In Defense Of: Enthusiasm In Automotive Journalism

Brendan McAleer
by Brendan McAleer

When bearded flip-flop enthusiast and serial-ruiner Jonny Lieberman recently wrote about his new long-term-tester fantasy ride – a stick-shifted, murda’d-out Caddy CTS-V wagon – he facebooked a prediction, “Cue the Baruth-venom in 3…2…1…” Quoth JB in response, “No venom here. In the best liberal fashion I have censured you for the ethics of it and moved on.”

Those of us in the peanut gallery goggled at the collegiality of the kaijus of contrarianism; thank goodness they weren’t going to start throwing buildings at each other again. Now Frank Greve’s AJR piece on auto-journo shillsterism has shown up, basically lauding Mr. Baruth as the Last Honest Man In Auto Journalism™ and intimating that Motor Trend is, by comparison, the painted whore of Babylon. Jeez, hasn’t Tokyo suffered enough?

Now, while I was happy to see TTAC receiving the laurels it so richly deserves, particularly as I am privileged enough to be allowed to write for them from time to time, I must confess that Mr. Greve’s article got up my nose a little. On one hand, he’s correct: there is a tremendous amount of manufacturer manipulation of reviewers either by a heavy hand on the tap controlling the free-car pipeline, or by stuffing them so full of foie gras that it leaks out onto the page in the form of talking points. On the other hand, the subtext of Mr. Greve’s expose seems to chart something of an annoyance with the pesky “automotive enthusiast.” To wit:

John Pearley Huffman, a prominent freelance reviewer, goes even further, suggesting that he and his colleagues have distinctive perspectives when it comes to guiding consumers.

“Car writers are, first and foremost, automotive enthusiasts,” Huffman says. “We love cars more than maybe even the manufacturers do.”

Egad! Those bounders actually enjoy piloting these ‘orrible bellowin’, pollutin’ machines! Why, they could be driving something nice and safe like a Hyundai Elantra. Or, alternatively, another Hyundai Elantra.

Thing is, upon reflection, Mr. Greve’s criticism hits a little too close to home. The chances of me subverting an accurate criticism of a vehicle based on the offer of a free jar of Grey Poupon or two are slimmer than the chances of me getting lent a hi-po Caddy-wagon for an entire year. On the other hand, does the fact that I love nearly everything about the automobile hamstring my objectivity right from the get-go?

It would seem, dear reader, there are not one, but two great crimes perpetuated upon the public by the Automotive Journalism community as a whole. The first is caving to the pressure to pander, something which you will not find here at TTAC.

The second though is perhaps more insidious. How does one leave an a priori affinity for the automobile curbside, particularly in an era where there are supposedly no bad cars? Complain about the numb steering in a Fiat 500? Well, you might as well kick a puppy.

Mr. Greve offers no concrete solution to the problem of either over-fed parroting and/or froth-mouthed enthusiasm when it comes to automotive journalism’s shaky state. On the other hand, he mentions Consumer Reports more than a few times. The question seems to be, should we turn away from over-wrought prose and hi-res shots of curving flanks and towards a system of shaded dots and empirical data? Well, not to put to fine a point on it, “No.”

On one hand, I would no more turn to a Baruth column as a piece of pure consumer advice than I would turn to Commando as a how-to on home security. When I see the Baruthian byline you just know it’s going to be a wild ride of brutal and occasionally scandalous honesty. Also, he is the only person I have ever seen bother to make a small grammatical correction in a Facebook posting.

But consider this for a moment: would a non-bi-Phaeton-owning, non-Porsche-collecting Jack Baruth have made a different call on that fateful Panamera. ‘Twere he merely a clipboard jockey, would panel gaps and impressive numbers have swayed him towards a more positive verdict?

Like anything else, it’s how you use it. Automotive enthusiasm can be either a whetstone for your quill, or a set of rose-tinted spectacles. The character of the writer is what guides that particular choice.

I keep in my office a sign to hang above my keyboard. Inspired by an excellent article from the Guardian’s long-term science writer, it trumpets the following sage advice, “Nobody has to read this crap.”

