer Neons and SRT-4s. What do you think? Would you double your planned production run based on what you’ve read in Car and Driver? Of course not. Instead, we’re heading to the junkyard with a prototype to measure and check.

What the hell is a “platform” anyway? Once upon a time, a “platform” was called a “chassis”. Many early motorists ordered a chassis and engine from one manufacturer and had it “bodied” elsewhere. Nearly all of the automobiles built before the Second World War could be driven around without their bodies. The use of a Model T sans body as a kind of hillbilly proto-ATV was particularly popular. As late as 1966, Rolls-Royce had two different “coachbuilders” create unibody Silver Shadow coupes. James Young created a Shadow Coupe with a straight beltline; Mulliner Park Ward built a dipped-waist variant that became the Corniche.

Don’t rush down to your local Ford dealer and ask to buy a “D3 chassis”, because there’s no such thing. We are deep in the unibody era now and you couldn’t put a Flex body on a Taurus sedan floorpan without the assistance of a dozen expert fabricators and hundreds, possibly thousands, of labor hours. Same goes for making a Highlander out of a Camry, or a Flying Spur out of a Phaeton.

A platform is really a concept. It’s a set of shared measurements and designs. It’s a way to avoid doing some obscenely expensive first-principle engineering. Example: Honda designed a solid, well-proven suspension, engine mounting system, and set of “hard point” locations for HVAC/electronics/seat mounting for the Accord. By beefing-up those designs but keeping the same basic principles, they could make them work under a minivan, thus the Odyssey. And once you have those pieces in your inventory, why not build an SUV with them? It’s entirely possible that someday, somewhere, somebody will assemble four-wheel-drive, jacked-up Accords using Pilot components. If they bolt together, that is. The only way to know for sure is to measure it out and then do it.

Thirty years ago, the American automakers were under pressure. From Wall Street, to churn quarterly profit. From the government, to be “responsible”. From the public, to turn out a halfway decent product. Chrysler and General Motors decided to very publicly discuss the “X-body”, “K-car”, and “J-platform” when introducing their new vehicles. Doing so satisfied Wall Street: it was obviously cheaper to have a common underlying platform. It satisfied the governmental authorities, who not-so-secretly yearned for the day they would be able to mandate a single kind of car for everyone. And it satisfied the public that all the new cars, whether they were Citations, Skylarks, Omegas, or Phoenixes, had the latest engineering. But did anybody stop to ask if it was true?

I’m serious. For all anybody really knew, the Cimarron and the Cavalier could have been totally different under the skin. Sometimes the “platform twins” really were different, even if they had the same nameplate on them. Try swapping doors among the “G-body” Regal, Cutlass, and Malibu. They don’t always fit. Some critical dimensions were changed for the different assembly plants. What I’m getting at here, though, is that in automotive “journalism” we assume the manufacturer is telling the truth, unless it conflicts with our preconceptions.

Every automotive journalist in America implicitly accepted that the 1981 Aries and Reliant were the same car. Nobody measured them out. Nobody swapped parts just to check. They just took Chrysler’s word on the subject. Nothing’s changed in the past thirty years. All the babbling in the press about, say, the new Explorer, is just that — babbling. Nobody’s done the work to see just how different the Explorer is from the Flex under the skin. We all took Ford’s word that the two are related. What else can we do in the space of a hour-long test drive along a pre-planned route?

This leaves journalists with a problem, namely: If I get all my “platform” information from the manufacturers, how can I sound more insightful than my peers without actually doing any work? The answer is to make stuff up. I won’t link to examples of these assertions, particularly since a few of the links would have the same basic URL as found in this article, but how often have you read statements like:

  • The Cavalier was “fundamentally the same” throughout its 23-year run, and the Cobalt uses the same basic platform as its predecessor?
  • The Ford Panthers are “the same car underneath” from 1980 to 2010?
  • The (insert name of full-sized truck or van here) hasn’t “really” changed since (1970-something)?
  • The Chrysler 300 is just an old W210 E-Class “in drag”?

All of the above assertions are exposed for the garbage they are the minute you look underneath the vehicles in question with any kind of tape measure or caliper, but they sound very knowledgeable when you read them on a website or in a magazine. It’s lazy journalism at its finest, spouting ridiculous, uninformed assumptions as loud as humanly possible.

Note that I used American and/or German manufacturers for the examples above. The reason I did that? The Japanese aren’t stupid. For a long time now, they have carefully controlled the information they dole out regarding platform-sharing. That’s why the Civic and Corolla are always called “all-new” by the sycophantic press and the domestic subcompacts are always “carryover” this and “reused” that.

