Editorial: There Are Still Bad Cars, But You'll Never Hear About Them

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler

Today, I’m here to tackle one of the most insidious lies in the auto business: the notion that “there are no bad news cars on sale today.” But I’m not here to dump on the usual easy, safe targets like the Mitsubishi Mirage or the Smart Fortwo. Because, the low end, mainstream cars on sale today are actually pretty good. These days, the real crap has risen to the top.

In my own experience, the most disappointing cars I’ve ever driven has tended to exist in the “premium” category.

  • The Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen is unequivocal dreck, with only the most cynical attempts to hide its origins as the personal vehicle of Reza Pahlavi. When I say cynical, I mean “throw on some wood and designo leather and charge $165,000 for a truck that was paid for in prior to the OPEC embargo”. And yet, it’s the hottest SUV on sale today.
  • The last-generation Range Rover Sport had so many warning lights on the dash that I was unable to even do a review of it during the week I had it. The new one is actually quite good.
  • The Aston Martin Vantage was the biggest letdown of my career as an auto journalist.
  • The Mercedes-Benz CLA got largely positive first drive impressions. In private, journos with a dearth of integrity admitted that it was a bad car, full stop.
  • The Lincoln MKZ. ‘Nuff said.
  • Per our own Jack Baruth: “Every Maserati ever has sucked. The Ferrari 360 and 430 are not great cars. The pre-facelift Gallardo was iffy.” Jack concurs regarding the G-Wagen and RR Sport.

Personally, I think that this does show just how good the average car is. Most cars that are available at price points accessible to the average consumer are a lot better than a lot of the tarted-up turds that are passed off as “aspirational vehicles”. Once upon a time, the delta between a Honda Accord and a Chevrolet Malibu was easily discernible, even to someone who had zero interest in cars. These days, it’s narrowed significantly, even if we consider the Malibu as one of the worst mid-size sedans on sale. That’s not to say there are no bad mainstream cars either. The Malibu, Fiat 500, Scion tC, the Scion FR-S/Subaru BRZ and the Toyota 4Runner all qualify as “bad” cars in my books. I am sure there are others that I’m forgetting. I still think the Camaro is the most overhyped piece of garbage on the market today, and the hometown Detroit auto media is entirely complicit in praising it with laughable hyperbole, only to turn around and crucify it a year later. Disgusting. I’ve seen more integrity during Tony Hayward’s press conferences on the Macondo blowout.

But what happens is that journalists, who depend on manufacturer access for stories and a sense of self-worth (“I may make $35,000 a year, but I can still borrow a luxury car so my wife doesn’t think I’m a failure) will give measured-but-erring-on-positive reviews (known as “the wobble”). Only when the car is replaced by a new generation vehicle will they tell you what they really think of a car. Journalists don’t want to compromise their access to the fancy cars and the lavish trips that come with them, since they are a form of professional validation, both externally, and within the incestuous world of automotive writers. Better to be able to brag on social media about the all-expenses-paid off-road safari or autobahn jaunt than to keep the best interest of the readership at heart.

And as much as everyone cries out for honest, objective, take no prisoners car reviews, they never believe you when you do give a car a bad review. When I criticized the Jeep Cherokee for being half-baked, many commenters doubted my impressions on the grounds that every other outlet gave the car a positive review. In the end, it turned out that the Cherokee had a lot of issues, but by then, it was too late. Our relationship with Chrysler was damaged, I spent a lot of time defending my conclusions and had to wait months to be vindicated by Consumer Reports. Some readers even called for me to be banned from Chrysler’s press fleet for daring to criticize the car.

Nobody wants to get banned from a press fleet – doubly so if it’s a premium manufacturer with desirable product. To paraphrase Bill Hicks, most journalists would spread their legs so wide, they’d crack their pelvis if it meant that they didn’t have to spend seven consecutive days at home with their wife and kids (if they even have any). Keeping quiet about a crappy car is part and parcel of this. Say the wrong thing, and the free cars and lavish junkets will disappear.

I don’t have a family, but I do live in a modest but lovely home and I have a Hertz #1 Club Gold Card. If a car sucks, you’ll hear about it.

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2 of 213 comments
  • Ceipower Ceipower on Feb 23, 2015

    Your points are all spot on. Most often I think this leads to lies by omission. This way you can go home , look in the mirror and tell yourself your doing the best you can. DO your best to block out the inclinations you might have about telling the whole truth. You become a slave to the dollar , or to those who hold the dollar. Bury your conscience , for it may cost you your job. You may begin to feel the need to get into politics, as theses traits are most admired there. You can see the results by reading issues of 3 year old Car & Driver and & Motor Trends. What they said then vs. what we know now. I remember the flair up when TTAC went after Subaru's styling a few years back. You were of course 100% correct , but that doesn't matter...you needed to be punished for telling the truth. It is possible what our parents and schools taught us was a lie?

  • Nick Nick on Feb 25, 2015

    The Kia Optima I just had as a rental. 50,000km on the odometer. What a piece of crap!!!

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