By on November 6, 2020

When I got hired on at TTAC, I checked with our news team about what we were expected to disclose when it came to considerations from automakers. Steph told me that unlike with some other outlets, there was no need to disclose how the press-car system works, since y’all knew the deal.

Three years and change later, I just wanted to serve up a refresher.

Why am I writing this now, you might ask? Well, in addition to being time for a refresher, it’s also a Friday, a slow news day (at least for autos), and we’ve probably picked up new readers over the years who could stand to learn how this works.

A peek behind the curtain, if you will.

That way, you’ll be more informed as you read car reviews.

Here’s how it generally works: Just about every major city in this country, with a few exceptions, has one, two, or even three companies that serve as the press fleets for those cities and the surrounding region. So, for example, Chicago has two companies that serve the metro area as well as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and probably parts of Michigan and Indiana, and Missouri.

These fleets make money by being paid per loan, and they also run events for consumers — say, an OEM brings cars to an event open to the public for test drives. They also help with auto-show setups when necessary. If you go to a sporting event and see that, say, Ford is running a promo and a few cars are out front for display, the local press fleet may have had a hand in that.

Automotive journalists just can’t knock on the door or call in and say “me journalist” like that dumb Cookie Monster meme and get press cars — you need to get approval, and from each OEM. I don’t know what alchemy is used to determine who gets cars and not, but I suspect it’s a mix of audience circulation/traffic/ratings, how often you actually produce reviews (OEMs seem to expect that 75 to 80 percent of loans you receive will result in a review), how fair you are as a reviewer, how reliable you are in terms of factual accuracy, personal relationships, where you live in relation to the fleets’ offices, and if you’re considered a “legit” professional automotive journalist and not just someone out for free cars. Plus other factors.

You also have to sign a loan agreement each time, promising you won’t drive drunk, you’ll pay any tickets, and so on and so forth.

One note — just because OEMs expect journalists to write reviews, there is no pressure to write POSITIVE reviews. OEMs understand we’re in the business of truth-telling, and if any OEM pulls cars from a journalist who has been harsh but fair on a car, well, that OEM is thin-skinned and only hurting itself by losing coverage.

Once you have approval, that tends to stick for your career, though moving to a new city with a new fleet would likely start the process over. You might gain or lose individual OEM approval as you change jobs (or outlets, if you’re freelance). If you’re on a large staff, you may not interact with the fleet — one person might handle scheduling for the entire office.

Since all of us at TTAC are remote and draw from different fleets, I actually don’t schedule for the entire staff. I schedule just for myself. Every person who gets cars and reviews them here handles their own scheduling, though I help if needed.

As far as scheduling goes, I typically do it a month or so out, and since two companies represent my area, I switch back and forth every few weeks. Loans are typically a week long, and where I live, the fleets will come to you. In other areas, journalists are expected to travel to and from the fleet offices.

I pick cars to review based on what we’ve driven on junkets, what is new and important to the market, what I haven’t driven in a while, and what I think serves our readers best based on what’s available. I work with the fleets and OEMs to check on what’s available and what isn’t. Cars do cycle in and out of the fleets fairly quickly — after a certain mileage they are removed from service, typically set for sale at auction. I’ve heard of a few journalists buying used press cars.

Because cars cycle in and out, there are certainly times I request a loan and don’t get it. It sucks for us and more importantly, for you, the reader, but it happens. There’s only one or two examples of a certain car in circulation, there’s a mileage limit, and a certain amount of journalists. Sometimes a vehicle is gone before you can get it. And I suspect some OEMs aren’t big on giving TTAC loans for whatever reason (possibly including this site’s history).

In Canada, journalists are required to return the cars full of fuel. In America, it depends on the outlet, and when it comes to freelancers, their sense of responsibility. Our rule at TTAC is “don’t screw the fleets”, so I try not to send a car back without enough fuel to get them back to base or to the next journalist. Sometimes I measure mpgs from fill to refill, which in that case obviously requires me to refill the car before return.

We have other internal rules regarding test cars — best summed up as return the cars in one piece, abide by the loan contracts, clean up messes, don’t drive drunk, don’t abuse the car, pay any speeding/parking fines, et cetera.

