Category - Avoidable Contact

A weekly opinion column by Dubspeed Driven staffer Jack Baruth

Avoidable Contact #31: Automotive “journalism” is a joke, and it needs a punchline.

“If Woodward and Bernstein had been automotive journalists, the Watergate story would have been a five-star review of Richard Nixon’s personal tape recorder.” I’m putting that in quotes, even though I just wrote it, because I think it’s quotable.

“Iā€™m increasingly of the opinion that while critical opinion is necessary ā€” especially with a big purchase like a car ā€” manufacturers are wasting time and money by catering to writers with large or focused audiences but little pull in terms of who actually purchases the items.” Now that was written by Michael Banovsky, in his recent piece regarding free-ride automotive journalism, and I think it’s also quotable, although it lacks that certain ‘zing’ that my quote has.

The aforementioned Mr. Banovsky has a novel idea: that manufacturers should stop paying for auto journalists to enjoy unbelievably sybaritic new-vehicle launches, $80,000 free loaner cars disguised as “long-term testers”, and all of the other little bennies of the biz. Instead, the money (and it’s a lot of money, reckoned to be over five million dollars per year in the case of some of the bigger automakers) should be spent reaching out to, and connecting with, the actual customers for their products. In short, auto journalism as we know it needs to die. The denim-jacket fatties and bald old buzzards who shuffle-steer their incompetent way through a driving event, hold down barstools for the evening, and then rewrite the press release during the flight home — well, they should be taken out back and shot. The color rags should wither and fall from the shelves like autumn leaves, with only the lace-like rotted pages of a MacNeil Products special-advertising section remaining. The functional illiterates who take a free plane ticket to an auto show, have their hands held by PR reps through a scripted sequence of roundtables, and then breathlessly blog about the “awesomeness” of cars they’ve never driven — they will become as difficult to find as their talent was. All change, as they say. Everybody goes home.

He’s right, and he’s right about why. The Internet will eventually connect manufacturers and consumers directly, with very little third-party (lack of) expertise muddling the flow. That’s the end of the story. But the road to that happy ending will be longer than the road Dorothy took to Oz, and here’s why.

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Avoidable Contact #30: Prius is very iPad! Prius is real luxury! HS250h is more like a Sears Tele-Games! You’ll buy anything!

“…is going to buy whatever Apple unveils today, right at 5pm, no matter what it is.” — Seen on Facebook, January 27, 2010

As I write this, it has been fourteen hours since Apple’s Steve Jobs revealed the iPad to a crowd of cheering followers, er, customers, this morning. For what it’s worth, I’m in no way impressed with the new iProduct. I’ve been working with Apple systems since I hacked up a “worm race” program for the Apple ][+ back in 1982, and I am writing this column on a 24″ iMac, so I’m very far from being anti-Apple — but this new tablet doesn’t do it for me.

Not that Mr. Jobs would care. As a company, Apple is very far from being the hacker-friendly maker of expansion-slot-packed beige wedges I knew as a child. One could argue that Apple isn’t even really a computer company any more, insofar as they don’t devote a lot of attention to making computers. Instead, Apple is a producer of design-centric goods which offer little more utility than their competitors while commanding significantly higher prices. Hmm… I think that means that Apple is a luxury brand. Don’t you?

After all, “luxury” doesn’t necessarily mean Brioni suits, megayachts, or any of the verses from Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”. Rather, a luxury is simply something that one does not need, but that one wants, often for no other reason than the social standing or perceived prestige associated with the item. Luxury, in other words, is something that offers a boost in self-image and image within a community. The iPad will be a luxury item. Nobody needs an iPad. The functionality of the iPad doesn’t justify the price. There are cheaper, uglier, more drab devices that provide about the same utility for less money.

