By on November 26, 2007

08focus_8570.jpgMy name is Chris. I’m a car review addict. I spend an inordinate amount of my time and energy reading car reviews. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of online and print dealers dedicated to the not-so-obscure art of describing an automobile. With such a superabundance of automotive editorial, why do I have such a hard time reconciling professional reviews with my own test driving experience? Are car reviewers— TTAC’s included—blinded by bias?

Yes. The main problem is emotional. Whether professional car hack or amateur enthusiast, the ability to analyze a vehicle is occluded by the emotional imperatives that make us want to attempt the task in the first place. No matter how objective a car journalist tries to be, they can no more surmount their inherent emotional imperatives than they can resist cocking their ear at the burble of a V8 or cast a loving eye on the sophistication of a silent hybrid.

These subconscious patterns– what Russian behaviorists call “stimulus response patterns”– form early in life. My wife talks about her first car with tremendous enthusiasm. A Chevette. Say what you will about the Chevette’s relative or absolute abilities, she will always view the car in a positive light, associating it with her newfound mobility and expanding social life. In the same sense, author JK Rowling waxes lyrically about her Ford Anglia. And I have special place in my heart for the Datsun 240K.

Were the Chevette, 240K and Anglia good cars? Perhaps. But one thing is for sure: no rational person would consider my wife’s, Ms. Rowling’s or my own assessments of these models as objective analysis. Clearly, our opinion of these machines is colored by emotional events in our lives– rather than automotive excellence or lack thereof (although I swear that the 240K was a great car).

We never outgrow these automatic automotive responses; we simply build on them. And just as past behavior is the best guide to future performance, enthusiasts stash their emotional baggage in the trunk of any new car they test. You can often see it even before they clap eyes or climb aboard a new car.

For example, U.S. bloggers are buzzing at the imminent arrival of the BMW 1-Series stateside. The car has generated enough Internet sizzle to shame an Apple iGizmo. A great deal of this excitement is created by enthusiasts’ idea of what the 1-Series should be– a modern 2002– rather than the car itself (which appears to be a porky hatchback conversion). The 1-Series’ association with the “old” 2002 has permanently prejudiced many pistonheads' perception of the product.

Experience and expectation are not the only factors clouding car reviewers’ judgment. They’re also skewed (not to say skewered) by their perception of any given car’s place in the reviewer's real or imagined social associations. What Kurt Vonnegut called the “granfalloon.” 

No one is immune from granfalloonery. If you’ve ever waved to another driver of the same car, or dismissed Hummer owners as right wing fanatics, or considered hybrid drivers tree-hugging hypocrites, or passed judgment on a car you haven’t tested, then you’re the owner of a granfalloon. As social creatures, there’s simply no avoiding it. In fact, our socially-determined prejudices are so pervasive they’re background noise.

Automotively speaking, these hidden biases center on brands. Our socially-derived experiences and expectations of car brands are powerful and deeply ingrained. They form the basis of all our product perceptions and choices and, thus, account for accusations of bias aimed at reviewers. Critics' critics operate under a fundamentally different granfalloon than the journalist’s.

Have a look at the one-star rating TTAC’s publisher Robert Farago recently awarded the new Ford Focus. Had the car been presented as a KIA or a new Chinese brand, would Mr. Farago’s final assessment have been more generous? Would he have lauded the Focus for possessing an above average interior for an economy car? 

Perhaps Farago was [consciously or unconsciously] comparing the new American Focus to the supposedly superior Euro Focus denied American consumers. I believe that Farago’s negative attitude towards the car was triggered by both the engine bay’s flimsy electrical tape AND what he believed a Ford should be.

In short, given the inescapable avalanche of emotional associations that shape human perceptions, no car reviewer can ever claim to be an “unbiased” critic. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As long as he or she uses “emotional intelligence.”

A car reviewer should try to balance emotional imperatives with rational analysis. It’s not a question of removing emotion. Take that away and we’d all be driving Toyota Corollas (my bad). It’s a matter of acknowledging emotional responses and then understanding, sympathizing and respecting people who don’t share them. A little more of that attitude on this site would add welcome light, and remove unnecessary heart.

[TTAC's posting policy: no accusations of bias against the site in the comments section. Normally, we ask commentators objecting to our editorial stance or style to email [email protected] to engage in a private dialog. In this case, you are free to vent any such concerns– provided you stay within the bounds of mutual respect.]

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88 Comments on “The Truth About The Truth About Cars’ Bias...”


  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    There are 2 points here I want to raise:

    1: The only bias I have ever noticed on this site was when James May’s article caused EVERYONE to leap to the defence of Detroit even though TTAC have been just as harsh on Detroit. I heard all the illogical and trite arguments (my favourite being “The UK don’t have a car industry so stop criticising ours!”. Which is moronic because I’m not homosexual, therefore, I can’t speak out in favour of homosexual marriage?). James May spoke about Detroit just as harshly as TTAC did, the only difference was that Mr May wasn’t American.

    2:Have a look at the one-star rating TTAC’s publisher Robert Farago recently awarded the new Ford Focus. Had the car been presented as a KIA or a new Chinese brand, would Mr. Farago’s final assessment have been more generous? Would he have lauded the Focus for possessing an above average interior for an economy car?

    This is all a matter of context. If the Focus had Kia or Chinese brand badge on it, then maybe, Mr Farago would be more generous. But the reason the Ford Focus got one star is because Ford is a company who have been around for ages (well, since the birth of the mass produced car!) and so they ought to know better. Whereas, had Kia or a Chinese brand made the car, it could be construed as a good effort on a lesser known brand.

    You can’t scald a child with special needs because he/she can’t answer a question which the class brainbox can?

  • avatar
    BerettaGTZ

    You hit the nail right on the head. Example 2: my Dad thinks his ’72 Vega was the best car he ever owned.

    That’s why it’s important to get reviews from a variety of sources if you’re seriously considering a car. For every 1-star Ford Focus review in TTAC, there will be one elsewhere to counterbalance it. Here’s an example:

    http://www.theautochannel.com/news/2007/10/08/066147.html

  • avatar

    Chris – My name is Steve and I share your debilitating condition. While you are in one sense correct about bias in autojournalism, I suspect that most reviewers idea of a perfect car might have something like the driving response of a BMW, the reliability of a Lexus, the interior fit-out of an Audi and the dramatic design of a Ferrari. Oh, and be available for the median price of say, $25,000.

    As well, any reviewer will have a bias based on the original wheels he or she might have started with. I happen to have a certain tolerance for the rearward weight bias of a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive design because I started driving a car which had all of the dynamics involved with this design. Nonetheless, I would not argue that this is a step forward in automotive design.

    The bias you cite about the Focus is no doubt based in part on the fact that Ford has exploited the excellent Mazda6 platform in three variations and could well have used the Mazda3 as a basis for the US Focus, as it did in Europe. They did not, choosing rather to put the car into a marketplace already crowded with cheap and uninteresting econoboxes. The new Focus was a slap in the face to all those at Ford who worked to make the original a fun car to drive while meeting some of the market objectives.

    Toyota probably gets dissed because they have a demonstrated ability to build more involving cars, yet do not; they generally are transportation appliances.

    I doubt that anyone who is passionate about cars would argue against the responsiveness that BMW continues to build into their cars. The larger question is: does everyone need a car like this?

    My bias is that driving is not only something we enjoy, but is serious business. It is an endeavor whose yearly toll is nearly fifteen 9/11 tragedies every year. How much of this carnage might be avoided if people were driving more capable vehicles? How much of this is attributable to the inability of both the vehicle and its pilot to avoid the accident? There are no statistics available, but even a ten percent improvement is the equivalent of almost one and a half 9/11 events every year.

    The vehicle is obviously not the only factor involved and perhaps not even the chief factor; yet no carpenter produces excellent products with mediocre tools.

    In the end, perhaps the bias is simply an argument against mediocrity.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Some folks like to say that having a bit of bias adds ‘life’ to a review, that without such bias, any given review would be dull, boring, and uninspiried.

    I wholeheartedly disagree.

    The problem with injecting one’s own personal bias is that it taints a review. If you don’t like a car from the get-go, you’ll unconciously look for reasons to hate it. Likewise, if you’re in love with a car, you’ll unciously gloss over obvious faults. Either way, you do a disservice to the reader.

    It’s all too easy to review a vehicle and trash it because you as a reviewer didn’t like it. The real challenge is reviewing a car you don’t like and try to find reasons to like it (or drive a car you love and find reasons to hate it). The inability to meet that challenge merely turns you into a clever wordsmith and not an automotive reviewer.

  • avatar
    Chris Hofflin

    edget – good point: our relationship with the car also clouds our risk assesment. Not only do 45,000 Americans die on our roads each year but, according to the CDC, cars are also the number one killer of our children aged 4-12. Yet for most of us style and performance still trump safety when it comes to making a car purchase decision.

  • avatar
    alexeck

    Only thing I would add to the discussion is that often, car reviewers get too cute. I find my eyes glazing over with obscure references, newly-minted words and lots of over-the-top prose. Sometimes when reading TTAC reviews, I really do have to parse the review quite carefully to figure out if the reviewer likes or doesn’t like the car.

