Bark's Bites: Why Does The Public Accept Car Reviews From People Who Can't Drive?

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth
bark s bites why does the public accept car reviews from people who can t drive

About twenty years ago, I made a decision that had the potential to severely limit my earning potential, increased my chances of becoming an alcoholic, and statistically ensured that I would die much, much younger than most people.

That’s right, I decided to major in Jazz Saxophone Performance. Yes, you can do that. No, I wouldn’t recommend it. Luckily, a combination of factors led to my ceasing to pursue music as a career a long time ago, but not before I spent nearly four years working behind the counter of a musical instrument store in the Brass and Woodwind department as a part-time college job. We sold three levels of most instruments – Student, Intermediate, and Professional. Guess who we sold the most “Professional” instruments to? Professionals? Uh, no. A professional-level saxophone retails for more than $4,000 in most cases. For your average professional musician, that’s like, a year’s worth of ramen noodles and Crown Royal.

Nope, we sold them to the upper-middle class parents of high schoolers. They’d come in with their kids, who had been given a recommended name brand and model by their private lesson teacher, and I’d send the kids into a practice room with three or four different examples of professional-level instruments to try. They normally sounded equally horrible on all of them, but they always came out of the room proclaiming the clear superiority of the one that their teacher had recommended, or, lacking a recommendation, the one that had the coolest looking engraving or lacquer. They possessed neither the talent or the ear to discern any difference between the professional horns and the student one that they came in with. Buying a more expensive instrument was not going to make them one iota better as a musician.

But, considering that I stood to make about $200 in commission if they bought one of them, I congratulated them on an excellent choice, cheerfully swiped the parents’ credit card, and sent them all on their merry way. Hey, those pizzas I ordered to my dorm room weren’t gonna pay for themselves.

This is exactly what the modern day car review is like. Allow me to explain.

Dig, if you will, the picture of a Driver with a capital D. Got it in your mind? Okay, now picture exactly the opposite, because that’s what most car reviewers are like. The vast majority of them have never driven a single, solitary timed lap on a racetrack. Their performance driving experience is limited to three laps at a time in lead/follow sessions with factory drivers leading the way at roughly fifty percent of the car’s maximum capability.

Why, you may ask, does this matter? Well, let me give you some examples of automotive journalism from a recent launch where, thanks to our friends at Jalopnik, everyone in the world knows that the track experience was limited to three laps with a pace car:

“The Camaro rides on a platform that is significantly lighter than the one used before. You immediately feel this in every aspect of the new car’s dynamics, whether you’re punching the gas on a straightaway, or braking as hard as you can for a 90-degree corner.” No, you can’t. Well, maybe somebody else could, but you couldn’t. You did three laps in the car. You drove at sixty percent. You have no clue what “braking as hard as you can” means. I would bet enough money to cover all of my blackjack losses for the year that you never, ever engaged ABS.

“Camaro has answered with a steed … built on a small luxury sedan chassis. The same Alpha platform used by the sensational, best-in-class Cadillac ATS carving knife. By Turn 2 at Belle Isle, I knew the Gen-6 Camaro was a different animal.” Really? By Turn 2, on a lead/follow session, your finely tuned senses were able to determine the Camaro’s handling capabilities? That’s impressive. Also, best-in-class Cadillac ATS? Somebody page DeadWeight to this thread.

“Ride and handling are outstanding, with the suspension able to soak up track imperfections with ease, while not disturbing either the steering or stability. The brakes feel much stronger as well. The 2015 model’s brakes felt squishy and overworked after several laps with journalists at the wheel, but the 2016 model exhibited no fade or softness in the pedal.” If I showed you a picture of this particular journalist, you’d feel much more comfortable accepting his review of, say, an all-you-can-eat shrimp buffet than you would his review of the 2016 Camaro. What exactly does “outstanding ride and handling” even mean?

Car reviews are full of this kind of nonsense. They talk about “understeering at the limit” or “cornering like it’s on rails.” But what the vast majority of reviewers really mean is that they’ve reached their personal limits, not the limits of the car. And there’s quite a difference between the two.

Let me give you an example of this: At the ST Octane Academy I recently attended, we all had the chance to drive the Focus ST on the West Course at Miller Motorsports Park. They waved me onto the track right exactly a minute after another young man. It took me less than three full circuits of a 2.2 mile track to catch up. If you do the math, that means I was completing each lap nearly twenty seconds faster than he was, and I was still learning both the car and the track. After watching my in-car video, I would conservatively estimate I could have been two to three seconds faster per lap, given some more time behind the wheel – the car had more in it than I could get from it in the limited time provided. After the drive, I spoke at length with him about his experience. Both of us felt like we were driving at “the limit.” Yet my “limit” in the car that day was considerably faster than his.

