By on November 23, 2011

TTAC has long held that reviews of press cars made available by manufacturers at launches and press fleets must be complimented by reviews of vehicles acquired from dealer lots. It’s been a controversial position at times, and I’ve had to do battle with OEMs as recently as a few months ago to explain why dealer car impressions matter. Today, Consumer Reports is proving the point by revealing

When VW dropped off an early media car this summer, I remember looking at the trunk and saying to myself “well, at least both of the cheap hinges are dressed up with plastic covers, unlike the Jetta, which just has plastic on the side with the wiring.” As you can see in these two photos from Car & Driver and Edmunds it appears that the Passats in VW’s press fleet have covers on the hinges.

But not that Passat you just bought. No, your new Passat isn’t as nicely finished as the press version.

Like all the vehicles we put through testing, Consumer Reports buys retail samples at a car dealership. I personally purchased the Passat TDI we’re testing. (We also bought a 2.5 SE and a 3.6 SEL Premium.) As you can see in our images, none of the Passats have the two plastic covers found on the press cars. Consumers apparently only get a cover for the wiring loom hinge; the other one goes bare.

Interestingly, we had a somewhat similar issue with VW when a Passat press car proved to be equipped in a spec that is not actually available at dealerships (V6 with 17-inch wheels). When we noticed the discrepancy (and by we, I mean Michael Karesh, of course), we asked VW how we had received a non-representative model, to which they replied that press fleet vehicles were “early builds” from the new Nashville plant, and therefore not necessarily in market-ready spec. Which is a reason, but not an excuse: the media can only serve consumers well if we’re given representative cars to review. So, while these discrepancies are all relatively minor, details matter when you’re spending upwards of $20k on something. Hopefully VW and the rest of the industry will learn from this experience and make greater efforts to equip their media cars exactly to dealer spec. One also hopes that Motor Trend has driven at least one Passat that’s not from a press fleet

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42 Comments on “CR: VW Press Cars Don’t Match What’s On The Dealership Floor...”

  • avatar

    The best they could come up with to justify buying the cars is trunk hinge trim?

    More of a curiosity: some of CR’s evaluations ARE based on press cars.

    In our case, we had a V6 in LOWER spec than you can actually buy one, with smaller wheels and without a sunroof. Sounds more like someone tried to save money with the press fleet budget, by using some early production cars that they couldn’t sell as new anyway, than anything else.

    • 0 avatar

      Chances are a car with lighter wheels and tires and no sunroof is going to ride and handle considerably better than a car with fashion rims and a heavy sliding sunroof mechanism ruining its center of gravity. It will have more head room too, which may be important to some reviewers. I was at Infineon on Sunday, and the guys that had no hole in the roof Porsches and M3s were explaining to newbies why they sought them out to build their track cars out of.

      • 0 avatar

        CR is hardly beyond reproach themselves, what with forecasting the new Tundra would be reliable because, well, they really liked Toyota at the time. And anyway, does he Big Mac they sell you really look like the ones in the pictures? No harm, No foul.

      • 0 avatar

        CR is hardly beyond reproach themselves, what with forecasting the new Tundra would be reliable because, well, they really liked Toyota at the time

        No, they didn’t do that. What they did was prognosticate that the Tundra was likely to be reliable because the last two Toyota full(ish)-size trucks (the T-100 and prior Tundra) were reliable. You have to earn that recommendation on a model-by-model basis, and certain Toyotas don’t, nor have ever, had it (examples: some 4Runners and now the Camry).

        And, you know what, the current one is pretty reliable, too.

      • 0 avatar

        Agree with psarhjinian. If anything, it proves CR is credible. The current Tundra may not be perfect and there are lemons for sure, but in general is still regarded reliable.

      • 0 avatar

        @ psarhjinian – “You have to earn that recommendation on a model-by-model basis, and certain Toyotas don’t, nor have ever, had it”

        Really? Then please explain the 2007 mea culpa CR published where they back pedaled on the Camry V6 and Avalon, which were prone to first year ‘blemishes’ and ‘teething problems.’ CR admitted that they generally gave Toyota a free pass on their new model launches, but CR could no longer ignore the increasing troubles newer models were experiencing. (More like someone in the editorial department finally put the glue down long enough to come out of their haze.)
        A few years back, dealer lots in the central States were littered with Tacomas that had broken backs, yet that never seemed to bother CR either.