  • avatar
    jcp2

    As is evidenced by the TTAC bias against electronic “nannies” when bringing up relevant automotive news articles.

  • avatar
    Queensmet

    This has been a sore spot every time I read one of the editorials in on this site. No one is unbiased no matter how much they claim to be. Yet no one can challenge someone's biased opinion, unless it is done in such a polite way that most motorheads don't get it. OOPS, let emotion get in the way. Let's just accept the fact that Toyota & Honda are delivering to the masses, like it or not. So vehicles are boring, but have great mass appeal. GM, Ford & Chrysler never produced any cars or ran the company up to the standards this site believes they need to. They are American, they run like American companies not Japanese, German, Chinese or Korean. American business has lost the Toy business, the electronics business, are losing the appliance, car and computer business. It is like getting the Titanic to turn to miss the iceberg. In fact, we already have hit it and are sinking, we just don't want to accept it. That said, Robert Farago & Frank Williams and all of the posters to this site including me, nothing we say will ever result in a change in the Big 2.8. We don't sign their pay checks, we don't have any clout. We are just gnats to be ignored.

  • avatar
    Johnson

    Everyone has some sort of bias to varying degrees. The trick is distance yourself from the bias and be as objective as possible.

    Chris Hofflin:
    A car reviewer should try to balance emotional imperatives with rational analysis. It’s not a question of removing emotion.

    It would be impossible to completely remove emotion. A proper automobile review though *should* contain a minimum amount of emotion. If auto reviewers don’t keep their emotion to a minimum then that leads to their bias getting out of control.

    Chris Hofflin:
    A great deal of this excitement is created by enthusiasts’ idea of what the 1-Series should be– a modern 2002– rather than the car itself (which appears to be a porky hatchback conversion).

    This type of thing extremely frustrates and annoys me. This is *exactly* what I mean. Without even having any idea of what the 1 Series is about, auto reviewers got all emotional thinking about the memories of the 2002. Then that led to their bias getting out of control, and their rational thinking going out the window.

    When I see a 1 Series review, I expect to read a review of the CAR itself, not to listen to ramblings or an editorial disguised as a review talking about how the 1 Series is symbolic of the 2002.

    There are tons of examples of this. We can even take the new Chevy Malibu. Most reviews are proclaiming it to be a huge improvement over previous GM offerings, and the previous Malibu. But how about an actual review of the new Malibu itself?

    So far most “reviews” of the new Malibu have failed to mention the fuel economy, the refinement of the engines, the rear seat room and lack of rear headrests, among many other things. What I have seen so far from most reviews is comparing and benchmarking the handling to a sports car (which is absurd) and comparing and benchmarking the interior to previous GM efforts (which is pointless).

    TTAC, a place that prides itself on ‘the truth’ should focus on minimizing the emotion and bias from it’s reviews. In editorials it’s fine because an editorial is different from a review. Witty writing is also fine, as long as emotions/bias are kept to a minimum. Witty writing though should *not* dominate a car review. This IS “The Truth About Cars” after all, NOT Witty Writing About Cars.

  • avatar
    Chris Hofflin

    quasimondo – I agree that reviewers should keep the target market of the car being reviewed in mind when passing judgment but no review can ever be thought of as completely objective as everyone has a different perception and emotional response to that same vehicle based on previous experience, expectation, social identity and plain old personal preference.

    Cars are much more like fashion items than utilitarian goods such as dishwashers and an unbiased car review is a lot like an unbiased review of Coco Chanel’s latest fragrance or the latest fancy clothing from Milan.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Yet for most of us style and performance still trump safety when it comes to making a car purchase decision.

    Or maybe it’s our growing “need” to talk on a cell phone or eat a burger while driving? It’s the drivers not the cars that cause accidents. I have a ’58 Chevy and one common accessory that you will find in modern cars that you won’t find available in a ’58 Chevy is a cup holder. Why? Because it used to be that you wouldn’t eat, drink, and talk on the phone while travelling 60 mph down the interstate; you would actually drive. I’ll continue to be swayed by style and performance, but I’ll also continue to turn off the cell phone while I’m driving.

  • avatar

    Bias is the wrong word for what reviewers do, and that’s a fundamental flaw to this editorial.

    Is it bias to put a car in context with its brand? If Ford doesn’t give us another world-class small car to replace the first Focus, shouldn’t we complain for being too much like Kia? Or to give BMW hell for destroying the Ultimate Driving Machine heritage with tacky sheetmetal and electronic overkill?

    Maybe if more car reviews had panned the likes of the Taurus/Lumina/Impala in the late 1990s, calling them out for what they are, Detroit would have got the message in 2000. And then subsequently made cars that (today) could compete with Toyonda on features, value, and reputation for quality and customer service.

    Its not bias to have brand expectations in context with a car review. TTAC may not transmit that clearly enough for many, but it still needs to be done.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that being critical in this manner is good for everyone, not just TTAC.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Good editorial. It’s nice to see someone recognize that emotions play a big part in any car review (now if only the people who write the car reviews would recognize it as well). I agree that the personal emotions need to be kept to a bare minimum in any car review; how you do that and still write an emotionally engaging review is the hard part. Occasionally overflowery language aside, I think that TTAC does a better job of doing this than any other car reviewing site/magazine.

  • avatar
    Chris Hofflin

    Sajeev – maybe not bias but definitely emotional baggage that distorts the perception of the car in question. Automotive journalists are particularly prone to this as their love of cars attracted them to their profession in the first place.

    I guess the best review are sales numbers and unfortunately BMW sells more of its new ugly cars than ever.

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    Johnson:
    There are tons of examples of this. We can even take the new Chevy Malibu. Most reviews are proclaiming it to be a huge improvement over previous GM offerings, and the previous Malibu. But how about an actual review of the new Malibu itself?

    Consumer Reports spit & chewed out its clone, the Aura XR this past spring. Close enough, I say.

  • avatar
    ash78

    I still evaluate cars on my own triangular criteria…that is, a car should serve three purposes equally well over the long term:

    1. Hobby/fun — after a hard day at the office, does driving home make life more enjoyable to you?

    2. Transportation — does it reliably move you about for at least 10 years without major expense or headache?

    3. Artistic/aesthetic — do you enjoy seeing it in the mall parking lot?

    Of course, it’s hard to determine most of the above for a car you’ve never owned for long, but you can get pretty close.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    That’s why it’s important to get reviews from a variety of sources if you’re seriously considering a car. For every 1-star Ford Focus review in TTAC, there will be one elsewhere to counterbalance it. Here’s an example:

    Then what is the purpose of review articles? If every negative is counterbalanced by a glowing review, then the net assessment is a nullity because the two reviews cancel each other out.

    Honestly, though, what is the purpose of automotive reviews? How many people here have actually made a choice (either positive or negative) that was based on a review? I would regard any review – whether online or not – as being among the worst reasons to choose or not choose a major purchase like a car, for exactly the reason given here (i.e. because everyone has prejudices) but also because the things that really matter to most of us are not things that can be measured or quantified in a review (things like longevity, reliability, overall quality of the purchase experience, etc.)

    Given that automotive reviews probably have a negligible effect on actual purchase decisions, auto reviews and discussion sites like this are really just a kind of techno-gossip. Like speculating on who’s-divorcing-who in Hollywood or what designer’s dresses this actress or that actress was wearing or who’s going to win the oscar or the academy awards, it gives auto-geeks like us something to talk about. And our well-intentioned good advice is about as likely to be heeded by Detroit as a disappointed fan’s career advice to his favorite actor.

    Only thing I would add to the discussion is that often, car reviewers get too cute. I find my eyes glazing over with obscure references, newly-minted words and lots of over-the-top prose. Sometimes when reading TTAC reviews, I really do have to parse the review quite carefully to figure out if the reviewer likes or doesn’t like the car.

    Let me just say a big “hell yeah!” here, as this is one of the most annoying aspects of TTAC and other automotive “gossip” sites. I don’t mind creative writing but some of the pop culture references are a little too obscure and some of the cutesy-poo terminology (“spizzarkle” “bangle-butt”, “hoon”) are not only distracting, they quickly become hackneyed and trite-sounding.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    ” I don’t mind creative writing but some of the pop culture references are a little too obscure and some of the cutesy-poo terminology (”spizzarkle” “bangle-butt”, “hoon”) are not only distracting, they quickly become hackneyed and trite-sounding. ”

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve stopped reading TTAC reviews. As much as I dislike Car & Driver, it’s reviews have more actual information and insight than does the silly word play of a TTAC review.

  • avatar

    jthorner :

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve stopped reading TTAC reviews. As much as I dislike Car & Driver, it’s reviews have more actual information and insight than does the silly word play of a TTAC review.

    Well, that is your right. But I’m not pulling the plug on our “silly word play” (a.k.a. literary creativity) in our blog posts, editorials and reviews. Here’s the deal…

    I’ve been writing for the media for– sorry, I was just about to write something entertaining. Thirty-two years. Right from the git-go, I learned that all news is infotainment. It HAS to be. What’s the point of writing something accurate and important if no one reads it? And if you don’t keep the customer entertained, they’ll leave. And if they leave, you’ll be flipping burgies at Mickey D’s in no time. And who needs that shit?

