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“So, yeah, it’s a new Focus, but it’s not the one we want. In fact, had we been asked what we’d want for the latest Focus, ‘old mechanicals,’ ‘horrifying exterior styling,’ and ‘no hatchbacks’ wouldn’t exactly have sprung to mind.” – “Automobile” magazine, on the 2008 Ford Focus

“Not only does Saturn need the Astra, but North American buyers need it too.” – “Automobile”, on the 2008 Saturn Astra

Focus Sales in 1Q 2008: 49,070

Astra Sales in 1Q 2008: 1,477

“Four, five press cars a week!” The violence of his own enthusiasm was starting to get the better of the old fellow; sweat stains were visibly creeping down the wrinkled sides of his cheap Hawaiian shirt as he waved both hands forcefully in an effort to keep my attention. “The manufacturers know they need to put cars in my driveway, because when I write about a car, it puts customers on the front door of that damn dealership Monday morning, bet your ass.” Ugh. It’s common practice for manufacturers to “match up” journalists on press events, and judging from my experience they aren’t exactly using eHarmony’s patented relationship-predicting algorithms to do it, because I keep getting matched with drooling morons who appear to hate my guts from the moment I climb into the airport courtesy car. Oh well. Might as well keep the conversation going, if only for my own amusement.

“But how do you manage to review five cars a week?” I asked in as innocent a tone as I could muster. “I mean, how do you even drive that many?”

“I DON’T!” was the near-shouted reply. “My daughter drives ’em, and if she likes a car, I’ll give it some of my time. We don’t even own any cars any more. No reason to. They’re free when you know what you’re talking about.” Clearly, it was going to be a long ride to the test site, but it turned out to an instructive one. For nearly three decades, I’d been a passive consumer of automotive magazines and websites, always wondering what it would be like to make it to the “inside” and actually live the lifestyle of a super-cool automotive journalist. Then one day, our senior editor, Zerin Dube, picked me out of utter obscurity to impose my worthless opinions on you, our valued readers – and before I knew it, I was a player in the whirlwind motor-journo lifestyle of free food, free hotels, free fuel, and all the bacon I can eat at the breakfast bar. It’s kind of like being Paris Hilton, without the pocket dogs and the “Nightshot” videos with Rick what’s-his-name.

Unfortunately, in the same way that Ms. Hilton appears to have gone, oh, shall we say, completely insane as a result of her fabulous life, I’m starting to suspect that all autowriters eventually lose their minds as well. It would explain a lot, you know. It would solve the mystery of why I recently had some crazy old dude whose sole racing experience consisted of transit driving in a cross-country rally give me a drunken lecture about my braking points on-track. It would help me understand why people who barely earn fifty grand a year prance around like the Prince of Wales and bully the staff at the press event hotels. Most importantly, it might offer a clue as to how the Press As A Whole did such an incompetent job of reviewing the latest arrivals on the small-car scene.

Two important “American” small cars were released for the 2008 model year: the Saturn Astra and the Ford Focus. The Astra is, more or less, the European-market Opel Astra. It’s a pretty decent car; I saw plenty of ’em when I was at the Nurburgring in 2006. Upon the release of Saturn’s version, Motor Trend rhapsodized: “…what we’ve got here is exactly what any of us who’s ever rented a basic car in Europe has silently pleaded for to ourselves: Please, please, import this little honey.” Which GM dutifully did, making very few alterations along the way.

Ford could have done the same thing. The second-generation Focus has been available in Europe for a couple of years now, and the general opinion is that it’s probably a better car than the Opel/Saturn Astra. To nearly everyone’s surprise, however, Ford decided instead to revamp the original Focus and create a car designed specifically for the US market, complete with a toothy chrome grille, somewhat awkward proportions, a perceptible lack of awesome Euro hatchback bodystyles, and the “SYNC” multimedia system.

I happened to be present at the Seattle media introduction for the car (to read my original review, click here) and I found myself actively disgusted at the way the press was, for lack of a better word, dog-piling the car. It would have been justified had the Focus been simply terrible, but it was actually a really decent effort for its market. The ’08 Focus is affordable, it gets really decent real-world fuel economy, it’s engaging to drive, and it has a solid, high-quality feel to its controls and user interfaces. If you are in the market for a good $15,000 car right now, I suggest you give the Focus a try; you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you get for the money.