During the loan, we use the cars mostly like we’d use our own cars, to run errands or commute. Sportier cars get put through their paces on a back road when time and weather permits, and if we get OEM approval we may take a sports car to a track or a four-wheeler off-road.

I don’t require our guys to wash cars before return (unless they’re unusually dirty) but we do try to wash them before photo sessions. Still, returning a clean car is nicer than returning a dirty one.

That should about cover it. If you already knew all this, thanks for reading. If you didn’t, well: “If you don’t know, now you know”.

[Image © 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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42 Comments on “Housekeeping: How the Press Loan System Works...”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    ‘Slow news day (for autos)’. Are you paying attention? An announcement yesterday of the re-opening of the GM Oshawa assembly and the hiring of up to 1,700 auto workers thanks to a $1.3 billion investment by GM. And you call it ‘slow news’.

    The Star, which may still own Verticalscope has been all over this news. Just a few months ago we were discussing how the auto manufacturing sector in Ontario would soon be extinct.

    The headline for one story is below:
    ‘The rebirth of the automotive sector makes Ontario the envy of North America’

    Here are some excerpts from that story and a link to it and one other story.

    ‘Toyota started it off by announcing that its best-selling advanced technology Lexus would be assembled in Woodstock, Ont. Next, Honda and General Motors announced a partnership to pursue advanced auto technologies together that will surely burn up the highway between Alliston and Oshawa. Last month, Ford told the world it was betting on Oakville with zero-emissions vehicle assembly, and Fiat Chrysler responded with a similar exclamation in Windsor.
    Thursday, General Motors announced a reopening of Oshawa Assembly, and a partnership over 110 years old was reborn. Ontario is again the envy of North America.’

  • avatar

    Yeah we know how it works.

    The PT Criuser was The 2001 Motor Trend Car of the Year.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      Award issues are a little different, but that still does boggle my mind.

      I “owned” a rental PT for about a month in 2008 or 2009 when my Accord was in the shop after it got tagged by a Saab. What a piece of dung.

      • 0 avatar

        I went into a Chrysler dealership back in the day when the PT came out just to see if they were giving the employee discount since my nephew worked at Chrysler, when I asked a young hot shot salesman that question he gave me a sneering look as if to say “I’ve got something you want and you ain’t gettin it!” he kept me standing there for a few minutes, I told him he needs to find another job, turned and walked out!

    • 0 avatar

      There were a lot of “Car of the Year” awards that don’t make much sense in retrospect, but anyone here should remember that the PT Cruiser was as big a deal in 2001 as the Bronco is in 2020 and I’ll bet anyone that the Bronco ends up as someone’s “Car of the Year”

      • 0 avatar

        There were a lot of near-luxury subcompact station wagons on the market in 2000.

        It isn’t like the PT would totally be saleable today– and at very tidy profits– with some safety engineering and a modern AV system or anything.

        PT wasn’t the first subcompact CUV, but it was a wildly-popular early version of what we’re all driving in 2020. They sold roughly 1.3M of the things– and it was designed to be a limited-production niche car.

        Quit being salty about it.

  • avatar
    Chris Tonn

    Gonna chime in here as the resident freelance reviewer.

    First, I’m offended at Tim’s assertion that Columbus isn’t a major city! We have running water and everything here – but I’m served by the press fleet out of Detroit.

    As such, I don’t quite have the flexibility that Tim does in scheduling cars. Some OEMs don’t want to send me cars due to the roughly 200 miles one-way between the suburban Detroit fleet locations and my suburban Columbus home. Some OEMs don’t want to send me cars – no joke here, I’ve had this confirmed by PR reps – because of the reputation of former TTAC editors. From a decade ago.

    As such, I work with three fleet management companies in Detroit to schedule strings of cars – the idea, lately, is that continuing to send me a car each week is better than sending two drivers in one car to retrieve a car at the end of the loan string due to social distancing rules.

    At times (like now) I end up with three cars to drive at a time. I will be spending much of my day tomorrow shuffling keys and cars around in my driveway so I can get enough time behind the wheel of each one – and to photograph each one properly.

    Of course, not everything I drive ends up here..I’m freelance, so I have to run everything by Tim first before I submit a review.

  • avatar

    “One get note — just because OEMs expect journalists to write reviews, there is no pressure to write POSITIVE reviews”

    Chris kind of alluded to it above but back when it was independent TTAC was blacklisted by Subaru, BMW, and Porsche press cars. It sounds like some of that animosity still exists.