    Ahem. I don’t see these goals– hard-headed journalism and show biz– as mutually exclusive. But I’m publisher enough to admit that if I had to choose between the two, I’d go with the Clarksonian side of the package. If nothing else, that is my nature. If I had a Csaba melon on top of my shoulders, I would have a different answer. Think of it this way…

    There is no TTAC office. There is this small garret at the top of my house and my colleagues’ workspaces. We are, inherently, solitary creatures engaged in a solitary production process. If we didn’t keep ourselves amused with our prose, our lives would be pretty colorless. In other words, where’s the fun in that?

    This website takes an enormous amount of commitment from all involved. If word play helps keeps us at it, well, I’d encourage those who don’t appreciate it to think of it as the cost of doing business.

  • avatar
    Michael.Martineck

    Bias is only bad if it’s hidden. TTAC, taken as a whole, is one tough place to do that. Reviewers write editorials, and short news items and post responses to articles they didn’t author. While I don’t keep a notebook, I do get to a sense of who likes what and that is valuable. The trick is not eliminating bias, but knowing it. In every review I’ve written I’ve been tempted to say what I drive everyday or how much training I’ve had, because I want people to understand the context. Reviews do become usable tools as you understand the reviewer.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Mr. Farago:

    I think what jthorner and others are getting at are the overuse of some of the more (possibly less) descriptive prose. I remember the first review I read upon finding this site; it was for the Mustang GT. I loved the writing in that review; it’s what got me hooked on this site. I also agree that car reviews are primarily entertainment; however, I think that truly great entertainment also needs to be informative. What I’m hearing is a call for a better balance between flowery writing and information. I do agree that this is completely your decision, and you know the contributors to this site better than any of us do or can know them.

  • avatar
    omnivore

    I really appreciate this editorial. Hofflin’s spot-on. We can’t get rid of our “biases.” Any attempt to reach for “objectivity” is, on some level, an act of fooling ourselves. The trick is to be self-critical about your biases, and to own them honestly and completely, and to have a well-thought-out opinion within the context of your world view.

    I think anyone who sets him- or herself up as a public critic, whether in a newspaper or online, whether of art or books or cars, has a few responsibilities that the average Joe on the street doesn’t. A reviewer is obligated to have a well-informed, well-thought-out, coherent opinion, and he or she must be able to explain it articulately in depth and be able to answer questions about it. But critics are human beings, too, and really, we read them for their opinions. So it’s not worth your time accusing a critic of “bias.” Duh. That’s why they’re a critic. And I think TTAC does a good job on its obligations. Its critics are opinionated, and thank God, but their opinions are informed.

    I think part of the stumbling block on this website might be its name. I get that “The Truth About Cars” is meant to be a finger in the eye of the mainstream automotive press–and bravo for that–but the act of proclaiming a singular truth about cars doesn’t really acknowledge the actual complex interplay of opinion that happens on this site. It might be more accurately titled “truths about cars.” I get the rhetorical strategy embedded in the title, however, and that has its own value.

  • avatar
    shaker

    The wordplay is just fine with me…
    I, too shared Robert’s disappointment with the “New” Focus — It’s a half-hearted effort that could have just waited for the new platform.
    Well, at least it has the Microsoft thingie…

  • avatar

    Just a note to cast my vote for humorous and creative metaphors as TTAC exposes their “bias” toward vehicular quality (in the Robert Pirsig sense). The majority of the TTAC writers do an excellent job of making their reviews informative while avoiding the bland PR slime of the “54.3% improvement in torsional rigidity.” nonsense that we see in R&T, CandD, etc.

    How does it drive? How does it meet the market? Who might enjoy this car? TTAC seems to ask these questions over and over in an intelligent manner. Thanks, Robert and all those who tire effortlessly to keep us informed and entertained.

  • avatar
    Cowbell

    Sajeev,

    When you asked “Is it bias to put a car in context with its brand?”, I couldn’t help but think ‘that is the definition of bias.’ To judge an object not on it’s own merits, but by it’s surroundings.

    If you were writing a review of Ford then I think it would be fair to look at the context of the Focus. But when someone is reviewing just a car, I think an unbiased review would treat the car as if it did not have a name or a brand associated with it.

    As is the case with Robert Farago’s review of the Focus, I’m have a feeling most visitors to this site realize Roberts interest in the automotive business as whole, and take any review with that grain of salt. People popping in for only that review might not have that perspective though.

  • avatar
    thetopdog

    There’s nothing wrong with wordplay, as long as it isn’t overdone. A mention of “spizzarkle” in an Escalade review is appropriate, mentioning it again a few days later is overkill. The word “bling” was also played out about 7 years ago.

    I agree with the poster who said that automotive reviews aren’t (and shouldn’t be) gospel. They’re not that serious. I remember being infuriated at a Motor Trend review about 6 years ago that placed an M3 ahead of a C5Z06 because the M3 was more ‘refined’ even though the Vette destroyed it in EVERY performance category. I then realized that a Motortrend ranking makes absolutely no difference to my daily life, and, more importantly, the review still contained the necessary information to allow me to to decide that the Vette is the better of those 2 cars for someone with my preferences.

    Car reviewers are a jaded bunch, and since the performance and luxury of all cars has increased exponentially over the past 5-10 years, they often need to nitpick to set one car apart from another. I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve read criticizing the feel of a car’s dash or headliner. I assume if you’re an automotive journalist, it makes sense to feel the dash and/or headliner when you first sit in a car, but I can honestly say I’ve touched my car’s dash and headliner a total of 2 or 3 times combined (my current car (Vette w/ transparent roof) doesn’t even have a headliner). As long as there aren’t razor sharp thumbtacks sticking out of either, I’ll be OK with whatever materials the manufacturer chooses to use.

    You can gain a lot of useful information from car reviews as long as you don’t focus on the actual results (star ratings, comparison test rankings) but pay attention to whats actually being said about the cars and view that through the lense of your own personal biases.

  • avatar

    Well, yes, it is true that a tendency to become biased is built into the the H. sapiens hardware. I certainly have my own biases. For example, Korean cars suck. My gut still insists that is true, where my intellect sees recommendations for some of them from Consumer Reports and notes that my gut is a bit slow to change its opinion.

    Some journalists undoubtedly have trouble making these sorts of distinctions, but I believe that it is possible for some of us, at least, if we work hard at it, to leave our biases out of our work. For example, I used to do “point-counterpoints” for a publication which probably doesn’t exist anymore, called Physician’s Weekly. This involved talking to two experts on opposite sides of an issue, which would be phrased as a question (“Is the medical rationale for John Glenn’s space flight a sham?), and writing their statements for them based on what they had to say. I always felt it was my job to help them make the best possible case. One time the question was “Are SUVs a public health hazard?”, or something to that effect. I HATE SUVS, but the pro-SUV person’s (Diane Steed) case seemed awfully weak, and so I went back to her to see if she had anything stronger to say (she didn’t).

  • avatar
    26theone

    Yep Chris another car review addict here!

    Really the most value of TTAC to me is how the reviews inspire comments from readers and car owners.

    I agree most cars now are so good that you really have to dig to find flaws that 90% of buyers would never notice.

  • avatar
    Prado

    I would not consider bias based on branding to be unfair. After all, its the manufacturers who put the name on the cars, and with those names come
    expectations based on previous products and marketing of those products. If you want to be judged without branding bias, simply call your cars something else (like Scion or Saturn). Don’t blame the consumer(or reviewer) if a car gets called out and panned for not being faithfull to the badge on the back.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Chris,

    Great article! FWIW, my assessment of a vehicle is fully dependent on expectation. The new Focus should be better than the outgoing model, meaning it looks better, drives better and gets better mileage. I rented the older Focus on a number of occasions for business trips passing over bigger, more comfortable cars because I liked how it drove. Looks like for the new Focus, they not only took away the cheeky styling, but some of the fun as well.

    Same goes for the BMW 1-series. My expectation is that it will be a 3 series on the cheap, but it’s not. It’s a 31k machine that is living on hype. It’s ugly, expensive, and looks cheap on the inside. How can Audi crank out a great looking, less expensive version of the A4, but BMW cuts corners on their small version of the 3? In this sense, Audi met my expectations, but BMW didn’t. If the 1 series started at $26k, I’d be much more interested.

    For me, and I’d bet for a lot of people, it’s all about the cost of the car. If it’s a strong value, some details can be overlooked. This is the same reason why I believe the 335i isn’t a good value (50k!!!), but the 328i is.

  • avatar
    pete

    Too many more of these “navel gazing” articles about bias/opinion/truth and I think I’ll be looking elsewhere.

    Lets talk about cars guys and not worry about absolute truth. Informed opinion is just fine.

  • avatar

    jkross22 – just so you don’t pass up the 335 based solely on price; mine was $46,000 out the door in March, complete with Sport, Premium and Cold Weather packages (current CarsDirect price for this package is $44,070 + T&L). It is certainly expensive for a small car with a rather ho-hum interior, but it still drives like a BMW and does have that magic 300 hp six. Although I would certainly prefer that it had the styling (and interior) of an Audi, I’m not willing to give up the handling of the RWD BMW for the 60-40 weight distribution of the Audi and so-so handling.

