And the Winner Is…

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
and the winner is 8230

Once again, it's time for the yearly pseudo-slugfest known as The Car of the Year. Across this great country of ours, every car-related newspaper, magazine, radio station, TV outlet and website (excluding this one) are busy awarding their favorite manufacturers an automotive attaboy. Once again, both the choices and selection process fall perilously close to farce.

Far be it for me to claim that the various juries are inherently biased. Like the majority of the panelists charged with sorting the wheat from the Ford 500's, I'm also a middle-aged white man. While I don't share my colleagues' sanctimonious regard for cars whose novel propulsion systems and dubious mileage figures are their best– if not only– distinguishing characteristic, I grew up with the same infatuation for speed and style. So none of their non-PC nominees come as any great surprise.

Well, actually, what the Hell is a Chevrolet Impala SS doing in Car and Driver's list of potential 10Besters? While the 240hp version of the whitebread sedan may be a great car– a matter of not much debate amongst pistonheads– what makes it better than Subaru's new Legacy? A lubed-for-life chassis? Of course, I can't second-guess this seemingly odd choice, as I've never driven the souped-up Impala. On the other hand, by its own admission, neither has C&D. Along with four other nominees (Mercedes CLS500 and SLK55 AMG, Mercury Montego, Chevrolet Cobalt and Porsche Boxster), the SS was "not available for evaluation".

That strikes me as more than a little strange. Don't get me wrong: I respect any organization that can find a bunch of car guys willing to complete a test drive on a Suzuki Reno (another surprise contender). But why did Car and Driver include theoretical cars in a subjective competition? Surely it's hard enough trying to rate "how each car performed its intended function, as we perceived it." With that caveat safely on board, nothing's out of bounds. Hell, you could give GMC's Vortec-powered Sierra Hybrid pickup truck the highest honor for 'fulfilling its intended function as the world's fastest electric generator'.

Actually, C&D offers no less than ten honors, including "Best Muscle Car". Cynics amongst you might wonder if this new category was concocted for the sole purpose of giving the Ford Motor Company a nod, but I couldn't possibly comment– other than to point out that the current muscle car market consists of exactly two vehicles (the Ford Mustang and Pontiac GTO). And while we're at it, what's the precise difference between Best Sports Coupe, Best Performance Car and Best Sports Car? My mind's a little muddled on that point– especially as C&D's editors laud the Coupe-winning RX8 as a "practical sports car".

Fortunately, Motor Trend's Car of the Year award avoids this sort of Miss Congeniality-style comprehensiveness. The 300C is it and that's that– unless you want to know why the 300C is more worthy of their ultimate honor than say, the Kia Amonti . MT's explanation of their selection process is remarkably detailed, stocking enough adjectives to fill up three books of Mad Libs. With fine print like that, the magazine could have given their beloved golden calipers to the new John Deere 5525 tractor.

AutoRox, a Spike TV show hoping to become the automotive Oscars, added a little democracy to the mix; the producers gave viewers a chance to vote on some of the aspirants for their as-yet-unnamed hood ornament. Of course, the nominees were all chosen by a distinguished panel (i.e. The Usual Suspects). While Spike's televisual hipsters added a bit of spizzarkle to the tried-and-true categories– "Most Jammin' Truck, The Mid-Life Crisis Car, Tastiest Tuner" etc.– it's hard not to conclude that the network is presenting the same old fish in an MTV rapper.

I'm sure I'm not the only pistonhead who finds all these awards a highly dubious enterprise. But then, the awards aren't designed for our consumption. A die-hard car enthusiast is hardly likely to regard an accolade from C&D or Spike TV or any other representative of the mainline automotive press as the final word on a vehicle's desirability. No, these awards are targeted at the non-enthusiasts, consumers who know next to nothing about cars. Manufacturers use the titles to convince automotive atheists that a given product has received the experts' blessings. In short, the awards are a kind of Christmas kickback from the motoring press to their prime benefactors.

The awards process may be tainted, but everyone in the biz knows it's all in the name of fun. There's only one fair way to identify the "best" car in any given segment. Look for the one at the top of the sales chart.