I would suggest that most iPad purchasers will be people who identify with the Apple brand and its cultural associations. If iPads were invisible, or if they looked exactly like Dell laptops, they would collect dust on the brightly lit Apple Store shelves. Instead, they will fly off those shelves and into the hands of people who want to be seen with the “right” product. Regardless of price. Regardless of function. Regardless of utility. Image is the key. And that is why the Toyota Prius is a successful luxury product. It’s also why the Honda Insight has cratered in the market, and it’s why the Prius spinoff, the hopelessly dumpy HS250h, is utterly doomed.
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Avoidable Contact #29: Lexus killed Saab, but GM let Saab die.

saab900

This past Friday, I was seated in a long-lead briefing for another auto manufacturer when the whispered word was passed down the line of seated journalists: “There’s an emergency conference call regarding Saab in ten minutes.” Not too long after that: “Saab is dead. There’s no deal.” All around me, I saw men with their heads cradled in their hands, though I could not tell whether it was from sympathy, misery, or simple world-weariness. From the seat next to me, a sorrowful, poignant comment: “I don’t want to live in a world where the ES350 is a best-seller and Saab is dead.”

What a perceptive statement! For there were more than fifteen long years where people willingly deluded themselves into believing that this world was one where the Camry-by-Lexus could rule the sales roost and, yet, Saab could live. With evidence to the contrary literally surrounding them, Saab’s incompetent, careless stewards at General Motors continued to push the lie: Saab is premium, Saab is luxury, Saab can compete with the Japanese and Germans on equal ground. By the time Saab’s lifeless body finally thumped against the ground, the story had assumed the mantle of tragedy. And like most tragedies, it began with a misunderstanding.
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Avoidable Contact #28: Lincoln and Cadillac, MKT and CTS-V, one last time, to the death.

At the Liquid Sky Resort

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago, as the song says. One day in the spring of 1982, my father pulled into the driveway behind the wheel of a new Lincoln Town Car Signature Series. His new Lincoln Town Car Signature Series, purchased to commemorate his ascension to the post of Executive Vice President in a small food brokerage. Let the record show that my father was thirty-seven years old, as I am now. If he was confused and occasionally frustrated by life, as I am now, he never showed it; if he struggled with doubts and fear, as I occasionally do, it was never apparent. He was a respected businessman and stalwart, if not particularly cheerful, presence at church each Sunday. Still, I take comfort in the fact that his Town Car was painted a particularly outrageous shade of sky blue, referred to as “Wedgwood” in the manual but immediately characterized by my automotively diffident mother as “Polock Blue”. Not as outrageous as a bright green Audi S5, perhaps, but neither was this the car of a man who shied away from attention.

His choice of a Town Car surprised me. My grandfather — his father — was a confirmed Cadillac man who piloted a stainless-roofed Eldorado Biarritz from home to country club and back every day. Surely a Sedan de Ville (French, amusingly, for “town car”) would have been a better choice? As always, though, Dad had his finger vaguely on the American pulse. The Town Car was “hot” and the de Ville was “cold”, so he chose the former. And how I loved to ride in that blue-velour interior, surrounded by chromed script and plastic wood, serenaded by the “Premium Sound” system complete with door-mounted subwoofers! And though my father would eventually follow that American pulse away from Lincoln, through a series of BMWs, Jags, Lexuses, and Infinitis, I never forgot this: sliding behind the wheel of a big new Lincoln meant that one had “made it”.

Fast-forward to the present day. I am in full attack mode, bearing down on the tail of an E36 BMW through a series of vicious decreasing-radius turns. He’s pushing hard, breaking the tail loose slightly at every exit. I’m holding the gap from braking zone to apex and closing it from there. A pair of utterly silent turbochargers quicken the cultured twin-cam music filtering into an exceptionally quiet cabin. We have all-wheel-drive and make full use of it, clawing the road at full throttle and ripping the scenery back through the windshield. On a wide sweeper, I see the needle swing well past the triple-digit hash mark, the Bimmer’s license plate swells to myopic visibility, and the chase is finally over. We’re on his tail, will not be shaken. My three passengers relax a bit. They are each reclined in a power-ventilated individual chair, surrounded by figured maple and stitched leather, lit by the sun through a panoramic glass roof and soothed by a studio-quality sound system. We’re in a Lincoln. More pertinently, we’re in a Lincoln station wagon.

