Between the Lines: Long-Term Testers

Of all the sleazy little quid pro quos practiced by the mainstream automotive press — undeclared first-class junketeering, advertising that looks like editorial, editorial that looks like advertising — the long-term test car is the most offensive. I'm sure editors can think of 500 reasons why it's OK to "test" a Ford GT for a year. I can think of one good reason why they shouldn't: It clouds their editorial judgment. IRS auditors note: Buff books like Motor Trend are some to the worst offenders. They've assembled entire fleets of freebies; erstwhile journalists dip into the company key bowl like sex-mad suburban swingers. And when it's time to "update" readers on the writers' favorite perk, what's the chance they'll pull their punches?

Chevy promised great things from its new-for-2005 Malibu. The premise was that GM needed a car that could legitimately take on Camry and Accord, which long ago assumed the roles of America's best-loved and best-selling family sedans. The aptly named Maxx sportswagon variant- something the others don't offer- is intended to help eke out some extra volume. The appeal is more rear legroom and cargo space than in a conventional sedan, without it being a crossover or conventional sport/utility. Our well-equipped example cost $27,045 all in and included other rear cabin accoutrements such as a glass roof and DVD system.
It's too bad Motor Trend doesn't give authors of their undercapitalized parenthetical (long term tests) a by-line. I reckon this passage would win its writer the Passive Construction Pulitzer; four reverse-engineered sentences in a five-sentence lead takes some beating. (And I'm just the guy to do it.)

Anyway, anyone other than GM PR Supremo Steve Harris and his camp (not to say effeminate) followers will immediately recognize this lead as a withering indictment of The General's ambitions. Actually, reminding readers that GM positioned the Malibu as an Accord and Camry-killer takes us well beyond the realm of rebuke, into the province of a good old-fashioned bitch slapping. Unfortunately, the writer fails to go the distance and make the implicit explicit— although the phrase "eke out some extra volume" is classic groin-kicking BTL.

I'm equally amused (but not amazed) by MT's report that "their" loaded-to-the-gunnels Malibu Maxx "cost" $27,045 all-in. What would it have cost MT to put a small disclaimer in or near this two-page spread? "Chevrolet loaned the Malibu Maxx to Motor Trend for a one-year period." Anything less is nothing at all. And while nothing at all tells us everything we need to know about MT's ethics, it seriously misleads their less media-savvy readers.

The Maxx wasn't the car our staff lusted after for high school reunion duty, but it seldom spent a night in the garage. "I have stuff to pick up from the hardware store this weekend, so I'll take the Malibu," or "I need to schlep people to the airport- is the Maxx available?" It also served as a support vehicle on road tests and photo shoots.
It's safe to assume that these take-it-to-the-Maxx quotes did not come from Angus MacKenzie, Matt Stone, Arthur St. Antoine, Todd Lassa or Ron Kiino. It's obvious that the Malibu Maxx served as a grunt in MT's automotive pool, doing the boring, dirty jobs no one else wanted to do; driven by the mag's underlings, peons and extended family because well, it beats racking-up miles on your own car.

In fact, I feel sorry for MT's Malibu-driving groundlings who watched the aforementioned hoi-polloi pull away in the seriously good stuff. But my heart really goes out to the poor bastard who had to write this drivel, balancing a report on the Maxx's execrable reality with, well, lies. The rules of the game are clear: For every carefully couched or creative diss there must be an equal and opposite hosanna.

The Sigma platform architecture and "high value" V-6 powertrain didn't rock our world, but got the job done. The Mr. Roboto styling isn't my favorite design trend," commented one editor, "and the 3.5-liter V-6 has all the aural charm of a jigsaw." But there are Malibu characteristics we have warmed to. The structure is as solid as some BMW's or Mercedes, and as a result, the modest tire-wearing Malibu slices through urban/suburban territory with its head held high, managing a decent ride in the process.
A lousy car can hold its head high if it's as good as the worst Mercedes or BMW. Makes sense to me. But why MT felt obliged to play Malibu Maxx no/yes for two entire pages is a mystery best left to the magazine's advertising department (perish the thought). The review goes back and forth like one of those endless tennis rallies where your delight and amazement gradually slips into boredom and a deep animal yearning to fatally injure at least one of the players.

The Malibu Maxx's steering is "as numb as an electric train controller" but "the brakes fared better." The engine is rough, but it "will probably run fine for decades." The four speed autobox isn't "state of the art" but its ratios are "well matched to the engine's power curve." The interior is "awash in plastics of just-average quality" but "they withstood our abuse well." The radio reception "wasn't good in mountainous areas" but "the unit spent so much time set to XM it mattered little."

How much more of this can you stand? How about one more paragraph: the conclusion.

Make no mistake: this is a utilitarian piece. If you're about style and/or driving excitement, shop elsewhere. GM can't match the Japanese-brand titans in terms of materials quality or powertrain performance and refinement, but compensates, with some success, by offering more creature features and a slightly lower price. Although it's hardly an emotion stirrer, we did get solid, reliable, useful experience out of our Maxx. If it suits their needs, most buyers will as well.
Would I be wrong to suggest that MT knows that this car is a piece of crap, yet refuses to come out and say so because they don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth in case the next one is a thoroughbred, or they end up walking?

If a magazine wants to report on the long-term utility and reliability of a modern motor, they should rely on owner surveys and empirical data. MT and the rest of the automotive press shouldn't accept ANY free long-term loans from ANY manufacturer. The practice undermines their integrity. Accepting free cars on a long-term basis brings dishonor to the magazine and automotive journalism in general.

[by Robert Farago]

[Jalopnik's Between the Lines column parses the rhetoric of the automotive industry, and the media that covers it, from the point of view of that kid at the back of the class with ADD, a genius IQ and a thirst for mayhem.]


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