If, on the other hand, you haven’t paid your own hard-earned cash to drive a car in a very long time, and manufacturers are continually dumping loaded-to-the-gills examples of upmarket automobiles on your driveway, then chances are the Focus won’t impress you much – and that’s the situation of the average motoring writer. In the past half-year, I’ve come to believe that most autojournos fall into two categories: the “Frustrated Racer” and the “Frustrated Novelist”. It’s easy to tell which is which; the “Frustrated Racer” is continually lying about his ability to drive and/or telling horribly offensive stories of endangering the lives of other motorists on the public road, and the “Frustrated Novelist” is forever making pathetic efforts to turn car reviews into episodes of A la recherche du temps perdu, complete with “edgy” swearing and not-so-obscure allusions.

My advice to the “Frustrated Racer” is to try holding up the hind end of a regional autocross, and my recommendation to the “Frustrated Novelist” is to go read Rabbit, Run and then sob in a corner, but that’s beside the point. The real issue is that a lot of these fellows have serious inferiority complexes – about their lives, their abilities, and their accomplishments. Over time, this manifests itself in a variety of ways, but the ones we’ll discuss here are Feelings Of Deserving and Envy Of Eurotrash.

Feelings Of Deserving occur when a journalist who has lived on the press-tour dole for too long comes to believe that he truly deserves to be treated like a prince. My friend on the airport shuttle is a solid example of this; after years of never putting a gallon of gas in a car, and after hundreds of all-expenses-paid trips, he’s ceased being grateful and now believes he’s totally entitled to five free new whips a week. The difficulty with this very Hiltonesque mindset is that it leads to complete disconnection from the realities of the marketplace. Is the 2008 Focus “cheap-looking” on the inside? Compared to the free Audi A8 that’s also in your driveway, absolutely; compared to the Hyundai Elantra that a real Focus customer is also considering, no way. See the problem? It’s difficult to stay objective about, and connected to, every facet of the market when you’re not even a part of it.

Not all journalists fall into that trap. Some of them are very diligent about their jobs, to the point where they read everybody else in the field… and that means reading those beautiful large-format magazines like CAR and Evo, and that means comparing their own pathetic test loops around Ann Arbor or suburban Chicago with the Stelvio Pass, the French autoroute, the mighty Ring… and before you know it, you’ve got Envy Of Eurotrash. Listen to me for a minute. As a driving country, the United States is fully the equal of Europe. They have the autobahn and a few famous roads, but we have a decent tax structure which makes cars above 1.2 liters affordable, not to mention literally thousands of miles’ worth of twisty mountain passes. They have the Ring; we have dozens of legendary race courses which can be driven for a couple hundred bucks a day. I’ve been here, and I’ve been there, and while both places have their virtues, we aren’t on the wrong side of this fence. Trust me, if only just this once – or trust Michael Schumacher, who spends his vacations driving in the United States. “We” are just as good as “they” are from a car-lover’s standpoint, and if you don’t believe me, see how much it costs you to buy a five-hundred-horsepower sports car both here and in Switzerland.

If only those British autorags, with their seductive (and mostly exaggerated) tales of driving triple-digits right at the edge of the car’s abilities, weren’t so persuasive! Since they are, many of us in the business have acquired a permanent Envy Of Eurotrash. European cars are better, their customers are more sophisticated, and the fact that a French family can barely afford to squeeze into a fuggin’ Twingo 1.2 while the average American family travels comfortably in a 240-horsepower Explorer… well, that just shows how right they are about everything!

Which leads us to the Saturn Astra. It’s exactly what the Eurotrash enviers asked for – a real European car, brought right over here. It’s even made in B**gium, for Pete’s sake. (Readers of Douglas Adams will remember why we can’t put the name of the country which is known to the French as Belgique in print.) If you wanted a cramped, low-powered, low-feature, expensive Euroconomy car – here it is! You got it, pal! Now start drooling, you dimwit journalist!