As someone who has raced a few Hondas and worked in a race garage with a few more, I can tell you from firsthand, turn-the-wrench experience that there are tremendous similarities between any two consecutive generations of Civics. Why is the press silent on this? It’s simple. Honda doesn’t think they have a need to know about commonalities, so Honda doesn’t tell them, and there’s obviously no way these fat-ass buffet hounds will find out on their own. It’s a brilliant strategy.

For more than thirty years, the Motor Trends of the world have swallowed and unthinkingly repeated the ridiculous idea that Japanese automakers effortlessly clean-sheet their entire lineup every four years while the domestics and Germans drag “platforms” out for decade-plus life spans. Two hours in a garage with a few tape measures would have exposed the falsehood — but who’s gonna do that when there are free drinks available at the hotel bar?

The irony of this is that Honda’s relentless determination to reuse critical dimensions, designs, and even bolts is a key factor in ensuring their famous reliability. It also allows NASA Honda Challenge race teams to “LEGO-set” some pretty neat cars. Want to put a Cobalt SS turbo engine in an ’02 Cavalier? No freakin’ way, not without a plasma torch. Want to put a Prelude engine in a CRX? Check out HondaSwap for the instructions. Those people know how similar most Hondas are, but they aren’t writing the “Wheels” section in your local newspaper.

The manufacturers are all wising-up to the fact that autojournos are too stupid to do their research on platforms. During the recent Cruze introduction, Chevrolet PR people repeatedly made semi-misleading “platform chat” assertions to link the Cruze with the Opel Astra, forgetting to mention that, while the Cruze is a “platform mate” with the Astra, it’s also a near-complete twin of a Daewoo. The recent Scion tC launch barely mentioned the Toyota Avensis, and furthermore, the Toyota PR people absolutely refused to speculate on whether the tC was a refreshed first-gen Avensis platform or a second-gen Avensis platform, or even if said two Avensis generations were different in any substantial way.

This isn’t stopping my fellow journalists from boldly forging ahead with new platform-based diatribes. One fellow recently wrote that the 370Z was a “converted truck”, citing the commonality with the Infiniti FX. That’s in-your-face writing, and it sounds quite knowledgeable. I wonder if the author of that piece could list any common pieces between a 370Z and an FX50? If he can, do you suppose he also knows if the lower strut brace I tested on my 1995 Plymouth Neon will fit a 2004 Dodge SRT-4?

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How To Be An Auto Journalist Part I: The Press Drive Tue, 17 Aug 2010 22:20:38 +0000

Inspired by the Michael Karesh review of “Sixty To Zero” today, I thought I would share some aspects of auto journalism with the TTAC readers. To the best of my knowledge, this kind of information has not appeared anywhere in the print-rag world or “blogosphere”… and perhaps after reading this, you will understand why.

What I propose to do is to take you along with me for a “typical” product reveal. I’m combining various “signature” aspects of different companies’ press events here to create an imaginary journal for my trip to see the introduction of the 2011 Mythos 200EsI.. Now, if you’ll grab your bags, we have a plane to catch…

8:30am EST I’m going through security at Port Columbus International Airport (CMH). Since I’m a TTAC writer, I spend my own money to get to the airport and park my car for the next 48 hours. We’re only talking $40 or $50 here, but it’s money I won’t get back. And, of course, I can’t work my regular job while I’m gone. The print guys and the big-blog dudes often have different arrangements. It’s common for automakers to maintain satellite press-fleet offices in major cities. So the fellow from Car Advertising And Breathless Reviews will drive his free press car to the airport, get on the plane, and return two days later to find another one in that spot. He may also fly first class; some outlets get the upgrade. With one exception, I’ve flown coach every time in the past three years. The flight is paid for by the manufacturer and booked through their people.

12:30pm PST I’m here in Los Angeles. Whenever possible, automakers hold their events on the West Coast. It allows the East Coast guys to gain three hours when they fly in. East Coast events usually have to start the following day. I’m paired up with a writer for the Smallville Post and Gazette and we are given a Mythos 200EsI to drive to the host hotel. The P&G guy asks me to drive and spends the next hour on the phone with various people. By the time we get to the hotel, I would cheerfully stab him through the throat if I thought I could get away with it. It could be worse; sometimes we are chauffeured to the host hotels and then I have to listen to two print journos whine at each other.

2:00pm PST At the host hotel, which is usually a four-or-five-star arrangement, I’m re-paired with a “drive partner” for a 120-mile loop over a route that usually is split 50/50 backroad and freeway. About half the time, my drive partner will suggest that I do the entire thing so he can sleep, make calls, or surf the web on his iPhone. There are two kinds of people on these press drives: people who treat it like a stopwatch challenge and people who drive five under the limit and fiddle with the stereo. Halfway through the loop, we will stop at some fabulous restaurant for refreshment. Some manufacturers have displays at the halfway point; some just feed you and put you back on the road.