Why does any of this matter? Because it’s in that last ten to twenty percent of a car’s capabilities that the difference between a Mustang and a Camaro and a Challenger or a Corvette and a Viper or a 911 and an R8 reveal themselves. When driven at seventy percent, all cars are pretty much the same. When you combine a lack of driving ability with a heavy desire to get invited back to the next event, it’s easy to see how the “There Are No Bad Cars” narrative gets pushed so heavily.

When you read a review of a car by somebody who doesn’t know what it’s like to battle for position on a racetrack, braking at the last possible second to try to put your nose to the door of a competitor, and occasionally exceeding those limits and finding yourself on an agricultural tour of Turn Seven – how does that person truly determine what the “limit” of a car his? How does he actually know how good the brakes are?

I’ll tell you how: he doesn’t. He possesses neither the talent nor the skill to discern any difference. Hence, all cars are good. Every new model is better than the model it replaces, because why would it be NEW and REIMAGINED otherwise?

The real question is: does anybody care? I don’t think so. The OEMs are happy that their models are getting positive reviews. The search engine optimization rankings keep getting better. The reader’s desire to reaffirm the choice he’s already made is satisfied. It’s a win-win-win. But I think that you deserve better.

It’s just like those kids playing all of those saxophones in the practice room. The difference is, those kids will someday have to play for an audience that knows the difference between good music and bad music, and most of them will figure out one of two things: they either need to get some lessons and get better, or they need to quit and do something else. If only we could get the car reviewers to do the same.

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  • Thecapn_dennis Thecapn_dennis on Jun 23, 2015

    krhodes1 ... Must be a Mainiac thing. Been in Bangor since the mid-1960's, and have been perfecting my curmudgeon credentials ever since. Yes, in the section on cruise control there is one small sentence saying cruise control will resume after shifting a manual tranny. Right where it says cruise control will not resume after shifting the DSG trans into sport mode!!! As for BMW's, don't they say in very small print "everything is extra!" I've thought about getting the VAG-Com software and cable so I could exercise my retired systems level programmer skills. Worth a try, and it would be nice to flip a few bits so I could close and open my windows and sunroof with the key fob. Don't know if email address is allowed here, so I'll give you Thecapn_dennis ampersand yahoo period com if you'd like to swap tall tales and fables sometime. Thanks again for your comments.

  • Jimf42 Jimf42 on Oct 26, 2015

    Excellent article...and one reason I do not take driving reviews seriously unless the driving was by a racer. After racing for 25 years in a variety of cars, I think most reviewers (certainly there are many who can drive well), as the article says, do not have the experience and/or ability to tell when a car is understeering or oversteering due to the car design, rather than their lack of ability to drive the car.

  • Wolfwagen I see my comment was deleted (BTW nice way to censor) so i will say it again:GTFO here with the pseudo "wealth distribution" BS. A crime is a crime is a crime.Its a slippery slope, what happens next, Jail a rich guy when he kills a pedestrian and let the poor guy who kills a pedestrian walk? What about if the poor guy is a crappy driver and has the record to prove it then what?Or we could go crazy and just institute the death penalty across the board for every driving infraction. That will make people better drivers or stop driving altogether which will make the greenies happy (damm it I just gave them an idea - SOB!!!)
  • Wolfwagen No. Bring back the J80 with an inline six and reduced electronics (i.e. no giant touch screen) and they will probably sell like hotcakes
  • David S. " test vehicles sometimes make sudden stops when uncertain about how to navigate traffic."??? Test vehicles are programmed by humans, HUMANS sometimes make sudden stops when uncertain about how to navigate traffic, Duh!!
  • Frank The last guy was doing fine, this is a sales emergency that they're hoping Tim can fix. They want to hang onto the crazy margins from the covid era, which now in the face of abundant inventory, insane interest rates and inflation are a long distant wet dream. Its time to start offering value again, cash on the hood and 0% financing. Move the metal!
  • Gimmeamanual The new Wrangler isn't that new, it's still a JL and so is limited to what the platform can handle as far as addressing on-road handling. One thing Jeep should have done is increase the length of the front lower control arms by using the ones THEY ALREADY SELL with the Mopar lift. That 1/4" makes a big difference.