    Even though I bought the 335, it was only after realizing that I didn’t have to look at the bangled “styling” while I was driving it.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Well, at the end of the day (how’s that for a trite saying?) it seems that the real reason people read car reviews is to reinforce and validate the opinions that they already hold. If you own (or lust after) a BMW then you may relish a review of the latest Munich-mobile that raves over its “ultimate driving machine” status. If you think Hyundais are junk then a review that nitpicks every piece of mismatched interior plastic or makes funny similes about the car’s poor handling will confirm your pre-existing beliefs.

    There’s also the vicarious enjoyment that autophiles get by reading reviews of vehicles they’ll never, ever drive, much less own (Bentley, Ferrari, etc.)

    As Robert said earlier, writing something like TTAC is infotainment. It’s not meant to be in-depth analytical research.

    There’s no point in getting worked up about “bias” in car reviews because it’s doubtful that car reviews play any significant part in molding the buying decisions of consumers. After all, we’re not talking about a movie or a CD or some other disposable consumer good that costs a small amount of money, we’re talking about a pretty major investment. People aren’t likely to drop 30 large on a vehicle just because it got a few positive reviews, nor are they likely to abandon their desire for a certain make or model just because a reviewer slagged it with clever prose.

    More likely things like word of mouth from friends/family/co-workers who have years of experience (as compared to reviewers who get the vehicle for a few days), the experience they have at the dealer, and their own past experience with the same brand will have a much larger affect on their buying decisions than an 800 word review on a website.

    That’s also why I rarely read car reviews. The news blog and editorials are much more entertaining, the editorials especially so because they don’t even have the pretense of objectivity, nor should they.

  • avatar
    CarShark

    Put my name on the list of people becoming increasingly tired of the focus on wordplay at the expense of actual info. I’ll even add to that the decidedly un-clever “state your actual feelings, then crossing it out, and then writing what most car news sites would say” tactic in nearly EVERY news blog.

    The inescapable fact in all this is that this is an enthusiast web site (one reviewer drives a Porsche, another a GTI). It doesn’t matter what segment a car is in, or who it ACTUALLY is trying to appeal to, the reviewers can only see it from their own point of view. They’re only human, and can’t read minds. So when I see a review of a large car, or an SUV, or pretty much anything from Korea, I can’t help but take it with a grain of salt. The sad part is we can’t fully explore this or related trains of thought without having half the posts removed.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    I guess I am on the other side of the equation, most of my problem with the dead tree reviewers is that they are NOT biased enough. Don’t tell me you are unbiased, you are not, I don’t expect my local paper to write unbiased articles, even if they pretend they are, why should I expect an automotive enthusiast to write a “on the one hand and then on the other”? Goodness, that’s terrible stuff. Consumer Reports writing on toasters is worse than watching paint dry, something else they report on. Is that what we want? Gol, please..

    If TTAC’s writers don’t bring passion and biases, they are worthless. You don’t like their one star review of the Focus, fine, go try it yourself. But, remember, you are bringing your own biases to the table, so your subjective rationale is not superior to theirs. Although, when the depreciation hits the Focus like it will, ummmm, maybe they were on to something…..

    As for the one series, if it drives like my 3, and is somewhat smaller, I guess my wife will get one. Is that an emotional response? Damn right, and I would not want it any other way.

  • avatar

    Put my name on the list of people becoming increasingly tired of the focus on wordplay at the expense of actual info. I’ll even add to that the decidedly un-clever “state your actual feelings, then crossing it out, and then writing what most car news sites would say” tactic in nearly EVERY news blog.

    Me too.

  • avatar

    Chris Hofflin : maybe not bias but definitely emotional baggage that distorts the perception of the car in question. Automotive journalists are particularly prone to this as their love of cars attracted them to their profession in the first place.

    Agreed. And its difficult to keep that in check. I got a lot of flack for my Mustang GT review, but I did my best to keep the Mustang heritage argument intact, even if I have a lot of baggage with small (1960s and 1980s) Mustangs. Then again, the new stang’s fake gas cap is what it is. :)

    cowbell:If you were writing a review of Ford then I think it would be fair to look at the context of the Focus. But when someone is reviewing just a car, I think an unbiased review would treat the car as if it did not have a name or a brand associated with it.

    Ok, but when do we review just a car? Almost never.

    Look at my Buick Lucerne review and its intro. Ditto the Lincoln MKX. Aside from maybe Kia (even Hyundai has a heritage with their Pininfarina designed Excel from the 1980s) every car has context.

    If you don’t put such context in a review, odds are you aren’t looking hard enough for it. And I do my best to put every car I review in such context. And that’s what makes the comments section so enjoyable.

  • avatar
    beetlebug

    It’s refreshing to see that so much of the TTAC readership feels strongly enough about this site to quickly create this chain of comments; Let me follow suit (since that’s my greatest skill.) I agree with many of the points in Mr. Hofflin’s editorial. I’ve had similar experiences where my reality driving a vehicle doesn’t mesh with the review(s) I’ve seen about it. Recently driving a Chevy Aveo for a couple of days in LA found me thinking it suited that environment well enough and I certainly didn’t walk away from the experience with any scars emotionally or otherwise. To me that car is a decent value for those into cars as appliances (Walmart style). On this site (and others) that’s not the opinion put across. Is this gap caused by some bias (because it’s from Korea, or a Chevy, or low powered etc.)? Snobbishness (there is a vein of that I can feel especially in readers comments)? Could I be wrong and my judgment is lacking (likely true)? The problem is (as others have mentioned) that a review will always display some bias; it’s the name of the beast. Consumer reports is biased towards their editorial goal of reducing all items to fit on a scale of demonstrable consumer value. Car and Driver is biased by the need to sell ads and cater to a wide cross section of enthusiasts. Those are not the only factors involved, they are enumerable. As for this site I agree it veers off into the showy a bit too much and the reviews have more bravado in them then appeals to me. However, unlike other publications (weblications?) TTAC seems to be more a work of love among a small group of people. There seemingly is no editorial board to codify policy or a large hierarchy of editors to filter the life out of the writing. Like freshly roasted coffee TTAC is pungent and flavorful and that’s not always a bad thing (it beats the hell out of Sanka.)

  • avatar

    If it’s a strong value, some details can be overlooked. This is the same reason why I believe the 335i isn’t a good value (50k!!!), but the 328i is.

    I think this a good example of the difficulty in writing objective reviews. How do you quantify something like “value?” You can’t because its a totally subjective quality. To someone who really lusts after a turbo the 335 $50k might be a bargain.

    Reviews in general have to focus subjective things like quality, styling, and value because anyone can just compare numbers on a spreadsheet. But when you do that you automatically have look at those things from some baseline perspective, and that’s where its hard to distinguish between bias and reasonable expectation.

  • avatar
    dean

    A story:

    I was listening to a car-related radio show yesterday, and a fellow calls up the hosts raving about the Toyota Yaris and wondering why it isn’t talked about more. This after we find out that he has been driving a Toyota Tercel (more than one, of course) for the past 17 years.

    The point, of course, is that context matters. In the context of a ten year old Tercel, the Yaris must seem like a revelation. In the context of its competition (Fit, Versa) it may not be all that. In the further context of the broad range of vehicles that an automotive journalist is exposed to, the Yaris may seem dreadful.

    Bias is inevitable. In auto reviews, confirmation bias will often come into play. The reviewer is more likely to notice things that confirm what they already believe. If a reviewer believes that Korean cars use el cheapo materials, they are likely to notice untrimmed flashing from injection molded plastics.

    The site’s name aside, I don’t believe TTAC makes any claim to the absolute objective truth. What they do (and do well) is call bullshit when appropriate. That is what separates them from the MSM (especially the glorified advertising sections in the daily newspapers) that, for fear of pissing of the advertisers, have nothing bad to say about anything.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    [I am not wading through all the comments at this time]

    Chris,

    The first car I got to drive was a ’67 Camaro. The first one I owned was a ’67 Malibu. I had great times with those cars.

    But, like many others, I’ve had more experiences with all kinds of cars since then and I fully realize the limitations of the ’67 Camaro and the ’67 Malibu and I certainly can tell the difference between my emotional connection with those cars and the fact that one was woefully underpowered and the other needed much better handling and braking.

    I’ve driven lots of cars since then with varying amound of emotional connection to each and it’s fairly easy to be in touch with the emotions of a great vacation in a VW EuroVan, the excellent road feel of same and the knowledge that it was a totally unreliable piece of crap in many ways.

    There’s probably some bias in almost everything written here but it seems to me that the editorials and reviews usually include both conclusions and good reasons to support the conclusions.

    I’m satisfied with that.