  • avatar

    That’s good to know. “all of us at TTAC are remote” So there’s no office anywhere? So I can’t even pop by and take you guys/gals out for a round? I am disappoint. :-(

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I appreciate the candid update on how the loaner system works . . . and I’ve been reading the site since its founder’s days. I recall that Jack Baruth had a running feud with Porsche, and he reported that the company blacklisted him (and probably TTAC as well).
    I will say that, back in those days, TTAC was, overall, more “colorful” than it is now, something I miss. Feuds with OEMs, feuds with other sites — particularly Jalopnik, feuds with other “auto journosaurs.” It was marvelously entertaining, but, as environmentalists like to say, ultimately “unsustainable.”

    Unfortunately, the OEMs control the supply of loaner cars to reviewers; and “colorful” is not something that goes down well with corporate folks, especially if it’s their product you’re slamming, fairly or otherwise. I have no doubt that a negative review from the pen of JB (a talented and very readable author) would elevate the disparaged car’s OEM executives’ blood pressure by 30 points over a similarly negative review from a more workman-like reviewer such as Alex Dykes.

    I’m not suggesting that Dykes, or any of the current TTAC reviewers, are dishonest, or even disingenuous. But style does matter, and JB and even the site’s founder had style to the nines. In fairness to JB, when he liked something, he positively gushed over it as, for example, in his review of the first iteration of the current Ford Focus (overlooking the obvious and evident problems with its DCT).

    Those were the days, my friend . . .

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, but after awhile it became more about the feuds and less about the cars :(

    • 0 avatar

      Was that when the work-around was initiated that they’d go after rental cars and review them that way? I’ve been around here since 2010 or thereabouts and can’t recall all the minutiae.

    • 0 avatar

      DC Bruce, I was here for those days…

      The one I miss the most is Karesh. He had the thoroughness of Dykes, but he was able to actually render a clear opinion, and ultimate call on a given car, without being abrasive – or colorful – like JB. And he was the kind of driver I am, so his reviews carried a lot of weight for me.

      JB remains a great writer, but I feel like middle age, suburbia, and an unnecessary version of masculinity are consuming too much of his attention. He spend more time defending those things of late. We get it dude, you love your truck. I preferred him more when he started writing about inequality in this country, in a way that resonated with the conservative old men that we call TTAC. That’s real talent, but that’s not where he’s at these days. P.S: I don’t remember his focus review, but I do remember the gushing Rio review! Those were exciting days.

    • 0 avatar

      He even waxed eloquent on the Camry, of all things!

  • avatar

    Speaking of at lease one major Detroit automaker… What is missing from this story is the fact that the vehicle you get is NOT fresh off the assembly line. Dozens of engineers and managers must drive them to confirm ‘things work,’ and they make long lists of what needs fixing. The vehicle is fully checked over like none you will ever buy. Things that don’t work get fixed. Paint and body fits that are ugly are fixed. Problem cars are not sent out. Who knows what else is done that the normal car-buyer will never have done for them.

    • 0 avatar

      But of course ~ you really didn’t expect the OEM’s to supply free vehicles that are not ringers, didja ? .


    • 0 avatar
      Tim Healey

      I didn’t mention it because I can’t prove that the OEMs are supplying us with “ringers.” That said, sometimes cars with problems do slip through. We mention it when appropriate but with the caveat that the sample size is one.

      Also, we may not be the first ones to get a car. A car with 8K miles on the clock that’s been passed among journalists could show wear, and if it’s unusual for a car that’s close to new, we’d mention it. Press cars can sometimes stick in the fleet for 10K miles. I’ve even heard of 15K, I think, on rare occasions.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I had forgotten all this, so thank you for the refresher.

    I’ve liked the reviewing style lately. I don’t need 0-60-0 times or closeup photos of shined-up tires, but the practical seat-of-the-pants descriptions are helpful, along with some philosophical discourse about the vehicle. TBH, it’s the prices that shock me the most.

  • avatar
    Brett Woods

    I found more truth about cars in this one exclusive than I usually find in a month of sifting plagiarized copy at other sites. For me anyway, this is genuine gold and I want to say, thank you.

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