In a world where the VW Jetta can sell like pretzels at Oktoberfest, despite being universally panned as a cheap, plasticky sell-out, every automotive journalist should take this phrase to heart. People don’t have to read regurgitated press releases, vomited onto the page as a sticky mess of bland positivity.

But nor do they need to, nor necessarily want, two slices of dry white toast: there are more Jakes than Elwoods out there. Good automotive writing needs meat and flair. There’s a place for folks who make their living reviewing toasters and dishwashers, but you don’t walk into a dealership and fall in love with a Cuisinart.

Cars are an emotional choice, every time. They are part of our culture, an expression of our personal style, and as such, they deserve to be written about by people who are passionate about them. And by the way, that’s guys and gals too, Mr. Greve, with your baby-hoisting Mothercare quip: I know plenty of women in the auto-chronicling business who are both bigger gearheads and better writers than I.

As for myself, a 9-5 day-jobbing freelance who takes the bus to pick up my press-cars and has to fill them with my own fuel (despite what the Editor keeps slipping into the disclaimer), know that I’ll never intentionally pull my punches. More than that though, I’ll strive to never write anything that puts you to sleep.

Brendan McAleer
Brendan McAleer

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3 of 21 comments
  • TrailerTrash TrailerTrash on Sep 07, 2011

    WHO NEEDS CAR enthusiast anywho!? I think the whole reviewer thing is a bit least to rely on for purchases. I like reading all the reviews about cars I very likely will never drive and very likely never buy. I these cases it is sort of cool to hear about them. BUT to actually listen to anybody here or at MotorTrend, or any car sight when making a decision of what to buy is very, very stupid. They ain't paying for it. They ain't gonna have to live with the don't let them have any input into the purchase decision. And when enthusiast talks about the designs or looks of a car...this is especially maddening to me. Art and beauty is in the eye of the buyer...not the knucklehead behind a typewriter with a journalism degree. YOU get out and test drive over and over again until YOU know what car YOU want to make 36 to 60 months of payments on and still feel good. Buyer's remorse is what YOU will have to live with.

    • Slance66 Slance66 on Sep 07, 2011

      I agree, with one caveat. Most of us don't have the time to take multiple, repeat tests of the various cars we're considering. So reviews can both help suggest a car that you might not have considerd and provide observations. If someone says that the narrow tunnel on car bothered them on long trips, you might not notice on a short drive. Or they may notice a bad blind spot. You can look for these things. In short, they can fill in the gaps and make your test drive more meaningful.

  • Tedward Tedward on Sep 07, 2011

    I don't know if I agree with this self-criticism. I go to enthusiasts if I want to see whether a car is lovable, or to put it another way, to see if the designers approached their task with an eye to the art of car engineering (not looking for a philosophy argument art vs. craft just saying). Basically the only thing that could defensibly be left out of such a review would be projected reliability or dealer experience, but that's not necessarily the case either, as I've seen plenty of enthusiast writers ding VW and BMW on this account in their reviews. A non enthusiast car journalist is simply an underqualified employee whose opinion I have no reason to credit, unless that is, they are simply slapping together a bullet point collection of coldly objective facts. The problem is, then they need to be working for a dry publication like the SAE newsletter, and in those cases they couldn't possibly have the knowledge base to be competent without already being an enthusiast in the first place. So no, there is no place for the non-enthusiast car reviewer.

  • Bob65688581 We bought zillions of German cars, despite knowing about WWII slave labor. Refusing to buy something for ideological reasons is foolish.Both the US and the EU have imposed tariffs, so the playing field is level. I'll buy the best price/quality, regardless of nationality.Another interesting question would be "Would you buy one of the many new European moderate-price EVs?" but of course they aren't sold here.Third interesting question: "Why won't Stellantis sell its best products in America?"
  • Freshblather No. Worried there will be malicious executable code built into the cars motherboard that could disable the Chinese cars in the event of hostilities between the west and China.
  • Bd2 Absolutely not - do not want to support a fascist, totalitarian regime.
  • SCE to AUX The original Capri was beautiful. The abomination from the 90s was no Capri, and neither is this.It looks good, but too similar to a Polestar. And what's with the whacked price?
  • Rover Sig Absolutely not. Ever.