  • avatar
    sj1204

    My understanding is that this is one of the most biased sites for car reviews. Apparently the reviewers find themselves to be witty and take pride in ripping vehicles to shreds, especially those from Detroit. You can fool some of the people some of the time but never all of the people all the time. The media outlets that are consistently biased will lose whatever credibility they have. For example, C&D is largely regarded as totally biased when it comes to Hondas, BMWs, Audis, etc. They will excuse shortcomings in price, styling and performance with vehicles from those manufacturers. If one of their favorite brands gets beat across the board in a comparo they will still rank it #1 and tell you the stats dont tell the story. When their fave vehicle does well in the stats they use them as justification for the finishing order. They put a car like the Accord on their 10BEST list every year even though it has been surpassed in power, handling and styling in the past. No matter what the competition does they deem the Accord superior. Instead of 10BEST they should call it 8BEST since the 3 series and Accord are guaranteed spots. There have been years when the Vette is omitted but the Accord is not. That is a joke.

    Very little of the commentary I have seen about TTAC has been flattering so I suspect that the reviews here are more about grandstanding and bashing then about credibility.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Wow, where to begin ? Let’s begin with TTAC’s bias – frankly I don’t see much. Certainly no more than at any other venue. They don’t seem to have the German car fetish that nearly all other review sites/mags have, and they don’t seem particularly biased wilth respect to Japanese cars. The criticism leveled at American cars seems to me usually justified.

    I don’t read reviews of cars I’ll never own, be they too expensive, (Ferrari, Lambourghini etc. ) or just silly, (Hummer) or just cars that I don’t personally happen to like, for no particular reason (Cobalt). One thing I like about TTAC is that we do get a fair number of “normal” cars reviewed. If I happen to like (or not object to) the normal car, I’ll read the review.

    I also appreciate that the “enthusiast” POV is kept in check. Sure, there will be some mention of a car’s handling, but there is no rejection of a cheap family sedan just because it’s road manners are not up to “Ultimate Drivng Machine” standards. Most of us aren’t racing through switchbacks very often, if ever.

    As for the Focus review, I went out and looked at one shortly after reading the review. I found it mostly spot on. I didn’t find the tape in the engine compartment flapping, and the tape didn’t bother me personally, but I can see that it just isn’t really up the standards of the class. The main thing about the Focus is that there is also the Civic. If on compares the two, there is simply no way to purchase the Focus unless someone is holding a gun to your head. The focus is just miles and miles and miles and miles behind it’s competition. And the side trim is TACKY!

  • avatar

    Apparently the reviewers find themselves to be witty and take pride in ripping vehicles to shreds, especially those from Detroit.

    Yeah, those 4-star reviews for the Malibu and CTS sure tore them apart.

    “The bottom line: the new Chevrolet Malibu backs up its upscale looks with an upscale feel.”

    Ouch. How will GM recover from such biased vitriol?

  • avatar
    beetlebug

    I’ll agree that C&D’s 10 best is biased. In fact, I’ve heard how every choice they make is influence by their bias for A. Japanese cars; B. European cars; C. Sporty Cars; D. Small Cars; E. Cars with round wheels; etc. etc. The fact is the list of 10 cars they come up with has a lot of subjectivity in it which is natural since what makes a car valuable to you has a lot of subjectivity in it. Personally I don’t think the Corvette automatically belongs on that list. I can think of 20 reasons why I’d omit it. So what, that’s just me. In that list you’re seeing a reflection of a group of individuals whose opinions probably differ from yours. In cases like this (and this generalizes a bit to TTAC) I wish folks would shut up and make their own list. See if everyone agrees with yours.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    In a past life I worked for a scientific journal. Hundreds of papers seeking publication have crossed my desk. During those years I learned a couple things.

    First, in order to project stoic objectivity, scientific papers are dreadfully, irrevocably, unreadably dull, dull, dull, dull, dull. The language is barren – stripped of anything resembling art or beauty – save for a few snooty polysyllabic words that are meaningful only to elite overeducated ivory tower snobs.

    Many readers routinely criticize TTAC for being too quixotic, but to enthusiasts car enjoyment is about passion. I feel sorry for those for whom a car is merely a means of getting from point A to B. Driving is a visceral multi-sensory experience from which great joy can be derived. As such, the words we use to describe the experience should be painted with fiery hues of red and yellow, not banal tones of black and white.

    The second thing I learned working for a scientific journal is that no matter how much the authors of papers try to sanitize their biases by shrouding them under the scientific method, objectivity is an illusion; a myth. There never has been a purely objective scientific investigation. Indeed, by definition a hypothesis cannot be created without preconceived notions. One cannot create such a theory of causation and then coldly divorce oneself from it in testing and interpretation of results.

    Rather than denying biases, it is more truthful to be forthright about them so that the readers can judge our conclusions in their proper context. Writing fervently allows TTAC scribes to honestly communicate our passionate bias for automotive excellence.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Writing with passion should not go hand-in-hand with putting your personal biases out there. That kind of stuff may work fine for the cast of Top Gear, whose primary aim is to entertain, not inform. I do believe that you can put together a well written review without having your personal tastes for the manufacturer or style of vehicle interfere with the overall verdict.

    With that being said, is the goal of TTAC to entertain or to inform? If the goal is to entertain, then questioning the personal bias of the writers is a moot point. If the goal however, is to give its readers the information necessary to make an informed decision on a car purchase, then writing a review that tells us in 800 poetic words or less, “stay away from this car because I don’t like it,” does us no good. It’s at that point that such a review holds as much weight as your neighbor’s opinion.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    I thought it was a given that any review is going to have some bias. That’s just humans being humans.
    My only objection is when a reviewer is handed a vehicle they really have no business doing a write up for. I seen many, many reviews of pick ups by people that don’t like trucks or do not understand what they are for, econobox reviews by folks that own a ‘Vette, etc… at various places on the web. That has happened here, but it is pretty rare.
    TTAC: Keep up the witty reviews. Sure, one or two go a little too far trying to be clever, who cares? This and Jalopnik are the only places where I’ll read a car review for a car I don’t particularly want or have any use for–because I know I’ll get a laugh. Where else can I read a review comparing a Nissan Versa to a woman with hairy armpits? Still one of my faves…:)
    For the people arguing about not reviewing a car in the context of its brand: Huh?
    Ya sorta have to. The Cimmiron (sp?) got nuked so badly because it was not a Cadillac. A decontented, cheap MB would be treated the same becuase it is not a Mercedes.

  • avatar
    Nemphre

    I don’t want to get too philosophical, but isn’t an opinion inherently biased? I’d have to say that all reviews are biased, and I’m ok with that. If you can find a group with similar opinions as yourself, then you can trust their reviews.

  • avatar
    Jeff in Canada

    Everyone will always have some form of precognitive opinion on something, based on some emotional experience. Whether it positive or negative, it will exist.
    I thoroughly enjoy the reviews and editorials on TTAC. They are different. If all I want are wheelbase dimensions or torque figures, I’ll go to the manufacturers or Edmunds. If I want emotion, I come to TTAC. That what sets it apart, and what gives it a home.
    Robert, I hope yourself and the team at TTAC are able to sustain this site as a successful business. I can’t imagine my morning coffee without a TTAC editorial or review.
    So keep them coming, bring on the bias, it’s what makes it interesting. And just because the writer/poster shares their bias with the world, doesn’t mean I will accept it, I hold my own biases high and proud!
    Perhaps I’ll give a try at writing a review myself, to share my own biases with this virtual world.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Oh my. Are reviews/reviewers biased? Chris, with all due respect, I think you are asking the wrong question, and thus getting the wrong answers.

    Yes yes we are prejudiced. But do we stay prejudiced in the face of contrary evidence?

    Chris, do you really, really think that Farago would appreciate a Korean car that is an uglified, shmucked-up, hardly-improved version (I am talking Focus here) of its nine-year old self?

    Do reviewers swarm over the BMW 1-series because they are biased, or because they are subject to groupthink? I say: the latter. But please note that nobody at TTAC has praised the 1-series (yet) except for yours truly. And I am a died-in-the-wool BMW hater, and tried hard to dislike it, but found I couldn’t.

    Reviewers are not objective, and shouldn’t pretend to be. We should be subjective, but in a transparent way: we should be open about our criteria, and be willing to justify our opinions. I think that’s quite enough.

  • avatar
    umterp85

    Being provocative is inherently more interesting than some bland review, editorial, or blog.

    I think TTAC is provocative. I also think TTAC is informative–maybe not in the conventional way—but in a way that elevates the thought process of those that read.

    You may not agree with what is written (I often don’t…sometimes frustratingly so !) and believe that bias is directing some of the work, but TTAC’s general style forces you to think about a topic that is a hell of alot more fun than the day job!

  • avatar
    Justin Berkowitz

    Bias is not only in the eye of the reviewer, but in the eye of the reader.

    That’s why people reading my Infiniti G37 review accused me of BOTH being biased against Infiniti (for not giving 5 stars) and being biased for Infiniti (because the 3-Series is so far superior that the Infiniti doesn’t merit comparison).

    If you want completely dispassionate reviews, you know where to go: Consumer Reports. Although their biases are safety, reliability, and efficiency, they deliver the least florid discussions imaginable.

    It’s just not possible to offer an in-depth review in 800 words that goes into great length to discuss every aspect of a car, from pure performance numbers to subjective impressions of handling on wet surfaces.

  • avatar

    Justin Berkowitz: “Bias is not only in the eye of the reviewer, but in the eye of the reader.”

