In a Very Special Jalopnik column, automotive writer Bob Elton calls out carmakers for allegedly extra-beautifying the cars they provide to members of the media for testing. According to Elton, specialty shops modify vehicles subject to review by the mainstream and automotive press to assure they're free of some finishing flaws that plague cars rolling off the line unmolested. What that means for the content of reviews is uncertain, though it doesn't seem to keep some writers from panning certain models. We've seen some press cars that don't appear to have been retouched, though others we're not so sure about. What do you think? Give us a ring a ding ding at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Bob Elton
One of the little secrets of automotive journalism is that media scribes get perfect cars to drive. You might not think that from the lousy reviews some cars get, but if journalists took their chances with true production cars, the reviews would be a lot worse.
Needless to say, automakers want to show off their cars to best advantage. But somewhere along the way, the definition of "best advantage" got more than a little stretched. It's one thing to make sure the press cars are clean, and the tires are aired up. But vehicle preparation has become a virtual rebuilding of press cars to make them absolutely perfect in every detail, and, in many cases, better than perfect.
In the Detroit area there are a number of prototype shops that "build" press cars. These shops normally build complete prototype vehicles, for shows and for engineering evaluation, so fixing a few flaws in a production car is nothing special. Special paint jobs, closer panel alignment, and reduced door gaps are standard operating procedure.
One carmaker, annoyed by press reports of wind noise, had a shop develop a special fixture to replace the window glass. Then the car could be pressurized, and air leaks easily spotted. A rework of the body flanges, door seals and related parts fixed the leaks. No more reports of wind noise on those models! Of course, the average buyers, without the benefit of this careful massaging, took their chances.
The same company introduced a slightly revised version of their full size van a few years back. The press releases bragged about the dramatically improved build quality, and the media agreed. But none of the reporters had seen the press' vans at the shop, where not only were they completely repainted, every visible spot weld was filled and sanded, creating a flawless surface everywhere you looked. The cargo version of the van, with no interior trim, had lots of visible spotwelds. A lot of man-hours went into that bondo job, but the van sure looked nice when it was done.
Another company introduced a new sedan, to challenge the BMW 3 series for sporty credentials. That meant that every press car had to handle and steer very well. Unfortunately, the first 50 cars off the line were so poorly made that proper wheel alignment couldn't be achieved, steering gears were sticky, and the tire supplier sent tires that were out of round and out of spec in other areas. The prototype shop went on Red Alert. The factory sent over another 50 cars, and truckloads of components. Subframes were swapped, steering gears were disassembled and blueprinted, and the wheel alignment guys worked around the clock. Eventually the shop was reduced to welding up and redrilling mounting holes to make sure that suspension geometry was correct. This was in addition to the usual repainting, refitting and other preparations. Somehow the shop got all 50 press cars together in time, and the car got great reviews. Unfortunately for the paying customers, it took a few years for the production versions to get as good as the press cars.
Why does this sutuation continue?
The press needs the cars, and the companies need the press. If the press blew the whistle (assuming they even cared enough to find out about the extent of the pampering their cars get), they wouldn't get cars to write about, putting them out of business. If the companies don't provide perfect cars, they get savaged in the press. It's a classic case of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), just like the days when the US and the USSR faced off with nuclear weapons. Neither group wants to change the rules.
The only way to get the right stuff about cars is to listen to writers who get their cars from dealers, like everyone else.
At present, the only magazine that buys its own cars is Consumer Reports. Despite the puritanical editorial stance about fun and cars, they often have surprising insights about quality, performance, and dealer service. CR gets cars with wind noise, flawed paint, water leaks, and other problems that somehow escape the notice of the buff books.
One way this could change is for the buff books to buy their own cars. But the economics of the publishing business make this prohibitive. So, since the carmakers need the press, perhaps they should set up a trust fund equal to what they spend on press cars and preparation. Buff books can requisition enough money to buy a showroom example, test it, and sell it when their done, rebating the proceeds back to the trust fund. This would also give the manufacturer invaluable insight into resale values.
Which carmaker will be first to step up and make a bold commitment to objective reporting?
[Bob Elton is an automotive engineer who holds over two dozen auto-related patents. Over the last 30 years, Elton has worked for all of the Big Three US manufacturers, including stints at Ford, GM and Navistar's design studios. Elton currently works as a consultant to a major automotive supplier and teaches a class in the automotive restoration program at Washtenaw Community College. He writes for Old Cars Weekly and numerous car club publications.]