Musings on the Motoring World

Are motoring reviews hopeless?

It is true that motoring journos have the best job in the world. It’s not so much of the glam and fast cars, but by virtue of simply being a career path that easily scores the three crucial “P”s, living out a passion, serving a purpose, and – all the while – getting paid for it. While the former and the latter are unquestionable, that sense of purpose often gets put into question, and nothing gives a professional pundit an existential crisis quite like having a look at what sort of cars actually gets sold.

More often than not, despite the infectious enthusiastic exposition amongst torrents of heartfelt approvals towards cars that tickle the driving itch, the cars that reviewers love don’t usually end up on the top of sales charts. Station wagons with a manual transmission are still a rare sight, Alfa Romeo isn’t the most popular brand on the road, and everybody is in oversized hateful SUVs. So something somewhere has clearly gone wrong.

A cursory glance might lead one to believe that nobody is listening to their words. Are motoring scribes living in an echo chamber? Do people not bother about car reviews? Does every BMW press car come with free rounds at your local den of vices with a kilo of pure cut Colombian gold and a veiled threat of what snitches will get?

The simple answers are, to a degree, no, and don’t be silly that is a metaphor of Ferrari’s PR playbook. Instead, the real reasons for this disparity aren’t so straightforward.

Contrary to what many say, people do read car reviews when the time comes to buying a car. Sure they might not read deeply into those asinine details of the way the weight transfers and the suspension loads up in a third gear sweeping bend, but they are eager to know the cold hard truth – is the car simply a yay or a nay? And that is as far as a reviewer’s influence can go in the buying process. Beyond that, the buyer is under the purview of the car dealer.

Unless you have plenty of money to roll, price is always the determining factor, and while many reviewers base their verdict on MRSP, dealers can cut you a better deal most of the time, depending on where you shop and how you negotiate, which somewhat skews the end result. Finding the car you want and finding the bargain you can afford are circumstances that rarely intersect. Many car buying experiences pans out as follows:

Say you have your mind set on a Volkswagen Golf GTI in black, with those lovely tartan cloth seats and a six-speed manual transmission. Nice. A gentleman enthusiast’s choice. So you walk into a dealership and after going through all the niceties, sipping a freshly made cappuccino, the salesperson tells you that the car you want isn’t available and needs a few months to arrive in from Germany.

Instead, the dealer presents you with a previous model year GTI in red, with leather seats and the dual-clutch transmission for the same price. And you can pick it up tomorrow, just a few days before your folks are in town. Not happy? They’ll throw in the bigger, shinier 19-inch wheel option that you didn’t know you wanted until you heard it was for free. Would you bite? Would you conform? Of course, you would. Why wouldn’t you?

And now you have a Golf GTI, except that it is trimmed to neighbourhood millennial hot hatch hoodlum spec. But it doesn’t matter, because what you have now is close enough to what you had in mind. Plus it has more pricey options that were attached to it for free, with a few grand you budgeted still in your pocket.

That isn’t to say of those who fancied a Golf GTI for its ‘sporty image’ on the way to a dealership but were talked into a nearly as fast but more “practical” Tiguan as they weren’t the sort of buyer who fully appreciates vehicle dynamics in the first place but will gladly entertain the idea of an “active lifestyle”, whatever that means to them during their weekend expedition to the mall.

Dealers aren’t fussed if buyers should have the manual over the automatic, or that they would be just fine in that non-jacked up hatchback. As long as any one particular model leaves their inventory quickly and delivers a higher margin, they are going to flog it like it is the last hour at the farmers’ market.

Besides selling less and less enthusiast-spec cars on the road, this causes a feedback loop to manufacturers and product planners as sales figures show a notable uptick in the trend of automatics and SUVs as buyers are swayed by the brief reality that manuals might be troublesome 10 per cent of the time and SUVs might offer that grand total of five minutes of worth of mounting kerbs throughout its five years of ownership.

A result of that is that production will sway towards SUVs with a majority of models being fitted with automatics, increasing supply at dealerships, which in turn makes them the readily available option with attractive discounts attached to it come end of financial year. It is a self-fulfilling cycle.

So where does that leave the motoring journalist? Are their roles rendered ultimately meaningless by dealership dealings? Not quite, at least not for now.

Photo by Parker Gibbs on Unsplash

With information so readily available these days, buying a car rarely ever start at the dealer. Instead, reviews play a larger and more crucial role in the decision-making process and often steers “the conversation” towards an ideal car to suit the buyer. Brief test-drives can only tell so much, and as far as comprehensive buying advice goes nothing can top the exposition of an experienced scribe into the good and the bad of a particular car, better than any Instagram “Influencer” or car owner forum page at least where the advice is unrealistically positive or undyingly brand loyal respectively.

A review might not guide buyers into the ideal spec, but it certainly might point them towards a brand or type of car they have been eyeing but never quite getting an affirmation from a third party. So while exact motoring journalists-spec cars are few and far between on the car sales chart, their words have a far-reaching and less obvious in shaping impressions and popularity of entire carmakers. Not quite the exact results motoring pundits themselves are hoping for, but you can’t blame them for that.

That being said, motoring reviews are still based around the model of private car ownership, and as the world steadily moves towards the sharing economy with car brands exploring the feasibility of subscription models, the job of a “professional car reviewer” might be numbered, nevermind autonomous cars, but that will be a story for another day.

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