The cars we get for these trips are usually fully loaded examples. This Mythos 200EsI bases at $19,995 but my tester is $31,650. I asked for a manual transmission but was told there were none available. With rare exceptions, such as a Ford Mustang launch, stick-shifts are usually not in the press fleet.

5:30pm PST Time for the presentation. These can range from light-hearted twenty-minute talks to two-hour slogs through interior fabrics and loving descriptions of the intended customers’ socio-economic positioning. We’re each provided with a notebook and pen: Mythos knows better than to assume that we’re prepared with that sort of stuff. At the end there’s a question and answer time. As usual, there are three questions asked. The first one is from a grossly fat, Methuselah-old print writer in the front row, and is designed to show everybody how much he knows about the industry. The second one is from a mommy-blogger and inadvertently reveals the fact that she was unaware of the Federal Government’s requirements for child-safety rear door locks. The third one is from a newspaper guy and is related to whether the turn signals will “click” like the ones in a ’98 Honda Accord. Sometimes I will ask Question #4, and it’s usually related to some gaping void in the presentation, such as the Cruze’s Korean engineering or the Honda Crosstour’s cargo space. Question #4 is never popular. Time for drinks!

7:30pm PST Mythos has laid on a top-notch dinner here! My table has six other journos and a chassis engineer. As is my post-Chicago Auto Show policy, I restrict myself to eight shots of Ketel One. The conversation around the table is lively and mostly related to various personalities known to most of us. There is a rehashing of the old story about the prominent auto-blogger who hired a prostitute and took her on a first-class flight to Europe as a “personal assistant”. Rumors fly from seat to seat. Stories are told, most of them frankly slanderous. I’m telling one of the three women in the forty-journo “wave” how I personally cheated death in a horrifying racing accident, holding her hand, and running her fingers through my hair for the purpose of evaluating the brand of color-safe conditioner I prefer. About once every ten minutes, the lonely chassis engineer will attempt to ask the table a question. “Did you guys think the engine was okay? What was your favorite wheel and tire combination?” There is never a response. By ten o’clock he’s gone, but for some of us the party continues to midnight or beyond.

8:30am PST Today is track day! Mythos thinks the 200 EsI is track-ready so we go to a local road course. After a safety briefing, we are sent out to drive. There’s never much of a line to drive the cars; in fact, most of the journalists are busy trying to obtain a “driveaway” press car to take them into LA for a shopping evening. If we’re lucky, we’re given two consecutive laps before being called into the pits; if not, we will simply drive from pit-out to pit-in. Nearly every manufacturer is savvy now to the fact that requiring single laps staves-off brake fade and engine heat soak while also discouraging people from driving the cars very much.

In such an environment, I am forced to immediately dial the pace up as high as I can stand. You learn nothing about a car’s handling by driving it at “eight-tenths”. During these short laps, I am struggling to push the car as hard as possible while simultaneously taking mental notes about everything from steering feel to the effect of the A/C on back-straight performance. It’s mega-stressful, which is why nobody else bothers to do it. I take as many laps as I’m permitted to, but after just fifty minutes my Mythos is the only one on-track. The event is called over with forty minutes remaining on the schedule, and I step into a Mythos minivan for the ride to the airport. In the lobby I see autojournos with the press brochure on their knees furiously typing their stories. The goal is to get off the plane with the work completed. I’m simply too physically big to operate a netbook in a coach seat, so I’ll wait until I get home.

10:15pm EST After a layover and a switch to a Regional Jet for the last leg to Columbus, I walk through a mostly empty airport and catch a shuttle. My white 911 is sitting faithfully in the parking lot, ready to carry me home. I have a Mythos-branded Flash drive with the press release on it and a Mythos hat that I’ll give to my sixteen-year-old neighbor. I realize I cannot remember the name of the woman I fell in love with last night, but I do remember her telling some story about being stalked by some dude who quit the business to work in publishing. I check the comments from my last TTAC story and see that, in the moderation queue, there is a 600-word rant from somebody who likens me to Hitler and suggests that the death of my infant son would be just plain hilarious. Tomorrow’s article on the Mythos will put me on the “shit list” with two automakers, neither of which will actually be Mythos, and it will offend at least fifty dedicated TTAC readers. I hope that the article at least helps somebody who is considering buying a 200EsI. I arrive home and fall asleep before I can tell my girlfriend about the in-room waterfalls at the host hotel. It’s just another two-day vacation in the life of the low-budget auto writer.

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