        LOL – more like full blown herpes and periodontal disease!

    • 0 avatar

      Seems awfully expensive to build tooling for molded plastic parts just for press cars. Either these came off of another vehicle or prototype tooling was built with the intention of putting them on the car and at some point during launch these were eliminated to cut costs.

      • 0 avatar

        I think you have misunderstood the cover issue. It is not that the production cars have NONE, but that they only have ONE, on the side where it serves a useful purpose, protecting the wiring that runs into the trunk. The other side is just the bare metal hinge.

        I suppose if it bothers the buyer they can always get thier sales dude to get one from parts and toss it in. Much ado about not much, as usual.

    • 0 avatar

      On the one hand…maybe VW really just didn’t have moonroofs or rims to go around for the press fleet. But then again that makes no damned sense and it’s honestly a lot more likely that they put the smaller rims on for a better ride and deleted the moonroofs so there’d be more headroom.

  • avatar

    It is absolutely an excuse – an excuse to serve up tweaked “early build” cars that don’t match what they later build for the paying public.

    People should jump all over VW for this. Personally, I won’t even buy one because of the reliability horror stories. I still can’t believe they are going to hit number one, even with all the brands.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    As Phony as the JLow Fiat TV ad.

  • avatar

    Actually, I don’t think the press ever get cars representitive of production models. There are shjops in the Detroit area whose main business is “making” press cars. Sometimes this goes to ridiculous lengths, like fixing wind noise or refinishing spot welds to look better.

    The shop near us does a special paint job on every Ford loaned to the press.

    I wrote about this on TTAC a few years back.

    CR, whatever their other faults, does get real cars from dealers, and that provides for an interesting perspective.


  • avatar

    I understand why someone might get upset over such this. Ironically, though, a few months ago when someone’s new Wrangler was delivered with mis-matching fenders, everyone collectively shrugged and moved on. New car reviews, test data and awards such as MT CotY all play into our decisions on which new car to buy. Therefore, the cars used in the reviews had better represent the new car I am about to spend $25k on, and vice-versa.


    I think it’s unrealistic to expect a comprehensive design freeze on the entire car, from the time of the review to the time you go out and buy one. Designs, suppliers and manufacturing processes are constantly changing. You will hear exactly zero customers complaining about an un-advertised change that ADDED trunk hinge covers, removed a squeak in the dash, or added extra footwell lighting.

    Furthermore, regarding the whining about shops that “make press cars” via fine tuning and other assorted touch-ups, do you believe there is zero rework within the daily production process?

    “Hey Dieter, we just found out that last night’s shift installed 100 windshields incorrectly. We can successfully re-work them to meet spec, or just let them go on to our customers. What should we do?”
    “We don’t have capacity to re-work before the next shipment. Send the cars to supplier XYZ – they are approved and can turn them around in time.”

    I think it boils down to good ol’ Change Management. What changes are going to be made between our PP build and launch, and beyond? Are they significant or minor? Which changes do we advertise and which ones do we not advertise? For all we know, their trunk hinge cover supplier is in Japan and, due to a rather large earthquake, just couldn’t deliver enough parts in time.

  • avatar

    Repainting press cars with extra high gloss urethane paints and clear coatts, bondo-ing over spot welds and refinishing, modifying pinch welds on door openings to eliminate wind noise goes far beyond “change management”.

    I worked in a building where the first Lincoln LS press cars were built. You would not believe the rework that went on to build decent cars. The customers got the usual crummy ones, where the wheel alignment adjustments were not great enough to get the design caster and camber.

    If you can find a press car that hasn’t been too abused, buy it. It will be a far better finished car than the usual production cars.

    So, as I said originally, I don’t believe that the press ever get representitive cars.


    • 0 avatar

      I’d be OK with the re-work if I knew that Lincoln was going to make process changes before production started in order to eliminate the need for the re-work.

