That’s what Fox News calls it. And while we could debate the validity of any mainstream news outlet’s claim to objectivity interminably, it’s the sentiment that I’m interested in. For the longest time we’ve been told that the media’s obligation is to remain impartial and objective – to report the news as it happens and let us do the rest. That seems legit, right? After all, the underlying motives won’t change the fact that something took place. Are they newsworthy in their own right? Of course, but those motives should be the subject of news, not the gift-wrap in which it is delivered.
Now that’s all well and good if you’re talking about news. In the world of automotive journalism, however, we don’t really deal in hard news. Sure, there are times when all we deal in is hard news. Take the auto shows, for example — nothing but product announcements and unveilings. That’s news. Something happens and the press scrambles to be the first to scoop it. It’s in those brief moments that the motoring press acts most like its big brother, the media at large. The catch? We spend the other 45 weeks of the year being something entirely different.
Reviews and comparisons aren’t news; they’re fluffy little feature pieces with some pseudo-scientific spices thrown in for validity. Why? Because for some reason, we’ve gotten it into our heads that any form of journalism short of an op-ed piece has to demonstrate objectivity. And the thing is, it really works. Without those numbers, the whole concept of “magazine racing” would go out the window. Hell, would there even be a point to having the internet? We love statistics, and by “we,” I mean nerds. Car nerds, sports nerds, computer nerds – pick your geek – we all love numbers. Numbers add substance to our arguments. They give us a grounding that helps justify our preferences. I love George Sherrill, for instance. I think he’s a fantastic pitcher and a great clutch player. But is he better than Jon Papelbon? For that, we go to the stats.
But I’m sure it won’t shock you when I say that stats don’t tell the whole story. We can average numbers, standardize numbers, PAX numbers — whatever makes you feel better — but to continue the baseball analogy, stats don’t cover all the bases. In the case of sports stats, we at least have the benefit of concrete, raw numbers. They’re in no way arbitrary or discretionary (Depending on your view of the average umpire, I suppose). In the world of cars, we don’t enjoy that luxury. There are some hard numbers, sure, but they are few and far between. We know the diameter of the brake discs and the displacement of the engine. We know the dimensions of the car and its curb weight. And with some degree of certainty, we know how much power the engine produces and at what RPM, but even that can be a little fuzzy.
And beyond those (and other) basics, most numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. Like a comprehensive list of Barry Bonds’ accomplishments, every stat comes with an asterisk. The car brakes from 60 in 102 feet* (*At 712ft. above sea level, in 86º F heat, with 64% humidity, 36 PSI in all tires, on a 0.4% declining grade, with a 2.4MPH tailwind and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup Tires at 265/35R19 with 74% tread life remaining, measured with a 2001-minted U.S. one-cent piece (D).). It goes from 0-60 in 4.3s**, completes the quarter mile in 13.2s at 116MPH*** and generates 1.02gs on our skidpad****.
Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that those numbers are meaningless — far from it — but they’re not gospel either. Lap times, 0-60, braking distances, the standing 1320 — these are all valid methods of evaluating a car’s raw performance. The problem arises when those numbers are crunched and spat back out as a value on some arbitrary scale. Then, they’re further combined with other similarly-processed figures representing other aspects of the car (features, interior volume, material quality, refinement, etc.) and we arrive at some neat result that supposedly represents the desirability of the vehicle from a completely objective standpoint.
When was the last time you bought a car by the numbers? You’re an enthusiast, so I bet the answer is “never.” Are there people who buy cars by the numbers? Of course. But people who buy cars by the numbers don’t read this Web site. They don’t read any car-related Web sites, I’d wager, outside of Edmunds, Consumer Reports and whatever brand sites they’re browsing through, trying to find the combination of wide, cushy seats and supple upholstery that will best accommodate their sciatica while leaving room for a hemorrhoid cushion. They want to know the car’s safety rating (a number), its fuel economy (another number) and its reliability (also conveniently reduced to a number), and that’s about it.
And as enthusiasts, we generally bag on outlets like Consumer Reports for focusing on aspects of car purchasing that don’t really appeal to us (This model has 16 cup holders? Fascinating!), but you do have to give them credit for making an honest-to-God attempt at objectivity. A CR road test is informative, concise and sterile. Every once in a while, you’ll get a flicker of emotion — the hedonistic use of a word like “fun,” perhaps — but such instances are few and far between. It lacks drama and panache, much like the vehicles they often recommend. But at least they don’t put up the pretense of being more than they are.