    …what he said.

    And just for another point of view, the G37 review seemed remarkably balanced. Nissan specifically targeted the 3-series, so it was rightfully compared to the BMW. I did not see that you portrayed your opinion as “fact”, but just as your impressions of an excellent car, regardless of whose name is attached.

  • avatar

    I don’t get the bias complaints.

    I’d like to point out that the absolute form of zero bias is numbers. If TTAC just published numbers, what better would the site be than the automaker’s website, which happily lists all of the specifications about any model.

    Is that what people really want?

    With zero bias, TTAC, as well as any other magazine, is totally redundant.

    The haters are the ones who want the bias the most, as is evident in the intensity of their responses, each of which proclaims that either “never read TTAC but happened to see this article” or are “never coming back” only to resume commenting in short order on the next article.

    I will say this about bias and credibility: TTAC from what I know does not accept any money directly from automotive advertisers, though the occasional Ford ad does show up in the Adsense banner (comically, in the Ford Focus review…) whereas all of the mainstream media do. Who would a neutral observer suspect of having a larger bias:

    1. the independent website where reviewers resourcefully obtain their own review cars, or

    2. the mainstream print magazine, totally dependent on nice, prepped vehicles and junkets provided by the automakers along with a nice fat cheque from General Motors for an advertisement deceptively conceived to look like a car review (I’m looking @ you, C&D)?

    In that sense, perhaps I would suggest that TTAC publishes the daily drivers of its freelancers or posts a short profile of some of its most prolific reviewers- which is linked at the top of the review by the author in question.

    This will give everyone a good idea of “where you’re coming from”, so to speak, and is again above and beyond whatever the magazines do.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    Is bias universal and unavoidable? Yes. No “Yes but..”, just Yes.

    What makes automobiles such a more popular subject for literature than, say, toasters? Because there’s some combination of somethings hard-wired into the psyche of the humanoid ape that mkes us see this complex piece of machinery as something more than that — specifically, as something with a PERSONALITY.

    That’s a word that contains “person,” and indeed, designers even talk of the countenance made up of the headlights and grille as the car’s “face.” (Think the Neon.) Econoboxes smile. Sports models snarl, with their mouths/grilles turned downward at the corners.

    All these transit capsules transport us with roughly equal facility. How they feel to our hands and bottoms, and how their appearance makes us feel emotionally, is the very essence of subjectivity. It’s absolutely inescapable, and absolutely inseparable from the psyche of the beholder.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    This will give everyone a good idea of “where you’re coming from”, so to speak, and is again above and beyond whatever the magazines do.

    Ah, the heart of the matter. I have no idea where any of the writers are coming from. For all we know, your biases are borne of a genuine hatred of certain manufacturers based on the bad experiences of vehicles that you’ve owned in the past. In my eyes, that credibility away. You’ll never give a vehicle a fair shake, good or bad. In the case of the good vehicles, it’s always with the caveat of, “it’s good, but…” and with bad vehicles, it might as well be a crime against humanity for having the gall to make such a monstrousity.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Is context being confused with bias? Undoubtedly, the Focus would have been seen differently if it was a new Chinese car rather than a warmed-over Ford. Which is also why comparison tests between a Ferarri and a Kia don’t work well.

    My scathing review of the ’08 Scion xB was overwhelmingly influenced by its context: an undistinguished successor to a highly distinctive, unique vehicle. The new xB functions quite adequately, like almost any new car. But it’s our job, as I see it, to establish the context of the car, within its brand, competition, image, value, etc. We’re not talking about furnaces here.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    I assume Farago is giving us a pass to talk about TTAC’s bias in car reviews, not other subjects.

  • avatar
    Unbalanced

    I just got back from the L.A. and S.F. car shows, and had the same response I always do: mainstream cars from mainstream manufacturers are remarkably similar inside and out. The passionate praise and criticism we read in sites such as this are put in context by a walk through an auto show with a non-enthusiast. While the exotic car displays are of interest to practically everyone, more than an hour in the mass producer halls inevitably induces fatigue and something like vertigo, as the casual visitor is surrounded by a seemingly endless procession of mostly indistinguishable vehicles. One can argue that the non-enthusiast reaction is closer to objective than that of the car fan, who finds himself exaggerating trivial differences, much as enthusiasts in all fields tend to do.

    Branding in particular exerts a powerful force to which the non-car obsessed are partially immune. Sitting in the new C-Class Mercedes with a friend who couldn’t care less about all things automotive, I struggled for a meaningful reply to the question,” So, if this didn’t have the Mercedes symbol on the steering wheel, would you really think it was any better than anything else?” Likewise, I know I’m supposed to hate the styling and finish of all new Chrysler products, but in the presence of my largely uninterested, and arguably unbiased friend, I had to agree with him that they really weren’t all that much worse (or even different) than 90% of what we were seeing, touching and sitting in.

    Walking out of the S.F. show, we passed a display of vintage cars and hot rods, which once again aroused my companions’ interest and excitement. “I can see how you’d care about cars like these, but how can you have strong opinions about cars like the BMW’s and Hondas and Toyotas we just looked at when they’re all so much alike?” I was asked. Good question and not one I’m prepared to dismiss.

  • avatar
    jimmy2x

    Well – this has certainly been a fun read. TTAC is the one car site that I read every day, both for the reviews and editorials and to keep up with the auto news. I generally find the writing to be both informative and entertaining (much like the podcast), but remain aware that of course they are biased. As has been noted, they would be pretty dull without any passion.

    I think most readers recognize this and just deal with it without becoming overly excited. I suspect that most of the “staff” are considerably younger than I, and cannot expect them to be exuberent over a Buick sedan, even though it may be the type of car that best fits my needs (both in psychological bias and in comfort).

  • avatar
    Claude Dickson

    I find it amusing that some people here criticize TTAC for bias. Of course the reviews are biased. The refreshing part of a TTAC review is that TTAC does not hide its biases behind 0-60 times, track results, etc, etc. And the reviews are generally pretty entertaining. If you want more, drive the cars yourself and make up your own mind.

  • avatar
    beetlebug

    I can wait for the podcast where they’ll discuss this. Maybe like C&D they’ll make some flippant remark and reassert their superiority. Nah, I think it’ll be better than that.

  • avatar
    Johnny Canada

    It’s a matter of acknowledging emotional responses and then understanding, sympathizing and respecting people who don’t share them. A little more of that attitude on this site would add welcome light, and remove unnecessary heart

    Sorry, but I’ll take my TTAC as usual; straight up and on the rocks.

  • avatar
    dwford

    I think it is easy for each of us to gravitate towards media that takes a similar view of the world as ourselves, and thus not notice a bias in the content. We tend to avoid opinions that contradict our own or that would make our friends question us.

    When we are faced with contradictory opinions on a vehicle, there is a simple solution: go check it out for yourself! If you are such a follower that you can’t bring yourself to disagree with your own chosen slant on the world, I guess you shouldn’t bother, because you can’t change your own mind if you are afraid others might not approve.

    If you are saying that you give a pass to a Chinese car because they are new at it, then you are not giving it any truer a review than you give the Focus slanted by your irritation at Ford’s platform choice.

    So the question remains: Is the Focus realy a crappy car and is the Malibu really a good car – objectively and without the anger or surprise?

  • avatar
    Pch101

    There is a difference between “informed opinion” and “bias.” The editorial does not understand that distinction, and it fails because of it.

    Biases are unreasonable, personal criteria. A biased opinion is based upon a pre-determined conclusion. Biased opinions tend to ignore facts that are inconvenient. They use data sparingly and selectively, using facts only to the extent that are useful in supporting a conclusion that was reached before the facts were even available. Those who rely heavily on anecdotes and gut instinct to prove their points are almost always biased, by definition.

    An informed opinion draws conclusions based upon a broad base of factual information, which is measured against reasonable benchmarks. An informed opinion will rely upon a variety of facts that are aggregated into conclusions that are logical in relation to the facts. While it is possible for reasonable people to disagree on what conclusions to draw from those facts, the facts themselves should be demonstrable and the benchmarks should be reasonable compared to the norm.

    It is the job of the reviewer to consider the vehicle in the context of the PR message to see whether it lives up to the spin. It is also fair to measure it against enthusiast credentials, if only so that the enthusiasts understand what compromises would be necessary to live with it if they were to drive it. It is not only reasonable to compare a vehicle to other vehicles in its class, to the overall marketplace and to the promises of the manufacturer, but that is exactly what a good reviewer should do.

    The article erroneously claims that judging a BMW 1-series based upon its claimed 2002 heritage would be emotional, even though this message is being communicated (at great expense) by BMW itself to its prospective customers. If BMW throws down the gauntlet by raising expectations along those lines, then of course it should be judged accordingly. Reviewers absolutely should test the car in part on this basis, to ensure that car manufacturers don’t make a habit of making promises that they cannot keep. BMW can and should expect to benefit or suffer from the consequences of its advertisements, and it’s the media’s job to make sure that this happens.