    • 0 avatar

      As I replied above to your previous comment, I work in PR for an automaker in Canada. The press cars we hand out are taken from the exact same allocation as those customers get – we’re literally just diverting units that were destined for dealer lots.

      The only preparation that goes into the press vehicles beyond the basic pre-delivery inspection is 1,000 – 1,500 km of mile-up. This is simply to ensure the engine is properly broken in before it gets beat on.

      Again, I can only vouch for my own organization.

    • 0 avatar

      Ford has an exclusive relationship with its fleet services company. In the Detroit area, everyone else uses STI or ESI. Read into this what you will.

      I’ve driven plenty of dealer cars and plenty of press cars. Can’t say I’ve noticed a substantial difference between them. Where I’ve come across differences from production, I’ve noted them in my reviews. Ed mentions one. Another involved an Audi Q5 fitted with summer tires that I don’t believe are offered on US cars. I was more suspicious of this variation than I was of those with the Passat, which made the car less desirable to me.

      • 0 avatar

        I classify press fleet reviews as advertising, no different from the photographers that produce magazine ads. I classify dealer vehicles and full-disclosure TTAC reviews as reality.

  • avatar
    Hildy Johnson

    Fantastic piece of investigative journalism by CR.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Reminds me of a story I saw about GM executives getting ringers to test drive when a new model was introduced. When GM executives confessed they couldn’t understand what customers were talking about with fit and finish and overall “cheapness” they weren’t lying.

  • avatar

    I’m not sure what the big deal is. This shouldn’t be a surprise.

    Cars – like any piece of technology – are continuously improved as the build process smooths out and early design changes are implemented.

    It is incumbent upon eager journalists to report such caveats to their eager readers, just as they routinely do when certain engines or packages aren’t yet available for testing.

    Manufacturers, for their part, could choose to not supply early press cars to anyone, and force the press to acquire their cars from dealers. Yeah, right. Such is life in scoopville.

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    An additional irony is that some auto reviews would forgive certain defects because it’s a “press car” or a pre-production specimen. (I don’t know enough to discern if those terms are synonymous.)

  • avatar

    Methinks you’ve found the smoking peashooter this time. Thirty minutes at the blackboard, lads! In principle, yes, a secretly hopped up press car would be a fraudulent act. But it becomes a very grey area. Back in the Beetle days, VW boasted or frequent running improvements beneath the unchanging skin. Over on a contemporary blog, some interpret the brand name as “Varies Widely.” So unless you find different ratios in the box and a can of nitrous hidden under the hood, I”m not going to cast any nastursums, so to speak.

    Mistakes happen, after all– either you’ve made one here, or all those Chattanooga autoworkers are going to have a long, long commute to that even newer VW plant, 150 miles away.

  • avatar

    Let’s devoutly hope it was somebody at TTAC that mixed up Nashville and Chattanooga. If the VW press folks actually don’t know where their plant is, there would seem to be issues in the organization that go way beyond trunk trim.

  • avatar

    “Hopefully VW and the rest of the industry will learn from this experience and make greater efforts to equip their media cars exactly to dealer spec.”

    You have this backwards.

  • avatar
    Robert Fahey

    Don’t tell me this whole “scandal” is hinging on hinges. Find a substantial discrepancy or it’s no story.

  • avatar

    The more I think of it, this isn’t so bad, hinge covers I mean. Unless CR is going to buy a car every year, it might not be the same as reviewed since most cars have some decontenting as part of its lifetime.

  • avatar

    I’d be more concerned about the effects of VW-sponsored food and wine on car reviews than plastic hinge covers.

  • avatar

    “TTAC has long held that reviews of press cars made available by manufacturers at launches and press fleets must be complimented by reviews . . . ”

    I believe the word you were thinking of was complemented, not complimented.

  • avatar

    I guess it depends on who you are, where you are and how expensive the test unit you’re getting is.

    Given our market is so small, and press units are regularly sold secondhand since local dealership networks can’t afford to keep fleets of press vehicles, the local media is well aware of every single defect of every single test unit.

