Bark's Bites: Car Reviews Need A Reboot

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
by Mark "Bark M." Baruth

Let’s be real with each other for a minute, okay? Car reviews are just plain awful. They serve no real purpose for today’s in-market automotive consumer — they only serve to boost the SEO rankings for anybody searching for “MID-SIZE SEDAN UNDER $30,000 NEAR ME,” which is approximately nobody.

Your friend Bark is here to tell you how this, um, industry of car reviewing needs to be improved in order to help customers find and buy the car they need instead of the car they’ve already decided that they want.

The way the car buying journey is supposed to go is as follows:

  • Oh noes my car is old and busted
  • I wonder what car would be best to replace it
  • My budget is $XXXXX and I think I’d like something different from/similar to what I already had
  • Let me read some reviews of cars in that segment from sources I trust
  • Oh, that one looks good
  • Let me search some reviews of local dealers to find the best place to buy my new Maibatsu Monstrosity
  • I’m enjoying a nice test drive and this salesman is friendly and helpful
  • this price seems fair and the financing suits my budget
  • FIN

Here’s how it actually goes:

  • Oh noes my car is old and busted
  • I don’t know much about cars
  • Everybody at work says Toyotas are good
  • I’m going to read a review of a Toyota
  • This professional reviewer says that this Toyota is best, safest, most exciting, and sexually virile car on the market
  • I’m going to buy a Toyota because I’m not aware other cars exist
  • There’s a Toyota dealer next door to my office park so I’ll go there
  • Help me I’m in a very confusing office with lots of numbers
  • I now own a car I don’t know if I particularly like and I’m an indentured servant to the bank for the next 72 months
  • FIN

When has anybody ever read a review of a car and then changed his mind about the car he already decided to buy? Before you answer, let me ask you another question that might help you answer the first one.

If you’re supporting Hillary Rodham Whitewater Clinton in this election cycle ( is there anything that Donald Trump could say that would cause you to switch your vote? Likewise, if you’re supporting Donald Drumpf LOL ( is there anything the Hilldawg could say that would cause you to throw your vote behind her?

Of course not.

Car buying isn’t dissimilar to voting. People vote — and buy cars — based on their internal value system, which is very difficult to change. Most car buyers have some sort of emotional attachment to a brand or a model — and not necessarily for enthusiastic reasons. They might feel safest in a brand that they feel is reliable (Toyota buyers). They might like owning the same car as everybody else in the building (Honda buyers). They might like knowing they have the best car for the money (Ford buyers). They might have bad credit (Nissan buyers). Okay, I’m just trolling now. Regardless, you get the drift. Very rarely is a car buying decision made rationally and with a comprehensive data set. I’m quite sure that you, the TTAC reader, make a spreadsheet that includes all variables, including the price of jet fuel in Brunei, but most people just buy what they like.

The modern car review does nothing to help those people. Rather, it mostly serves as a justification for the buyer’s confirmation bias. It’s far too easy for a consumer to find a review that justifies his predetermined decision to buy whatever car he has already decided to buy, regardless of what it is. I’ll prove it to you.

Edmunds likes the Mitsubishi Mirage. The Car Connection thinks that the Jeep Compass has a “refined 6-speed automatic.Motor Trend gave the Dodge Journey 4 out of 5 stars.

What the hell are these people smoking? If you’ve ever wondered how anybody has ever ended up buying one of these “cars,” now you know — experts told them that they were making good decisions.

So what can these reviewers do that would help a car buyer? A few things.

  1. Ensure that they’re telling the truth. I know that this sounds simple, but it really isn’t. When you’re on the free car gravy train, it’s difficult to do anything that might cause you to get booted off of it. If a car is terrible, say it’s terrible. Don’t give it a 7.2 out of 10. Give it a 1 out of 10. Or a zero.
  2. Don’t spend too much time telling us what’s good about a car, especially in a short-form (500 word) review. Tell us what’s wrong with it. Buyers shouldn’t be focused on the Pros — if I’m reading the review, I’m already fairly interested in the car, so I know what I like about it. I’m driving a car this week that shudders every time I hit the gas pedal. I’m not going to spend too much time talking about anything else, trust me.
  3. Learn how to drive. I’ve been to three track-focused car press events this year, with a total of 30 drivers or so. Approximately two of them knew how to drive — the rest of them shouldn’t have been allowed near a track without supervision. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t qualified to review interior materials, or sound systems, or storage areas. It does mean that they shouldn’t be allowed to talk about suspensions, acceleration, braking, or driving dynamics.
  4. Compare, compare, compare. If they’re reviewing an Accord, they simply must talk about how it compares to the Camry, Altima, Fusion, and Malibu at the very least. I don’t really care how it’s sooooo much better than the old Accord. I need to know how it compares to the other entries in the market.
  5. Stop copying and pasting data from the press kit. The average car review seems to be about 75 percent facts and figures that can be found anywhere, including the OEM’s own site. If you’re doing instrumented testing, great — share that. Otherwise, don’t quote stats. Tell us a story. Share your experience with the car.

That’s it. Again, it seems simple, but how many reviews have you read that do it? Not nearly enough. But if the reviews don’t serve the customer, whom are they serving? You guessed it —the guys who get to go on the free trips and the OEMs who get the sweet Google love.

You deserve better.

Mark "Bark M." Baruth
Mark "Bark M." Baruth

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  • Nostrathomas Nostrathomas on Sep 09, 2016

    "When has anybody ever read a review of a car and then changed his mind about the car he already decided to buy" Funnily enough, I had the Focus ST at the top of my list until I read the TTAC article mentioned the somewhat poor safety ratings. With two small kids, I'm a lot less gung ho about the car, and it may be enough to steer me into something like a GTI instead.

    • See 2 previous
    • Nostrathomas Nostrathomas on Sep 09, 2016

      @05lgt As good as it might be, I don't think I could get over the general ugliness of the Imprezza/WRX these days, as well as the fact that you can't buy it in hatch form. The hatch is what makes the hot hatch a realistic buy.

  • Michael Karesh Michael Karesh on Oct 02, 2016

    Todd, I decided to not include free software-based repairs in our stats long before Ford introduced MFT. Software updates were clearly going to become more and more common, such that they could easily outnumber traditional repairs, and with such updates it's often difficult to distinguish a repair from an upgrade. Many Fords have fared poorly in our stats even without including MFT issues. I even wrote an article for TTAC noting that Ford was trying to blame its poor scores elsewhere on MFT, when many of the problems with its cars were not MFT-related. That you somehow got the impression from this that I was tweaking our stats to favor Ford surprises me.

  • FreedMike Needs MOOAAARRR POWER.
  • Mgh57 I should just buy an old car where everything is analog.
  • FreedMike You mean, the "Hellcat all the things" plan failed?
  • Fred I've only had it for about 7 months and I like it. Mostly because I have a hard time seeing my phone screen. So even tho my Honda's screen is 6" it's a lot easier to see than my phone.
  • Cha65697928 I'm 48. Both our cars have it, I'm never going back. Being able to activate calls, messages, music, nav, opening/closing garage doors all via voice command is awesome. Now if Audi would just allow Google maps to mirror in the middle of the driver's display instead of only allowing the native nav...