In case you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, check out Avoidable Contact #12, found here.

Before I start addressing what I disagree with, I want to start off on common ground. On a press junket to Detroit, I overheard one or two of the journalists talking about the cars, even the new ones, as if they had already had the car for a week and had the article written and filed. Not once did they seem to be concerned with what the cars would actually be like to drive, they simply had reached a conclusion as to how good the car is before they’d even seen it in person. They, and whoever Jack’s anonymous car buddy is, are lousy journalists and are not doing their jobs. Maybe reaching their conclusions in advance is how they manage to keep up with their due dates, but I think that pretty much defeats the point of writing what’s supposed to be a reasonably objective analysis and critique of a car. Having dozens of $20,000 consumer items delivered to your doorstep for you to use and abuse on a corporate dime each year could definitely tend to warp your sense of reality if you’re not on the lookout for it, but I doubt that all automotive writers out there eventually wind up with their heads lodged firmly up their own asses (after all, where does that leave Jack and me?). Still, this kind of slipshod journalism is out there, and the guilty parties deserve to be hung by their ankles with their press passes in their fancy suites and force-fed complimentary croissant sandwiches and mixed drinks until they pass out.

However, I didn’t exactly get the feeling that this was the real point of the article. Actual intent or not, the entire article read more like a rah-rah booster piece for the Ford Focus than anything else, and that bothers me. Not that I’m saying the Focus is a bad car or the Astra is a great one; I haven’t driven either one, so that’s not really a statement I’m qualified to make. I’m working to fix that problem, but until then, I can only speculate. I’m sure the Focus handles pretty well, the old Focus was the gold standard for handling in its class, and since the new Focus basically is the old Focus with a few pounds put on, it should still be able to dance like its dad, and I’ve always thought that the addition of SYNC to a car of the Focus’ class as an option is a great step forward for small cars in the US, where historically you’ve been lucky to get a car that has a CD player for that price. Rather, my issue is with the arguments that he used to make his point that the Focus is a better car than the Astra. This isn’t just minor nitpicking; unclear arguments and logic are the fuel that powers the thousands of stupid flame wars that keep the Internet forums lit up deep into the night and are just as damaging and misleading as the presumptive journalism that Jack railed against in the same article, just dressed up in fancier clothes.

My first issue is in the opening statistics of the article, when he cites the first quarter sales figures for the Ford Focus and the Saturn Astra, and later refers to them repeatedly as proof that the Focus is the better car. The point that he’s trying to make is that Ford Focus is better than the Saturn Astra simply because it outsold the Astra, and you couldn’t find a more perfect example of the fallacy of arguing from popularity. Simply stating that something is better because it’s more popular is a common but easily refuted argument. The single best-selling unique model of all time is the VW Beetle with over 21 million sold worldwide, the top selling model line of all time is the Toyota Corolla with over 31 million sold, and the Ford F150 has been at the top of the US annual sales heap for decades. Now, despite the disapproval from the Holy Trinity of Top Gear, I’m a big fan of the Beetle, but it’s definitely not the best car of all time, and I doubt people would argue that the Corolla or F150 are either. Simply stating that something is the best because it is more popular completely ignores the dozens of other factors that are not only involved with the quality of an object but what makes things popular in the first place.

The second part of his argument can be summed up like this: Great cars sell better than cars that aren’t as good, the Astra didn’t sell as well as the Focus, therefore, the Astra isn’t as good of a car. That kind of argument is called affirming the consequent, and it doesn’t work because it ignores the other possible reasons why the premise could happen. For example, the Focus has been sold in the US for almost nine years now, while the Astra was just introduced last year. The Focus has had much more ad coverage than the Astra, which also helps public exposure. Also, as Jack mentioned, there’s a lot more Ford dealerships than there are Saturn dealers, and availability has a lot to do with how well something sells. There’s dozens of reasons why cars do and don’t sell, to reduce it simply to a judgment over how good a car is doesn’t even begin to address the complexities of the market.

Towards the end of the article, Jack asserts that the fact that the motoring press highly regarded the Astra over the Focus and the fact that the Focus far outsold the Astra in the market is proof that people shouldn’t listen to the automotive press, since their opinions and that of the buying public are different. Of course they’re going to be different, since they’re trying to accomplish completely different goals. When someone is looking to purchase a car, the judgment to buy or not to buy should be, by definition, made from a subjective position. It’s your money that you are spending on a car that you are going to own and drive every day, so the only opinion that matters should be yours. Of course, you can listen to the opinions of friends and experts, but if you have your heart absolutely set on buying that used Datsun 240Z, you should say to Hell with what everyone else thinks and buy the car anyway. The reasons can be as simple or as complex as you want, what’s most important is that you’re buying what you want instead of what someone else is telling you to do. However, that is not the point of a journalistic review. When a journalist reviews a car, it is important to be as objective as humanly possible. Human beings are naturally predisposed to being biased, like preferring a certain degree of ride comfort or a particular opinion on how cars should handle, so keeping those biases in mind and not allowing them to color your opinions too much is important. This isn’t to say that all journalists have to be soulless automatons when they look at a car, there’s plenty of room for personal opinion, and it’s really up to the reader to make the final decision on whether or not they agree with you. Also, your objective opinions aren’t a suicide pact; it’s perfectly fine to review a car, say that it’s technically brilliant and great to drive, and then go on to say that you prefer a different car, just as long as you don’t confuse your subjective personal preferences with the objective quality of the car itself. A great example of this kind of conclusion is when Top Gear reviewed the BMW M3, Audi RS4 and Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG. The three of them all agreed that the best car there was the BMW M3, and then Clarkson immediately said that despite that, he prefers the Mercedes. I can’t think of a better example of what a good journalist’s review should be like: an objective opinion on the quality of the car itself, and then a subjective opinion about whether or not they personally like the car. This gives the reader a chance to read the article and think about its conclusions, and then decide that they agree with them or that the writer must have been imbibing a little too heavily from the complimentary booze.

Now that I’ve talked about most of his arguments, I think it’s worth saying that I’m not setting out to prove that Jack is wrong about his opinions on the relative qualities of the Ford Focus and the Saturn Astra or about the press’ potential bias towards the Astra and against the Focus. Trying to prove that a statement is wrong simply because it’s a fallacy is a fallacy itself, I’m simply stating that what he said isn’t necessarily true, and providing evidence to back those statements up. There’s a lot more involved with quality than just car sales. If that was true, finding the best car for sale would be as easy as looking up which one’s moving the most units and there’d be no point in having automotive journalism at all, and I’d have to find something else to obsess over. I agree with Jack about the presence of space cadets in the ranks of automotive journalism, but the main push of the article seemed to be less about that and more of a rant over his opinions regarding the Ford Focus, and on that front, I think it’s important to point out where I think he goes wrong.

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Kasey Kagawa

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