Enough About The Tesla Model S And The Manufactured Controversy Over Reviews

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
enough about the tesla model s and the manufactured controversy over reviews

Summer is always a slow time in the industry, so what better way to boost traffic than to manufacture a controversy out of thin air about a “third rail” topic like electric cars?

The past week or two has seen Jalopnik take reviewers and Tesla to task over the short drive times offered during the Tesla Model S launch. One of the biggest criticisms leveled at Tesla was that drive times only worked out to around 10 minutes, which, Jalopnik rightly claimed, is not enough time to properly form a driving impression.

What they left out was that press drives, on the whole, aren’t a great place to form real impressions of a car, full stop – but Jalopnik and other outlets do it anyways. This is the precise reason why we offer Take Twos (and sometimes, additional reviews beyond that). I was on the same Hyundai launch as Jalopnik’s Jason Torchinsky, where we reviewed the Elantra GT, Veloster Turbo and Elantra Coupe. Drive times were relatively short (a couple hours, perhaps) on roads that were carefully selected to show off the car’s strong points and minimize its weaknesses. The Coupe was driven only on lazy, mostly straight highways, while the Veloster Turbo and Elantra GT were flogged on the kinds of roads that driving enthusiasts can only dream about. That did’t stop Jalopnik from giving them a “Jalopnik number”, some kind of definitive, transcendent quantification of a vehicle that will forever be enshrined in the annals of automotive history.

Our writers are spread out across the globe (literally), and the diversity of opinions is enhanced by the lack of proximity. A launch in California or Andalusia may be a great place to test out a new droptop sports car; but how will it hold up on the bombed out roads of Detroit, where Michael Karesh lives? Will a hybrid car really provide the kind of fuel efficiency it claims? Let Alex Dykes take it out for a day of stop and go driving in San Francisco. And of course, we have our very own driving ace who needs no introduction.

When I heard about the Model S launch, I sent an inquiry to Tesla Toronto. They gave me the Roadster for a day back in 2010, with the only stipulation being “bring it back before the battery is drained”. Jack did a review of the Roadster for Left Lane News with no restrictions on time or distance. Tesla Toronto’s own Model S demo wouldn’t even be available until August, which is when multi-day tests of the car should be available. So while we weren’t invited to the ultra-exclusive first drive party, we’ll probably get a proper, unrestricted review of the car.

Jalopnik has taken to calling out Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, for his positive review of the Model S. Neil is an easy target; not only is he popular, a Pultizer Prize winner and a household name (if there is such a thing in this business) but he also comes across as a pompous, self-abosrbed narcissist, which makes it easy to feel schadenfreude when bad things happen to him. Thankfully, Neil is smart enough to know that he’s having his credibility attacked by an outlet that will literally report on anything in the blind pursuit of traffic numbers. Neil did a masterful job of eviscerating the weak criticism against him, and the responses by the folks at Jalopnik are utterly submissive – leaving no doubt that if the WSJ came calling for any of them, they would all be happy to jump ship and enjoy the kind of lifestyle, adoration and TV deals that come from writing for such an institution and the receipt of a Pulitzer Prize. Like an invite to drive the Tesla Model S.

Couched in all the righteous indignation about journalistic integrity and mis-use of taxpayer dollars is the simple fact that things are slow in the summer, and a fabricated controversy is good for business. It’s even better when it involves topics and people that are polarizing, to the point where one can project their existential angst and childhood issues on to them. So why not try to boost the numbers than by going after a couple of popular, controversial figures, replete with jokes about a supposedly secret same-sex relationship, blowjobs and other mature, dignified prose that we’ve come to expect from the Gawker network (or at least, the during the Ray Wert era). This whole campaign isn’t just a big boost for traffic; it’s the Powerball jackpot. Electric cars, Elon Musk, Dan Neil, self-aggrandizing, vulgar snark. The only thing better would be if a celebrity died and something happened involving cars and female genetalia. Oh wait…

Maybe this is just about personal pride. Press drive invites are often times just a proxy for professional validation. Journalists love to compare notes on what events they got invited to, like adolescents comparing who is wearing the “right” clothing or hairstyle. It’s a frequent topic of complaining here at TTAC, when someone unqualified is invited to an event that is sure to yield a great story, and we’re left out in the cold. Car makers really do use access as a carrot and a stick in exchange for toeing the line. And when you’re more interested in the people and the events rather than the car (like we tend to be), it makes it difficult to do our jobs. Or maybe this is just another “sponsored conversation” guerilla marketing effort that’s part of Gawker’s new revenue model? I don’t know. But I am counting down the days until August.

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2 of 18 comments
  • K5ING K5ING on Jul 09, 2012

    I don't think you have to worry too much about Jalopnik or Gawker. Don't get me wrong. I still enjoy reading the stuff on there, but I no longer take what they say seriously. They are also "improving" their site right out of existence. They are typical of organizations and companies that get "too big for their britches" and want to grow even more, even if it alienates the very people that made them popular to begin with. Gawker, etc., and it's commentators, used to be a community of like minded people who had the guts to say things that others wouldn't. Now, like you said, it's all about numbers, ratings, and it's pretty obvious. As for the Tesla "S", I'll wait until August when I can read a good, complete review.

  • AmadeusX AmadeusX on Jul 09, 2012

    I used to like Jalopnik and always saw it as light reading - certainly nothing I would ever take seriously or a site that would influence what car I buy, etc. Real journalism looks different but it was ok for some stories usually written in the style of an excited juvenile and decorated with a bunch of nice pics that make a welcome two minute break from work. Sadly, ever since they decided to "improve" the site, it's an unusable clusterf*** of a web presence. I think in general these days, it's the reader who's losing out - in any slagging matches between sites and in general. So many sites out there and how many really do employ trained journalists, how many really research, check facts, etc? Times have changed and it's now down to the reader to check facts. I've driven the roadster and am looking forward to driving the Model S - do I care how many minutes some car blog sites got with the car or if they are cryong about it? Nope.

  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys for that money, it had better be built by people listening to ABBA
  • Abrar Very easy and understanding explanation about brake paint
  • MaintenanceCosts We need cheaper batteries. This is a difficult proposition at $50k base/$60k as tested but would be pretty compelling at $40k base/$50k as tested.
  • Scott ?Wonder what Toyota will be using when they enter the market?
  • Fred The bigger issue is what happens to the other systems as demand dwindles? Will thet convert or will they just just shut down?