Bark's Bites: New Car Reviews Are Only for the Six Percent

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

Earlier this week, I found myself behind the wheel of a Hyundai Kona SE, doing some test driving on behalf of a dear friend of mine who recently acquired her license and had yet to acquire the accompanying insurance.

“This car feels like despair,” I said to her as we rumbled harshly over some bumps in the urban streets of Miami. Everywhere I looked, I found reasons to be depressed. The steering wheel was of the most severe and slippery plastic material. When I pressed the accelerator, there was a ghastly noise accompanied by a complete lack of actual forward motion. The stereo was of such poor quality that I just turned it off. “No me gusta.”

The salesperson in the backseat was not pleased with my reaction to the car. “Well, you know, this is the base model. I could show you an Ultimate model if you want some more features. It has the better motor, a nicer steering wheel, more speakers. Of course, we only have one of those in stock.”

And therein lies the problem with most modern car reviews, including ones that I’ve personally written. The cars the OEMs have the automotive press reviewing are not the cars the dealers are stocking, and they definitely are not the cars people are buying.

I’m not just talking minor trim level variances, either. In the case of the Kona, which our own Managing Editor generally found satisfactory in his time on the Big Island, the difference between the trim level that dealers actually stock and sell versus the only trim that Hyundai made readily available for the event is so large that it’s hard to even call them the same car.

The Ultimate comes with larger wheels, an 8-speaker premium stereo, heads-up display, BlueLink connected services, leather seating surfaces and trim, all of which is to be expected in a higher trim levels versus base models. But there are a couple of significant differences that aren’t just about creature comforts.

The Kona SE features a six-speed automatic transmission. The Kona Ultimate has an “EcoShift 7-speed dual clutch transmission.” The SE has a four-cylinder, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter motor that generates 147 horsepower. The Ultimate? A 1.6-liter turbo capable of 175 horsepower, which represents about a 20 percent bump over the SE. The combination of a different powerplant, different transmission, and different interior represents, for all intents and purposes, a different vehicle.

But don’t let that stop the reviewers from telling you that the Kona is quite the bargain at the low, low price of $20,450.

SlashGear’s Vincent Nguyen says:

The all-new 2018 Hyundai Kona is the new kid on the block with plenty to offer first-time new car buyers on a budget. Mind you, don’t let my use of the word budget and a starting price of $20,450 imply a lack of style, creature comforts, safety, or even that it’s cheaply built. Those opting to fully spec out the Kona – as was the case for our test car, fittingly, on the Island of Kona, Hawaii – will be nothing short of delighted, just as long as their expectations are in check.

How do “fully spec out” and “starting price of $20,450” have anything to do with each other? Of course, they don’t. According to some writers at the event, including Mr. Nguyen, Hyundai only made the SEL trim available to writers “on request,” and our own Tim Healey says he doesn’t recall any such offer being made to him when he attended his wave. Hyundai only wants writers to talk about the additional content available at outrageous prices, not the dreary base accoutrements of the price-competitive SE and SEL trims.

Even MSN Autos says, “The SEL is likely to be the most popular version of the Kona.” current available new Kona inventory, as of this post, supports this hypothesis. Of the 3848 Konas listed for sale on the site, only 267 are Ultimate trim, while 1940 are SEL and 576 are SE. So if only 6 percent of the inventory you plan to send to dealers is Ultimate, then why only have the Ultimate trim available on test drives?

Because if they didn’t, then what would the “journalists” have to write about? The depressing interiors? The terrible sound systems? The cloth seats? Better to give them all the goodies and “content” to write about.

This isn’t a Hyundai-specific issue, either. I thought back to all of the press trips I’ve been on and all of the loaners I’ve been given in my life. Only once did an automaker go out of their way to offer me time with a less than top of the line model — Volkswagen gave me the “S” model of its Golf Alltrack, which I actually found to be a outstanding value in comparison to the brand’s higher-priced models. Every other press car I’ve ever tested was the “Premium” or “Ultimate” or “Platinum” trim. As such, you’ll often see a vast difference between the “starting at” price and the “as tested” price when reading reviews online or in the buff books.

This, of course, is not the real world. Higher trim levels often represent not only the most features available on a given car, but also some of the worst resale values. The open market rarely rewards the used car seller for having paid top dollar for bells and whistles — my Focus RS with its RS2 trim level (nav, heated seats, heated steering wheel), forged wheels, and sunroof doesn’t have proportionally more value at the auction than an RS1 with none of the above.

A dear friend took a little jab at me last month on a certain parody site, essentially saying that I’m not a real autowriter because, instead of taking all of the press trip invites I get offered to go on, I review a lot of rental cars I have access to during the course of my day gig. Well, so be it. I’d rather drive and review the mid-level trims that actually end up in driveways and report back to you on those than be blinded by the 6-percent trim level that exists nowhere except press events.

Come on, automakers. Let writers review the cars people actually buy, and then maybe consumers won’t be so disappointed when they find out that what they can afford doesn’t match the car they read about.

[Images: Hyundai]

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

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  • Daniel J Daniel J on Apr 06, 2018

    I'm in the car market myself, for a new sedan. 75 mile radius: Kia SX Turbo 2.0T - 1 in stock Hyundai Sonata Limited 2.0T - 5 Toyota Camery XSE - 2 in stock Toyota Camery XSE with v6 - 1 in stock Accord Sport 2.0t - 2 in stock Accord EX 2.0t - 2 in stock Regal Sportback Prefered II - 1 And don't get me started about the Stinger. All the hype about the introductory price on this thing and yada yada....Not one in stock less than 40K in a 150 mile radius. If I'm spending over 40K on car, there are better options than the stinger. Oh, and then all the hype over the 1.6T in the Optima and Sonata? Not ONE in a 75 mile radius, yet every reviewer of these two cars with this engine praised it. The models mentioned are just ones I'm interested in. Getting Blind Spot Detection AND Android auto in a lower trim package is difficult.

  • Carzzi Carzzi on Apr 06, 2018

    This de-contenting has also hit the beloved Mustang GT. For 2015 - 2017, you could get cloth Recaros on the base trim for ~$1600. Negotiation and rebates could put you in a Base GT, Recaro + perf pack

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