The Truth About The Truth About Cars' Bias

Chris Hofflin
by Chris Hofflin
the truth about the truth about cars bias

My 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 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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  • Claude Dickson Claude Dickson on Nov 28, 2007

    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

  • Autonerd Autonerd on Nov 29, 2007

    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.

  • V16 I'm sure most people could find 155,365 reasons to choose another luxury brand SUV and pocket the difference.
  • ChristianWimmer I don’t want this autonomous driving garbage technology in any car.My main fear is this. Once this technology is perfected, freedom-hating eco hysterical governments (crap hole Germany, UK and the European Union in general) will attempt to ban private car ownership because “you don’t need to own a car anymore since the car can come to you, drop you off and then proceed to service the next customer”... no thanks. Having your own car is FREEDOM.Go away, autonomous driving. I also enjoy the act of driving a car. I want to drive, not be driven.
  • Mike-NB2 The solution is obvious here. Everyone should be raised in an Irish Catholic family and then all it takes is a sideways glance from mom and you're atoning for that sin for the rest of your life. My mother has been dead for decades and I still want to apologize to her. Catholic guilt is a real thing. 😁
  • Wjtinfwb A good car. I don't find Accord's as appealing as they were a decade or two ago, not that they've gotten worse, but the competition has gotten better. It would be my choice if I had to pay for it myself and maintain it for 10 years and 150k miles. They'd be very reliable and no doubt inexpensive miles, but probably a pretty boring 10 years.
  • Lou_BC "augmented reality" Isn't that a mamoplasty?