Why Car Reviews Suck And How To Fix Them

We've read thousands of car reviews online. We remember almost none of them. The Internet, which has done so much to make journalism diverse and exciting, has somehow only made car reviews more indistinct and boring.

The standard modern review is still written for someone flipping through bound-together sheets of paper in order to pass time in a dentist's office or while taking a crap. Technology has fundamentally changed the way we endure waiting rooms and take craps and the modern review needs to reflect that.

Today Jalopnik launches a new review format designed for the new world we can no longer deny we all live in. One that excises the worst of modern auto journalism and replaces it with the best of what the web does.

Think of all the car reviews you've read in your life. Take away the photography, the masthead, and the byline. Can you really discern between something you'd read on The Car Blog from something in the pages of Motor And Track or in the auto section of The Small Town Examiner?

Probably not. Here's an experiment. Go to the meta review we did of the Tesla Model S. It's seven paragraphs from six different publications. Does it read like a mishmash of writers or does it sound like it has, basically, the same voice? Can you tell which publications they are from without following the link?

The problem isn't solely with auto writers. There are some good ones, some mediocre ones, and a few terrible ones. They all produce essentially the same product. The few stand-out reviewers (Dan Neil, Jeremy Clarkson, Chris Harris) only stand out because they are uniquely gifted writers who often break from the standard format.

What do we mean by standard format? The one that starts with a little anecdote or metaphor, transitions into a description of the various car attributes, discusses how it drives, and then reflects back on that anecdote or observation before concluding with a slight hint of opinion that openly contradicts itself lest someone dare share an actual thought.

The best reviews also, more often than not, have definitive and easy to understand conclusions not buried in confusing, guarded sentiments that try to cover for the bad by also highlighting the good.

This is because reviews are written to be read by everyone and offend no one. Online, the average publication wants their write-up as high as possible on the SEO ladder so you'll see their review on Google and click on it, then maybe get referred to a dealer, and buy a car.

Show too much of a bias towards enthusiasts or regular people or whomever and you risk messing with that transaction. It's simple economics.

The problem is also also grounded in the highly suspect notion that "no cars are bad" and "most cars are alright." If you honestly believe that then your job should not be to accurately describe how average the car is, but instead to suss out the distinct differences.

If cars are getting better, then reviewers need to be more discerning. They need to have a perspective. And there needs to be a clear, understandable result.

Our readers have noticed a general lack of reviews here recently. That's by design. For the last few months we've been working on a a new review system written for the enthusiast that presents information clearly, weighs performance as the most important metric, and is bookended with an obvious conclusion.

The Jalopnik Review.

The Jalopnik Review isn't a typical who-what-where ramble about a new car. It's a feature piece that's part essay — encompassing what makes the car special and what it's like to drive — and part nuts-and-bolts information and analysis in one-paragraph capsules.

The review has two sections — a 400-word overview of the car (the intro) — and 10 capsules, each covering a separate review component. Each of these capsules is capped with a 0-10 score. These capsules include Exterior Design, Interior Design, Acceleration, Braking, Ride, Handling, Gearbox, Audio, Toys and Value.

This means half a car's score is purely performance based, so that a car that looks like crap and is terribly designed with awful features can at least get a 50 if it's a great performer. The audio section, ultimately, is a bit of a gimme. A way to give cars a little help. We'll also give any car with an awesome exhaust note and no radio at all a perfect ten.

Adding those scores determines a car's Jalopnik Number.

This is a number that can be compared across cars. A number that will stand for all time. No cars should get zeros and no cars should get a perfect 100. A 75 is a good score. An 85 a great car. There may be no car on the market that gets a 95.

If most cars are mediocre then they should get scores in the 50s. It's as simple as that. I fully expect people to freak out when they see it. They will not understand how their dream car would only get a score in the 80s. But this is cumulative and when they see all the cars on a leaderboard it will make sense.

Our review is also interactive.

We'll have write ups of five new cars this week, all in this format. We want you to debate it with us. We want you tell us why we're right and why we're wrong. We want you to ask questions. Challenge our assumptions. We'll be in the comments to defend ourselves. Defend the number.

Stick around. We think this is going to be fun.

(Credit goes to Joel Johnson, Ray Wert, Mike Spinelli and Jason Torchinsky for the new format. The layout was coded and designed by Joel with input from Mike and Ray. Jason designed the badging, which is designed to conform partially to Ribbon Code.)

Photo Credit: Kevin McCauley