    There is likewise nothing at all biased about Mr. Farago criticizing the Focus for, well, just about everything. In one of its press releases, Ford describes the Focus as a vehicle that “brings an expressive look, a refined and flexible interior and a higher level of driving enjoyment to an evolving small car market,” and boasts that “the redesigned Focus will play an important role in Ford Motor Company’s resurging car portfolio.” Yet it was demonstrated in the review that there are other vehicles in its class that beat it in just about every way. Mr. Farago did his job as a reviewer to point out that the product does not match Ford Motor Company hype, down to the last yard of electrician’s tape used in the engine bay. TTAC would have been falling down on the job if it hadn’t made that clear.

    Overall, I find that most accusations of bias are the car enthusiast’s equivalent of Godwin’s Law. It’s easier to accuse the writer of bias (Godwin’s equivalent of “Nazi”) than it is to debate the conclusions on their merits.

    It’s not nice to say it, but I find that the hand that points an accusatory finger at a reviewer usually has three fingers pointing back at a disgruntled fan boy who is offended at being on the losing side of a review. If you want to see where the emotion is coming from, that’s where you’ll find it.

  • avatar
    jthorner

    “I just got back from the L.A. and S.F. car shows, and had the same response I always do: mainstream cars from mainstream manufacturers are remarkably similar inside and out.”

    I’ve had similar feelings walking through the San Jose auto show a few years ago. Stripped of all the BS, which oddly enough a second tier auto show does, most modern vehicles are pretty boring. I include Jaguars and modern Rolls Royces in the boring category. Sit down in a 1965 Jaguar 420G and a 1965 Cadillac Sedan deVille sometime and you can hardly believe both were sold at the same time in the same price range. Totally different vehicles with an entirely different design and engineering ethos. Drive them back to back and they are worlds apart. Now do the same excercise with a Jaguar XJ8 and a Cadillac CTS-V8 and you will be surprised how similar they are both under the hood and in driving experience, and those are two of the most different cars you can find today.

    In 1965 a Volkswagen, Toyota, and Chevrolet seemed to almost come from different planets. Today the real differences between a 2008 Passat, Camry and Malibu are similar to the minimal differences between a 1965 Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Buick.

    Group think has taken the automotive world down a rather narrow tunnel.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    bias is a normal human laziness to do a research, basing a point on presumtions, previous experience or majority statistics. but bias has always some roots. most of them prove to be true. just because you can name an exception, doesn`t exclude the general law itself. exceptions only approve the laws- whether gravity, engagement or hellmother-in-law.

  • avatar
    sj1204

    a note for those who believe that one or two postive reviews about vehicles from a manufacturer makes you not biased. This is akin to a racist sayiing they are not racist because they cheer for a black star on their home team. It proves nothing. The true test of bias comes when two nearly identical products get totally different reviews, not when a website or reviewer jumps on the bandwagon to pile on the accolades. Car reviewers are very herdlike so you see trends in reviews. Now that its “OK” to like a vehicle like the CTS we are flooded with positive CTS reviews. As usual (just like when the first CTS came out) we have reviewers telling us “finally” Gm has delivered its first competent sedan. Funny, that was said when Intrigue came out in 1998, the STS came out in 1997, the Aura came out in 2005, the Malibu came out in 1997, the orginal CTS came out in 2002, etc. Thats the beauty of bandwagon jumping, you don’t ever have to revisit the past you just go with the flow. Since everyone says the CTS and Malibu are the first competitive sedans GM has made in 40 years it MUST be true.

    Car reviewers seem to base what is right and wrong on their personal favorite cars as opposed to what people in a particular segment want. If it doesnt steer like a BMW its a bad car. If it doesnt rev as high as a Honda its lackluster. Automobile magazine criticized the new CTS because it wasnt European enough. They said the exterior and interior were too shiny and too fancy for a luxury car that was meant to compete with the C class and 3 series. It never occured to them that the CTS is American and is supposed to be. Lincoln tried to copy the German formula with the LS back in 2000 and we see how that turned out. Cadillac went in their own direction and some feel the CTS isn’t quite there because they didnt make a carbon copy of the 3 series.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    sj1204- cts is still not a world class car! just look at the gaps between front door interior panel and the dashboard. and the wooden elements from door to dashboard are not even aligned at one level.

  • avatar
    Queensmet

    Face it, all postings to this editorial are biased. You either like the way TTAC reviews vehicles or you don’t. You will not change anyone else’s POV so let’s just stop these useless editorial discussing biases and be done with it.

    Delete the editorial. It’s a waste of cyber space.

  • avatar
    HEATHROI

    If you don’t like TTAC’s review style then why are you reading them?

    Taking the 08 focus as an example, Rob’s award of one star was justified (after driving it myself) because it was no real advance on my 02 Focus. Even worse it struck me that it looked very similar to the Saturn Ion.

    Mismatched panel gaps on the CTS? who cares? Its RWD, Has a Six speed Manual and a good V6. perfect buy a year old after the 1st owner takes the hit.

  • avatar
    Aardappel

    I must say I like strongly biased reviews, IF it is clear what bias it has.

    For me, handling is the #1 parameter on my car buying list, so a “neutral” review that describes a car’s squishy suspension as “a smooth, compliant ride” is absolutely useless to me. TTAC reviews tend to be quite biased towards handling, which suits me well, but makes them less useful for the average car buyer who would never notice the difference.

    That said, I must say I think brand-bias is more harmful, and makes us puppets in the manufacturers hands rather than objective evaluators.

    Having always been a BMW nut, my own deficiency in this area became apparent when I sat in a new accord, and I noticed the interior actually felt more luxurious than my BMW. Since in my mind up to that point BMW and Honda are in non-overlapping categories, that took a while for my mind to cope with it.

    A different example lies in beauty. I have always really liked the taillight design of the last gen sebring (the way they curve in), but having had that car as a rental many times, my mind has a very hard time seeing that car as beautiful. Contrast that with the uglyness of some recent BMWs, which my mind tries hard to get used to, because, well, they’re BMWs. Brand image makes me perceive cars as more “solid” mechanically without having any true data for it.

    The fact that your mind has these preconceptions, and will use them to “bend” every input to be consistent with it, is the biggest impediment to optimal judgements.

  • avatar
    mlbrown

    I don’t want objectivity from car reviews. I want judgement.

    Objectivity shouldn’t be the goal of journalists or car reviewers, to the extent that they can consider themselves journalists. The goals should be fairness and accuracy.

    Reviewers have driven many cars, and should consider themselves the authority on what makes a car good or bad or neither.

    I don’t really buy all the first car faux-psychology crap. My first car was a Pontiac. Think you’ll see me on a Pontiac lot anytime soon?

    -Matt

  • avatar
    sj1204

    juris,

    well if you said its not world class it must be true. Forget about all the accolades and awards. Forget about the fact that cars like the Accord, G35, MDX and a host of others have gaps between the dash and doors. I mean if the CTS has a 3mm gap its not world class period. I better let MT and C&D and everyone else know they made a mistake. Great styling, great powertrains, two trannies, AWD, state of the art stereo and technology- yeah the car sucks. Thanks for clearing that up.

  • avatar
    wsn

    Reviewing a car is no different from assigning a grade to a student. Sure that the instructor is unavoidably biased, has his favorite students, etc. But should the instructor give a student an F simply because the student was foreign or didn’t improve as expected? Guess not. The instructor is still obligated to assign a grade based on indisputable hard numbers.

    I was a teaching assistant when I was still in grad school. If I were to assign grades in the same manner that TTAC authors assign stars, I would have been fired before the first semester was over.

  • avatar
    wsn

    Replying to mlbrown:
    Reviewers have driven many cars, and should consider themselves the authority on what makes a car good or bad or neither.

    These people are experts in testing drive cars for one day. If I were to drive a car for one day only, I would definitely trust their judgment.

    Unfortunately, since myself and many other people intend to keep a car for at least several years, we will have to trust CR more.

    During my subscription period, Road&Track had published a list of all the staff cars twice. Most were your typical CR top picks. The chief had a MB E-class, I believe. And that’s it. The VW junks that consistently got high scores were nowhere to be found. That’s the voting by wallet by these professionals.

  • avatar
    CeeDragon

    Pch101,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. As always, it made me think.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    sj 1204– look , a world class car is about bechmarks , whether in quality, compromises, or fit and finish in its due class. what caddy lacks to be a world class?
    1. rear trunk lid in a closed postion still leaves a significant gap with bumper.
    2. chrome line around windows is broken( connected in corners), that looks amateur.( break it between doors, but never in angled corners!)
    ditto the way it goes to a-pillar.no logical connection between a-pillar/fender and and chrome line breakage.
    3. front grille chrome line looks attached to a surface, but it should be a bit submersed, or have submersive lines around hood where the chrome upper lip is attached.
    4. steering wheel buttons still have uncompetetive gaps around them. steering wheel aluminum elements have chrome lines on sides, which look like, as if they were attached to save gaps with steering wheel.
    5. two buttons on the center console look alien, because they are not submersed, or don`t have submersive rims around them.
    6. the retractable navigation screen still doesn`t have a perfect fit in a closed position.
    7. door-dash gaps.
    8. the boxes in the central console under a/c controls and the box by gear shift could have narrover gaps, because light material stresses the black gaps even more.
    9. the door panel with power window swithces has gaps with decorative line on door pocket.
    (10.) at least you didn`t install an interior roof handle by driver`s seat. that would be amateur as it would distract the driver`s hand off the steering wheel.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    ah, yes, and cadillac emblem looks cranked in between rear chrome element and the 3rd stop signal. should have submersed rims, plus a decorative vault in stop signal and chrome trunk lid handle.