Essentially, car buyers fall somewhere along a spectrum that runs from enthusiasts at one end to pure, uninspired consumers at the other. Sometimes we stray from whatever purist roots we embrace because we need something to get us from A to B without draining the wallet, but by and large, enthusiasts buy cars we want — cars that appeal to us on a purely emotional level. That doesn’t mean practicality can’t come with the package, and we all have to make compromises from time to time, but that emotional connection has to exist for us to pull the trigger.
And that’s not to say that folks near the opposite end of the spectrum are always completely detached from the experience, but their attachments just tend to be more superficial, at least to us — Convertibles and 300Cs with 22″ wagon wheels don’t exactly sell on practicality, after all. But I’ve digressed. The key point here is that enthusiasts aren’t by-the-numbers buyers, and at the same time, the appliance shopper who bases a decision exclusively on Consumer Reports’ annual car buying guide doesn’t really shop for the experience. He just wants a car, preferably in an elegant, unobtrusive silver, and don’t forget those pesky hemorrhoids.
And he certainly doesn’t care about some quasi-enthusiast magazine’s “Gotta Have It” factor. But then again, if you ask me, neither should you.
Yes, that’s the second time we’ve called out that particular publication within the span of a week, but it’s an easy outlet to pick on because they’re some of the worst offenders. They, like many of their contemporaries, will blow eight pages talking about the merits and drawbacks of five cars in a comparison test, throw them all up on a scale with all of those arbitrary figures and performance numbers, and then, just for kicks, throw it all away on the “Gotta Have It” factor.
And the winner is…
If there’s some overpowering X factor that makes a certain car more desirable despite less-than-stellar results in your scoring system, then talk about that X factor. Obviously it was pretty damned important or it wouldn’t have swung the vote the way it did. Focus on that, because that sounds exciting. But no, we can’t, because it would undermine the very objectivity that they strive so hard to demonstrate. We can’t let our personal preferences and values seep into our writing lest our audience think we can’t be trusted. There must be a winner, and that winner must be determined by the numbers, even if we have to make some up numbers just to fix the vote the way we want. And yes, if the true measure of a car’s worth could be reduced to its rawest performance figures, asterisks and all, then that would be a perfectly acceptable way of evaluating them.
One reader on Jalopnik summed it up quite succinctly: “Faster wins. Period.” But we all know that’s not the end of the story. If it were, we’d all be driving Ariel Atoms and writing reviews on the proper helmets to protect our stat-clogged noggins from the dangers of the morning commute (Whatever pays the bills!). And thus, the very point of writing about any enthusiast car comes into play. If raw numbers told the whole story, you wouldn’t need us at all.
And while we could simply say that we love the way the car was engineered because it tickles our fancies as drivers, we have to distance ourselves and anthropomorphize the cars instead. It’s always some spiel about the cars being more than the sum of their parts, having some cheerful or playful personalities that put a grin on your face. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to using a little flavor when describing a car or a driving experience, but there’s a point at which creative license simply becomes a cop-out. Don’t just assure us that a car’s “soul” will make up for the dozen or so unflattering characteristics you just described in great length. That’s the lazy way out. Remember your freshman English professor’s advice: Show; don’t tell. Make it real. If you have a preference and the car matches it brilliantly, then say so.
And that’s where it always falls flat. So many journalists are too afraid of losing the attention of their ADHD-clouded audience. They feel that they have to get those numbers out there – some nice Pac-Man charts or some fancy scales with lots of colors – and give their audience a reason to read the material. But the truth is that readers just want an honest opinion. They want to know what we think. That’s what we get paid to do. Don’t make your words a supplement to the numbers. Very few are impressed by that. Do something crazy (like compare four cars that have no business being compared) and tell us all how much fun it was. Communicate your emotions and your impressions. Hell, you can even pick a winner, but don’t go jukin’ the stats just to make it all sound scientific. And please, I beg of you, don’t tell them whether they’ve “Gotta Have It.”
They can figure out the rest for themselves.