    Like the one which lost its hubcaps at the racetrack… or the one which another writer high-centered on an off-road course… or those annoying units with shredded tires and/or blown engine mounts.

    I’ve even driven cars which came straight out of the Korean test-fleets with non-localized trim, ICE and wheels… often worse than customers get. Awful hard to write a review about how a car drives if you’re being given the wrong suspension spec on non-local tires.

    • 0 avatar

      More recent than the 70’s too, a few years back there was a 350hp Holden Commodore SS tested against the factory tuner HSV with 400hp (and others) and beat it quite easily in the quarter mile. Not so easy to explain away that one.

  • avatar

    This is ancient news. As I pointed out in the Challenger SRT8 review, manufacturers used to do this regularly with musclecars, specially tuning the engines of press cars to get the maximum horsepower and performance.

    Undoubtedly, manufacturers are continuing with the tradition of providing the press with ‘ringers’ and, depending on the market, alter the focus of the extra attention. As someone mentioned the Lincoln LS, the market for that type of car would be discerning luxury buyers, so it’s quite believable Ford would pony-up for a little extra detailing on the cars going to press fleets. Many people base their car buying decisions on those magazine articles and it would be critical that the reviewers get the absolute best examples possible.

    OTOH, some things can’t be hidden or covered up. The mechanical flaws on GM vehicles used to be so bad that even the detailers couldn’t fix them on the press cars. One of my favorites was the tendancy of the old X-car’s (Citation) manual transmission to pop out of gear. The review would have the GM press flacks simply saying, “It’s a pre-production car. That problem will be fixed on any production cars”. Of course, it wasn’t. I know this from experience when I test drove a brand-new X-11 Citation at a dealer not long after reading the article and, sure enough, it would simply pop-out of gear for no apparent reason.

  • avatar

    Why don’t the press just buy one from a dealership? And then just auction it off internally. Not much cost at all.

    • 0 avatar

      Because both the mfrs and the press are eager to see products as soon as possible, which is usually before dealers get them. So I blame both parties for the mismatch between press cars and dealer cars. As I said above, I don’t think the press has a right to complain about it, since they know how this goes.

      Besides, most organizations don’t want the hassle/expense of buying and selling cars. Those who do – and can – are to be commended for their effort.

      • 0 avatar

        Well, that’s a valid point. But in that case, the press can just do a “preview” at first and then do a full “review” (of dealership purchase) 3 month later and compare the two.

        Buying and selling cars shouldn’t be much of a concern for a decent sized organization, and it will serve two extra purposes:
        1) Let the reader know the resale value, make the resale % part of the total score in a comparison test.
        2) Since they can do an internal auction, they will tend to buy and review cars that ordinary people actually drive, not a manual Saab wagon that only 5 people in the entire NA would actually buy.

  • avatar
    A Caving Ape

    Meanwhile, my ten year old MKIV Jetta had beautiful gas-sprung double hinges that didn’t crush my luggage. Cover or no, the current hinges are eerily reminiscent of those from my 96 taurus. Touches like that are exactly why I used to love VWs.

  • avatar

    I am Swiss (European) and I don’t understand this complaint:

    “well, at least both of the cheap hinges are dressed up with plastic covers”

    What’s the big issue here?

    THIS IS A NON-ESSENTIAL ASPECT OF THE CAR. It doesn’t affect the way the car drives or handles and it doesn’t affect the fuel economy either. If anything it is an aesthetic issue but I personally just do not see the big deal.

    Most buyers here in Europe wouldn’t make an elephant out of this fly of an issue. How often do people open their trunks and get “offended” by the lack of plastic covers on cheap hinges that so hurt their eyes?

    I drive a European Jetta TDI and I am not bothered by this at all. Even in the ’70s and ’80s when I drove my French company cars all across Europe did I never once care or make an issue about the lack of plastic/cloth coverings on the body-colored-metal inside the cabin. It wasn’t an issue then.

    I can understand how people today are more demanding, but the lack of plastic coverings on a hinge in a trunk of a modern car shouldn’t be an issue now. How often will one even look or notice this aspect when one opens the trunk? Seriously, WHO CARES?

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