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Avoidable Contact #27: The end, and the beginning, of great Japanese cars.

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I remember the event as if it were yesterday, although in fact it was twenty-six years ago. My relentless, Rommel-esque campaign to get my mother into a 1983 Honda Civic 1500S had very nearly reached a successful conclusion. For months I had worked tirelessly to steer Mom towards a Honda dealership for our new “family car”, always with the ostensible and sensible goal of purchasing the $6,995 1500GL wagon. Once we were inside the doors of the dealership — doors I had personally darkened many a time before then, since it was only a four-mile walk each way from my house — it would be a simple matter of bait-and-switching her away from the wagon and into a bright red 1500S hatchback. I’d walked to the showroom the day before and verified the presence of one, priced at a compelling $6,495.

As fate would have it, however, the red 1500S had sold, leaving just a black one available. (The 1983 Civic 1500S, the only Civic of that generation to carry the “S” tag, was available in just two colors: black and red.) No matter: we’d take it. In just a few nearly tearful moments, I convinced her that the 141-inch long, two-door hatchback was an ideal car for a single mother and two growing boys. The sales manager, displaying the utterly despicable greed that is still a hallmark of Honda dealers today, allowed us to buy the car at sticker. Providing, that is, we would pay an additional $349 for a two-speaker cassette player and $99 for a useless tape stripe.

That Civic was a truly great car. Economical, quick enough, sporty-looking, bulletproof, fun. It certainly would have lasted my mother a decade or more, had she not been struck just two years after the purchase by a drunk driver in Cadillac deVille. The impact put parts of the back seat into the front seats. Hondas were not terribly crash-safe into those days.

Still, the ’83 Civic was the best Civic in history up to that point. The ’84 “breadvan” Civic was better. Much better. The Civic that followed was even better, and so on, until we reached the point of the 1999 Civic Si coupe, widely acclaimed as nearly everyone’s favorite Civic. And then a funny thing happened.

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Avoidable Contact #26: Eight hundred horsepower and one little question.


Click for Larger Image

Photography by Andrew Didorosi

They say that sincerity is the new irony. So let’s be sincere. Prior to two weeks ago, I had never driven a car with the raw horsepower of the Switzer Performance P800 Nissan GT-R. We’re talking about seven hundred and seven ponies at all four wheels, on 93-octane gasoline, dyno-proven and road-tested. It’s terribly fashionable in this business to pretend that we’ve seen it all before, but you deserve to know the truth. Prior to driving this car, the most powerful car I’d driven was the six-hundred-horsepower 2008 Dodge Viper. On a weekly basis, I rarely drive anything faster than my poky little Audi S5 or Porsche 993. My Neon race car puts about one hundred and forty horsepower to the front wheels, although that’s enough to put you in the wall at a pretty high speed. Ask me how I know.

So while it would be very hip and print-journo of me to act like I get up every morning and drive random mega-horsepower cars, the truth of the matter is that it ain’t so. For that reason, I was very, very excited to drive the Switzer P800, particularly as it would be on a road course which I know reasonably well. This wasn’t the typical “press junket” kind of trip. I drove four hundred and fifty miles at my own expense, skipped work, and endured some really lousy weather to make it happen.

I wasn’t the only person busting tail to make sure our readers had a chance to experience the car. A notorious pro racer/road-rally bon vivant rented the track for the entire day and consented to let us share his playdate on the condition that we would maintain strict confidence about his secret new project. Tym Switzer, owner of the tuning shop which bears his name, arranged for the GT-R’s arrival and agreed that we, the Press As A Whole, would print the truth about the car’s performance, no matter what. Jo Borras, Switzer’s newly arrived PR mensch, coordinated the entire effort from the leather captain’s chair of his refrigerator-white VW Routan “press office”. The crew from Jalopnik agreed to share photographs with me in exchange for my services as camera-car operator and winter-weather stunt driver. Last but not least, the GT-R’s owner, J.R., agreed in the most nonchalant way possible to let me drive his pride and joy at one hundred and thirty miles per hour. In the snow.

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