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 1 comment
  • Mikey Mikey on Jan 06, 2009

    OK: 36 years of reading sales reports,so I figure out if I could go 6 months without being layed off.It wasn't just wasted time thanks. 2005 Impala car of the year eh! Whod'a thunk

  • Fred Private equity is only concerned with making money. Not in content. The only way to deal with it, is to choose your sites wisely. Even that doesn't work out. Just look at AM/FM radio for a failing business model that is dominated by a few large corporations.
  • 3SpeedAutomatic Lots of dynamics here:[list][*]people are creatures of habit, they will stick with one or two web sites, one or two magazines, etc; and will only look at something different if recommended by others[/*][*]Generation Y & Z is not "car crazy" like Baby Boomers. We saw a car as freedom and still do. Today, most youth text or face call, and are focused on their cell phone. Some don't even leave the house with virtual learning[/*][*]New car/truck introductions are passé; COVID knocked a hole in car shows; spectacular vehicle introductions are history.[/*][*]I was in the market for a replacement vehicle, but got scared off by the current used and new prices. I'll wait another 12 to 18 months. By that time, the car I was interested in will be obsolete or no longer available. Therefore, no reason to research till the market calms down. [/*][*]the number of auto related web sites has ballooned in the last 10 to 15 years. However, there are a diminishing number of taps on their servers as the Baby Boomers and Gen X fall off the radar scope. [/*][/list]Based on the above, the whole auto publishing industry (magazine, web sites, catalogs, brochures, etc) is taking a hit. The loss of editors and writers is apparent in all of publishing. This is structural, no way around it.
  • Dukeisduke I still think the name Bzzzzzzzzzzt! would have been better.
  • Dukeisduke I subscribed to both Road & Track and Car and Driver for over 25 years, but it's been close to 20 years since I dropped both. I tried their digital versions with their reader software (can't remember the name now), but it wasn't the same. I let it lapse after a year.From what I've seen of R&T's print version, it's turned into more of a lifestyle thing like The Robb Report. I haven't seen an issue of C/D in a while.I enjoyed both magazines a lot when I was subscribing. R&T for the road tests (especially the April Fools road tests), used car reviews, historical articles, and columns like Peter Egan's Side Glances and Dennis Simanitis's Technical Correspondence. And C/D for the road tests and pithy commentary, and columns like Gordon Baxter's, and Jean Shepherd's (that goes way back to the early '70s).
  • Steve Biro It takes very clever or amusing content for me to sit through a video vehicle review. And most do not include that.Tim, you wrote :"Niche titles aren't dying because of a lack of interest from enthusiasts, but because of broader changes in the economics of media, at least in this author's opinion."You're right about the broader changes in economics. But the truth is that there IS a lack of interest from enthusiasts. Part of it is demographics. Young people coming up are generally not car and truck fans. That doesn't mean there are no young enthusiasts but the numbers are much smaller. And even those who consider themselves enthusiasts seem to have mixed feelings. Just take a look at Jalopnik.And then we come to the real problem: The vast majority of new vehicles coming out today are not interesting to enthusiasts, are not fun to drive and/or are just not affordable.You can argue that EVs are technically interesting and should create enthusiasm. But the truth is they are not fun to drive, don't work well enough yet for most people and are very expensive.EVs on the race track? Have you ever been to a Formula E race? Please.And even if we set EVs aside, the electronic nannies that are being forced on us pretty much preclude a satisfying driving experience in any brand-new vehicle, regardless of propulsion system. Sure, many consumers who view cars as transportation appliances may welcome this technology. But they are not enthusiasts. I don't know about you, but I and most car fans I know don't want smart phones on wheels.There is simply not that much of interest to write about. Car and Driver and Road & Track are dipping deeper into nostalgia and their archives as a result. R&T is big on sponsoring road trips for enthusiasts - which is a great idea. But only people with money to burn need apply.And then there is the problem of quality in automotive writing. As more experienced people are let go and more money is cut from publications, the quality and length of pieces keeps going down, leading to the inevitable self-fulfilling prophecy.Even the output on this site is sharply reduced from its peak. And the number of responses to posts seems a small fraction of what it used to be. This is my first comment since the site was recently relaunched. I don't expect to be making many in the future.Frankly Tim - and it gives me no pleasure to write this - but your post makes me feel as though the people running this site have run out of ideas and TTAC's days may be numbered.Cutbacks in automotive journalism are upsetting. But, until there is something exciting and fun to write about, they are going to continue. Perhaps automotive enthusiasm really was a 20th century phenomenon..