The Truth About Newspaper Car Reviews
With the notable exception of Dan Neil's work at the LA Times, the vast majority of newspaper car reviews are written to fill the spaces between automotive advertisements while sucking-up to the dealers and manufacturers who provide the ad revenue. When I caught sight of Tom Keane's take on the new Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid in the San Francisco Chronicle, I decided to see if the paper that fired TTAC's founder for his infamous Subaru Tribeca B9 "flying vagina" review had any teeth left in its automotive editorial coverage. In a word, no.
Keane didn't just imbibe the GM Kool-Aid, he cut-and-pasted it. The scribe went straight for the official press release to "explain the design" as having "a strong stance and bold proportions" and "a visually lower, yet longer, greenhouse and shorter deck [to] suggest motion and agility." It features an "aggressive, stable stance and rear-profile with Corvette cues that connects to Chevrolet's rich performance heritage."
Hey, at least Keane admitted the description came from "the Chevrolet people." But he begins the piece with his own, bold assertion. "With gasoline topping $3.50, there's no better time to drive the Malibu Hybrid."
To make his case, Keane compares the gas-electric 'Bu to the much thirstier 3.6-liter V6-powered Malibu, which gets 17 mpg city, 26 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined. He points out that the Hybrid is $4k less than this more-deluxe model. Well, yes. And it beats a Suburban LTZ by $22K, 12 mpg city and 15 mpg highway. So why not use the Yukotahburbalade if you're going to make an inherently biased apples/oranges comparison?
Reality check: the 2.4-liter four-cylinder Malibu Hybrid gets 24 mpg city and 32 mpg highway; 27 combined on the EPA test cycle. The non-hybrid model with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine gets 22 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 25 combined– a difference of only two mpg across the board. In contrast, the Camry Hybrid betters its gas-powered sibling by 12 mpg city, three mpg highway and nine mpg combined.
But what can Keane do? He can't point out if you spend $4k more for the Hybrid you only gain two mpg. That might make readers think GM isn't very good at hybrids, and we can't have that. In fact, reading this paean to erstwhile pistonhead perfection, I began to wonder if Keane worked in the SF Chronicle's advertising department. You know, formally. No joke. It happens all the time. At the bottom of the review, I read © Motor Matters, 2008.
Motor Matters caters primarily to the newspaper industry. The website proudly proclaims they have "12 automotive writers to provide editorial support for your automotive advertisers." They provide "accurate, clean copy written by… people [who] are highly respected by the automotive industry." Well duh! What's not to respect for an auto exec or dealer thrilled to the gills by glowing reviews of the latest metal? Motor Matters cites the number of papers that carry their reviews as "evidence that what we produce is informative to readers and beneficial to advertisers."
Motor Matters make no bones about their complete lack of editorial integrity. Their reviewers "give driving impressions, report their findings with integrity, but not in an objectionable manner." Screw the readers, for whom an automobile is their second largest financial purchase (after their house). Screw the truth.
Motor Matters' website provides links to suitable examples of their fundamentally unobjectionable copy, hoping to lure newspapers ready, willing and able to sacrifice editorial honesty for the good of their automotive advertisers. One of these is Keane's review of the Chrysler Sebring convertible.
To refresh your memory, when TTAC's Captain Mike Solowiow tested the Sebring, he noted "when the trunk lid pops to swallow the top, the entire car shakes like a pole dancer, wobbles a bit and then clunks alarmingly when sealing shut." His conclusion? "I wouldn't keep the Sebring past the standard warranty period based solely on the scary top operation… If it was my hard-earned $30Kish, I'd spend it on a Mustang GT Convertible, VW EOS, SAAB 9-3, Mazda MX-5 or ANYTHING else."
So what was Keane's take? He loved the "bright interior appearance, " the "remarkable shifting of various hardtop components as they… folded into the rear compartment" and "its attractive design." In parroting a variety of numbers provided by the factory, he cites the top's "30-second opening and closing operation" (which Capt Mike actually timed at 45 seconds). Keane closes with "this automaker offers up-scale quality vehicles with eye-appeal." Oh, and that "their products should keep the Chrysler showrooms busy for a long time." Has he even driven past a Chrysler showroom lately?
[BTW: Keane also mentions that a Chrysler engineer accompanied him on the test drive. Nope. No bias shown there.]
We understand that automotive writers like Keane have to put food on their table. We know they're part of a corrupt system that's as outdated as some of the products they're shamelessly promoting. Sadly, we also know that the average newspaper reader is oblivious to the lies, spinmongery and propaganda perpetuated by the craven automotive press. Rest assured that as long as media outlets keep publishing crap like this, TTAC will keep sounding the alarm. And telling The Truth About Cars.
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