And drool they did, both over the Astra and over Volkswagen’s admittedly excellent MkV Rabbit. Never mind that the Astra and Rabbit both cost thousands of dollars more in the real world; we aren’t in the real world. Forget that there’s a Ford dealer in every small town, offering an invoice deal and a handshake, while Saturn dealers refuse to hassle and VW dealers… well, all I can say is that I have two Phaetons, purchased new, and my VW dealer’s service department treats me like a convicted rapist, so I can only imagine what life is like for the fellow who has a $17,500 Rabbit. None of that matters to the inflated egos of the Press As A Whole. Why bother to seriously examine the merits of cars for “poor people” when we could be busy making up hilariously degrading metaphors for the Ford’s trunkline? As a matter of fact, I vote that we all go back to the bar and talk about the Lamborghini Murcielago. Wait until we get a Murci as a press loaner! All of those relatives of our wives who laughed about our salary and our polyester safari shorts won’t have much to say when we show them our borrowed twelve-cylinder supercar, will they?

And so it took place that everybody left their press previews, rolled their cheap luggage away from such esteemed hotels as the “W” in Seattle and the Estancia La Jolla, got on the airplane, knocked out their thousand words, and reclined their seats before settling down with a nice four-dollar nightcap. And the stories went out, across the Web, on the blogs, in the pages of the advertising-heavy American magazines. And lo, the Focus became the Biggest Piece Of Junk To Be Sold To Fat Wal-Mart Americans, while the Astra was A Totally Awesome Eurocar Just Like You Would Drive If You Weren’t So Fat You Needed A Stepstool To Get Into Your Denali XL. Game over. The Focus loses, the Astra wins, and all is right with the world.

If this were a movie, we would show the phrase “Four months later…” on the screen, and then we’d come to what Snoop Dogg called “reality for yo ass”. The Focus is a runaway success. The people who actually buy cars in this segment love it. They love the looks, as odd as that might seem to those of us who think the first-generation Golf was the blueprint for all small cars. They love the interior, they love SYNC, they love the funny ads, they just plain love their new Focuses/Foci/whatever.

Meanwhile, over at Saturn, they’ve come to an amazing revelation: that a Belgian-built, twenty-grand small car isn’t on anybody’s shopping list. Not only is the Focus outselling the Astra (by a factor of thirty to one) it’s outselling Saturn. Like, the brand Saturn. Like, if there were a dealership called “Focus”, and all it sold was the Ford Focus in all its goofy betrunked glory, and maybe some hats and golf umbrellas that had the “Focus” logo, that would be a better dealership to own than a Saturn dealership, because the “Focus” dealer would sell more cars. As ABBA once famously told us, the winner takes it all, and the domestic winner is the Focus by a country mile.

If you ever wanted a conclusive demonstration that the motoring press doesn’t do much to affect the buying habits of regular Americans, there it is. More importantly, this also means that Ford was right – that a car developed specifically for this market can be a better choice than simply pulling the European product over here and slapping a Monroney on it. This doesn’t mean Americans are stupid, lazy, or unable to tell the difference between a good car and a bad one. To the contrary, it shows that America and Europe are not the same, which comes as no surprise to anybody who has ever paid their own way across Europe as opposed to taking a press junket there, and that people tend to buy what meets their own needs, not the inferiority-complex-addled choice of some creepy old dingbat with a driveway full of free cars. This is a happy ending.

It’s also a cautionary tale. By all means, read the auto rags and look at the sites, but make your own decisions. I appreciate every reader who comes to Speed:Sport:Life, but I fully expect that you will take your own opinions into account over ours when you go to purchase a car. We’re here to help, but don’t think for a moment that anybody in this business is worth listening to over your own heart and desires.

Whatever happened to my friend in the sweaty Hawaiian shirt? Well, he went out on the racetrack with us the next day, and it turned out he wasn’t much of a driver after all. Imagine that! But by the time we got to the hotel bar, he’d picked up ten seconds a lap. It’s a crazy business, you know. When you spend your own money, take a hint from the nearly forty-nine thousand new Focus owners, and ignore it.

            

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Jack Baruth

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