How To Be An Auto Journalist Part I: The Press Drive

how to be an auto journalist part i the press drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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  • Oosh Oosh on Aug 19, 2010

    The closest thing we have to TTAC down under for no BS advice is (essential) a one-man-band: Autospeed. Julian covered his experiences like this in 2003, to quote: 'I waited with excitement for the questions...but I was to be disappointed. "Did you follow the lead of Ford in releasing that new green colour?" was something like one of the first questions. OHMYGOD! They're asking about paint colours!? I couldn't stand it any longer. "You mentioned in the context of this range of cars that 'performance dynamics' best summarised it," I said. "Aren't you embarrassed by the lack of stability control in any of these cars?" There was a short silence. Everyone looked at me. Director of Engineering Phil Harding viewed me expressionlessly. "No," he said. There was another short silence. '

  • Niky Niky on Aug 19, 2010

    Autospeed is great... but one guy can't do it alone. I feel bad that his updates have gotten sporadic in the past two years. It's a lonely job.

  • Kurkosdr Someone should tell the Alfa Romeo people that they are a badge owned by a French company now.The main reason PSA bought FiatChrysler is that PSA has the technology to enter the luxury market but customers don't want a French luxury car for psychological/mindshare reasons. FiatChrysler has the opposite problem: they have lots of still-respected brands but not always the technology to make good cars. Not to say that if FCA has a good platform, it won't be used in a PSA car.In other words, if those Alfa Romeo buds think that they will remain a silo with their own bespoke platforms and exclusive sheet metal, they are in for a shock. This is just the start.
  • Arthur Dailey For the Hornet less expensive interior materials/finishings, decontent just a little, build it in North America and sell it for less and everyone should be happy with both the Dodge and the Alfa.
  • Bunkie I so wanted to love this car back in the day. At the time I owned a GT6+ and I was looking for something more modern. But, as they say, this car had *issues*. The first of which was the very high price premium for the V8. It was a several thousand dollar premium over the TR-7. The second was the absolutely awful fuel economy. That put me off the car and I bought a new RX-7 which, despite the thirsty rotary, still got better mileage and didn’t require premium fuel. I guess I wasn’t the only one who had this reaction because, two years later, I test-drove a leftover that had a $2,000 price cut. I don’t remember being impressed, the RX-7 had spoiled me with how easy it was to own. The TR-8 didn’t feel quick to me and it felt heavy. The first-gen RX was more in line with the idea of a light car that punched above its weight. I parted ways with both the GT6+ and the RX7 and, to this day, I miss them both.
  • Fred Where you going to build it? Even in Texas near Cat Springs they wanted to put up a country club for sport cars. People complained, mostly rich people who had weekend hobby farms. They said the noise would scare their cows. So they ended up in Dickinson, where they were more eager for development of any kind.
  • MaintenanceCosts I like the styling of this car inside and out, but not any of the powertrains. Give it the 4xe powertrain - or, better yet, a version of that powertrain with the 6-cylinder Hurricane - and I'd be very interested.