  • avatar
    sj1204

    jurisb,

    Unless you can verify that every other luxury car in the price range lacks similar gaps inside and out (which you cant) then I dont see your point. Amazing how you are the only one who has been able to spot these major build quality issues. You are nitpicking because it is obviously disturbing to you that the press isnt using age old stererotypical terms to descrive this car. Sorry, but Cadillac doesnt make land yachts anymore and their interior quality is wholly competitive. You have issues with the cars styling and that is your right, but lets not pass these complaints off as legitimate objective flaws. I think the styling on the M45, GS and IS is all wrong but I wouldnt say there arent world class just because I think some awkward design choices were made. You are criticizing the interior on a car that has been highly praised, even by those who hate GM products generally and it is very apparent that nothing Cadillac could’ve created would’ve satisfied you short of a BMW with a wreath and crest on the hood.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I think if people who want “feel-good” car reviews written by people who seem to be held at gunpoint to write a positive at all costs (regardless of they are lies) have to be the fluff piece reviews found in most newspapers. These are the hacks that can find 101 amazing things to write about (for example) the Nissan Sentra when in reality the cars are rotting on the lots while the Civic, Mazda3, and the ancient Corolla continue to sell well. I just “love” checking out those glorified press reports that pass for a review.

    I’m betting that for many of us, TTAC is part of our love of cars. On this end, I like getting the behind the scenes info from RF and the rest, and I check out other sites for video reviews and testing, some European and Aussie sites for cars we can’t get here and good ol’ Consumer Reports for at one time non-biased reviews and tests. The whole Toyota thing just blew up in their face!

    There are some very gifted writers on this site and while some reviews do tend to border on written humor instead of an actual review, their info is some of the best out there. I like to think that if we are looking for just numbers and options, we’ll go to other sites to get that. If we want to know the honest truth about many cars out there, we’ll get it here.

  • avatar
    mlbrown

    wsn,

    My point is that readers shouldn’t expect unbiased reviews about something as subjective as a car. It’s not like car reviewers are reporters covering presidential politics, where bias toward one political party or another can be detected and documented.

    If you want to depend on CR’s little red circles to make your car-buying decisions for you, have fun in your Corolla.

    But I don’t think CR has a “boredom” category or a “chances my mom would buy the same car” category. If people think that there are cars out there that never have any problems and CR can lead them to those cars…more power to them. But the internal combustion engine already works far better than it ever should have, and cars on the whole are far more reliable than they have any business being.

    Where CR provides “data” compiled from owner surveys, TTAC and other sites and publications provide reviews that take into account the intangible stuff, the fun stuff. They make wild statements and strong judgements, and that’s what readers appreciate.

    -Matt

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    I read car reviews mainly for the bias of the author. As others have stated an objective view of a car is nothing more than a chart of specification. The worded review is the interpretation and translation of those numbers to an emotional picture. Since I enjoy cars, I like to see the opinions of others that also enjoy cars. So let the bias come forth as that is what tells me your view of the subject car in question. Granted I don’t have to agree with your viewpoint, but I can still use your view to help define my own.

    On the point made that all modern cars are pretty much the same especially when we look back 40 years to the differences between makes and models. This has happened I think mainly because of governmental regulations. First came the pollution regulations, followed quickly by safety regulations and then followed by mileage regulations. Regulations tend to create uniformity since all manufacturers have to provide the identical solution. Ever since Audi began designing its cars in a wind tunnel to improve fuel efficiency, guess what everyone else joined in doing the same and the result was……..all cars end up looking the same. Somehow everyone gets the same answer when presenting the problem to a stream of moving air.

    Brand identity now defines the automobile and there have been many comments on that subject on this site. So keep telling me what you think of various cars even though your personal bias may be showing. In actuality its your bias that I have come to see.

  • avatar
    jurisb

    sj1204- yes I am nitpicking on details. because only details make distinction between first and second tier cars. have you ever been inside the latest volvo s80? and then in a Honda Legend, or audi a6. or lexus ls? do you really consider the interiors of these cars equal in quality and finish? you see, somehow volvo , saab, alfa romeo, cadillac, among others have managed to be 2nd tier, because their finishes have been lacking those small details, some here, some there. Lexus, or audi have managed to give superfinish, ultraprecise edges, and sophistication. what is more precisely cast- the new vw passat or the new cts?
    you see, being a world -class means eliminating tiniest glitches and leaving people like me jobless!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • avatar
    Macca

    Another poster said:

    “Reviewing a car is no different from assigning a grade to a student…I was a teaching assistant when I was still in grad school. If I were to assign grades in the same manner that TTAC authors assign stars, I would have been fired before the first semester was over.”

    I really couldn’t disagree more. I too was a TA for an intro-level lab while in grad school. This particular ‘lab’ was not much more than a time to complete a worksheet-based assignment with very little hands-on ‘science’ – and the questions were usually fill-in-the-blank with scattered short answer and multiple choice questions. When I graded these assignments, there was very little leeway; questions were usually either right or wrong. Rarely did I ‘bend’ the definition of ‘correct’ unless a question was poorly worded or confusing.

    I see this as a polar opposite from car reviews. Sure, cars have their concrete qualities that can be precisely quantified – acceleration numbers, skid-pad figures, interior and exterior dimensions, engine displacement and power specs, and so on and so forth. But there’s so much more to a car review than simply stating the above facts.

    Take ‘ride quality’ for example – that’s a mostly subjective opinion. A Buick owner might find a G37’s suspension too ‘stiff’ and ‘jarring’, but to a Corvette owner, the G would probably seem ‘supple’ and ‘forgiving’. It’s all relative. My wife absolutely hates the seats in my car. I love them, and happen to find them extremely comfortable. Some reviews harp on and on about ubiquitous interior ‘hard plastics’ – and others hardly mention it, despite their presence. Speaking of subjective – how about judging a car’s appearance?

    I could go on and on, but I think you get the point…if I were to have graded my students on either subjective criteria like appearance or concrete data like ‘exterior dimensions’ I would have most certainly lost my job. Grading a car is really nothing like grading a student’s assignment – nor should it be. Some car particulars are easily quantified, but much of the perception is an emotional response to the experience. How that compares to grading an assignment with well-defined right and wrong answers, I’m just not sure.

    Another poster also said that it seems as if some folks are confusing ‘bias’ with ‘context’ – and I think they’re correct. If Robert Farago had judged the latest Focus without any context of the previous car, or the version across the pond, people would have certainly found plenty to complain about. This current car might be ‘okay’ by very low standards – but how Ford has yet let another ‘hit’ car wither away has got to be addressed. How a car compares to its predecessor(s) is crucial in conveying its merits (or lack thereof) in a brief review, at least in my estimation.

  • avatar
    Claude Dickson

    Bias raises its head most clearly with differing reactions to the same or similar cars. The A3 3.2 is generally considered not a sufficient upgrade in performance to justify its price over the 2.0T. But then many are effusive over the R32, which is nothing more than the A3 3.2 with 2 doors.

    Then you wrap the same engine and transmission in the body of the TT and suddenly, it can seriously compete with the Porsche Cayman

    Very strange

  • avatar

    I’d rather talk about an author’s personal opinion rather than bias; bias, as mentioned above, implies an unfair or unreasonable prejudice. Want reviews without the author’s personal opinion? Read Consumer Reports.

    The trick in a review is to make one’s personal opinions clear enough so as to allow the reader to be able to get a clear idea of what the car is about. Earlier this year I wrote a review (for a different web site) about a car I didn’t like. I made it clear why I didn’t like the car, and that I expected my opinion would be in the minority. I’ve had people told me “I bought one — I liked it for all the reasons you didn’t.” That, to me, makes it a successful review, because the readers were able to understand my preferences and opinions and derive a fair evaluation from the car. To quote from above:

    “…the review still contained the necessary information to allow me to to decide that the Vette is the better of those 2 cars for someone with my preferences.”

    Perfect.

    Also bear in mind that we Web journalists have to deal with space constraints — I can’t say everything I want to about a car because if the review is too long, people won’t read it. (Take this comment chain — how many comments did you read, and how many did you scan?)

    Another point *for* personal opinion in reviews:

    “Recently driving a Chevy Aveo for a couple of days in LA found me thinking it suited that environment well enough and I certainly didn’t walk away from the experience with any scars emotionally or otherwise.”

    Most any new car will seem fine if that’s the only one you drive. That’s why you can trust your friendly neighborhood car reviewer: He or she is usually familiar with most or all the cars in a given class, and can give a better opinion. I reviewed an Aveo and have to say that I liked tooling around town in it. It’s an OK car. But compare it to the Fit, Versa and Accent and it just falls apart. As a reviewer, we can’t just say “The Aveo is great, but the others are greater.” There has to be a better and a worse. Compared to what else is out there, the Aveo is worse.

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