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Comparing the Car Magazines: Car and Driver Edition

Posted in auto industry, Car Reviews, Cars, General by Dustin May | August 11th, 2009 | 6 Responses |

They Write About Cars, We Write About Them!


I’m on a mission. I want to get a subscription to a car magazine, but I don’t know which one to get. I asked friends, but got a different answer from each one. So, I decided to just get an issue or two of each and read them. Then, based on what I read and the subscription price, I would decide on one. So you, my faithful readers, will get to benefit from all of my hard reading.

Car and Driver

Based near Motown in Ann Arbor, MI is Car and Driver. Car and Driver – or C/D as we in the biz call it – first started in the mid-fifties with a focus on imported sports cars, however this quickly changed so the magazine could appeal to a more broad audience. Long known as the home of some serious gearhead writing talent, such as Brock Yates, Pat Bedard, and David E. Davis, Jr., Car and Driver offered an excellent mix of serious auto journalism, technical articles, and quirky, off-beat fun.

Unfortunately, for over a decade the fun seemed to be waning. The reviews of everything from F/A-18s to M1A1 Abrams tanks to fire trucks seemed to become sporadic or nonexistent. Even earlier this year, one of the highlights of each issue, Kafka’s Garage, was discontinued and with it went some of the technical street cred. The fun was leaving the building. While not totally gone, the unique attraction of C/D was diminishing. This trend, and the fact that I was a poor college student, is what lead me to cancel my subscription nearly 15 years ago.

In reading the July 2009 edition, I was pleasantly surprised. Could it be that the fun is coming back? Is the newly-appointed Editor in Chief, Eddie Alterman, trying to take C/D back to its roots?


In the July issue they have a How To article on driving a Model T, and a technical article on the Porsche 911 GT3’s dynamic engine mounts. The July issue was also their big comparison issue. However, unlike Motor Trend’s by the book, function over soul comparisons, C/D manages to work in their sense of humor and awarded driving fun.

Take, for example, the Mileage Maestros comparison. Primarily meant to compare the new Insight and Prius, C/D throws a 1998 Geo Metro in the mix to see how a 3-pot, 11 year old car does against the latest and greatest in mileage extending cars. The question is asked, “Might 12-year-old technology producing 55 horsepower in an 1840-pound package satisfy hypermilers?” C/D’s answer? They aren’t sure since they don’t know any hypermilers. They then go on to give 1st place in this comparison to the Insight. Their verdict is based on the fact that, unlike the Prius, the Insight is actually trying to be fun to drive.

For their next comparison they pit the 2010 Chevy Camaro SS against the Dodge Challenger R/T and the 2010 Ford Mustang GT. The surprise conclusion is that the Mustang ekes out a win. What? More astute readers will exclaim, “It has 100 fewer horsepower than the other two and a stick axle! Aaron Robinson is on crack!” Well, hold your 100 horsepower, because the ‘Stang also weighs 300 pounds less than the Camaro and a whopping quarter ton less than the Challenger. They were also impressed with the handling of the Ford, saying the live-axle setup stayed sure-footed over all types of pavement. Eventually, the weight and size make the Mustang more maneuverable and fun to drive than the behemoth Dodge or the cavernous Bow Tie.

Are you seeing a pattern here? C/D actually values fun! Refreshing.

The other comparisons follow the same pattern. Pitching a veteran BMW X3 against the new-for-2009 Audi Q5, 2010-born Lexus RX350, 2010 Benz GLK350, and Volvo’s XC60. Wait, we’ve seen this before. Ah, yes. There it is. In the Motor Trend comparison. How did C/D handle this? Like Motor Trend, Car and Driver ranks the Mercedes in last place. However, instead of pussy-footin’ around the reason they come out and say that the disconnected steering and wooden brake feel put it in the back of the pack, and they’d rather look at it from the cabin of one of it’s competitors. Still not quite aggressive, they are definitely more forthright with their opinion.

Their last comparison of a Porsche Boxster S vs. BMW Z4 sDrive35i, Audi TTS, and Corvette results in the cars finishing in that order. The knock on the ‘Vette? Compared to the other drop tops in this price point it doesn’t handle, the chassis flexes too much, auto tranny, and cheap materials. Surprisingly, given C/D’s overt love for all things BMW, they knock it into 2nd place because it seems tuned for relaxed driving over spirited driving.

Then we get into some of the quirkiness and fun Car and Driver specializes in. There’s an article on buying a race track, and short previews of the 2010 Porsche 911 GT3, 2010 Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder, and Ford Focus RS among others. Car and Driver makes up for giving Porsche’s new track-ready 911 the same treatment as more pedestrian vehicles by including the aforementioned tech article on the dynamic engine mounts.

All in all, I would rate Car and Driver one of the highest of the domestic auto mags, especially for one with a broad scope. They still seem to walk a tightrope when talking about the downsides of cars, but not to the extent as others. Plus, they actually seem to be interested in driving the cars and letting you know what the car is really capable of. Is Car and Driver back to the point it was 15 years ago when I was a subscriber? No. Hopefully, though, it is on the comeback trail.

News Stand Price: $4.99 US
Subscription Price: $10.00 US, $20.00 Canada
Written Pages/Total Pages: 62/140
Market Focus: General automotive. C/D originally focused on imported sports cars.

Readability: B+ – It’s very well laid out and pretty entertaining
Information Value: A – Heavy use of charts and graphs helps pack more information into each issue
Entertainment Value: B – C/D has historically been more offbeat than the other domestics. Hopefully they are rediscovering their quirkiness.

Website: caranddriver.com

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6 Responses

  1. Charles_Barrett says:

    You have reinforced my faith in a magazine I have had an unbroken subscription to for over thirty years now. Of course, even if you hated it, my subscription to C/D would continue…

  2. SirNotAppearing says:

    C&D is THE reason I love cars today. Growing up in a somewhat low-income household, a Ford Aerostar (XLT!) was the highlight of my automotive upbringing. Then at about the age of 17 someone dropped a stack of old C&D’s in my lap. They were so well written and entertaining that I blew through them all and immediately got a subscription, and this is what spurred my interest in learning about all things automotive.

    But it has been so boring in recent years that I couldn’t be bothered with the $5 renewal. And you highlight one of the main problems: almost every damn article is a comparo. Everything is so formulaic. I recently scored a free subscription again, so I’m hoping the new leadership can make the best of it.

  3. Guyon says:

    Let’s not forget when they said the almighty E92 M3 beat the GT-R. That was a laugh.

  4. smalleyxb122 says:

    As a former and future subscriber to C/D, I think that your analysis is spot on. Several years ago I had concurrent subscriptions to Road & Track, Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Rod and Custom. Then one month (about 5 years ago) I realized how redundant my subscriptions were, and let all of them lapse. Of all of these mags, the only one that I’ve missed, and have seriously considered re-subscribing to has been Car and Driver. My father still has a subscription, and I read whatever issues he has lying around from cover to cover when I visit.

    A subscription to Hot Rod grows old when you decide that you’ve seen anything worth seeing done to a ’32 Ford.

    Rod and Custom is a bit more diverse, adding a ’50 Merc to the ’32 Ford, and thus the boredom sets in a few months later.

    Car Craft is a treasure trove of how-to, if you are planning on any restoration work, but if you hang onto one year worth of issues, you’ll have a pretty comprehensive manual. Then you’re left with whatever someone did to his ’69 Camaro.

    Road and Track has some fine articles, and I’d probably rank their photography slightly higher than their competition, but the volume of race coverage borders on tedium. I appreciate racing, but the written word seldom conveys the level of excitement that is the true allure of the sport.

    Motor Trend tends to be a dry read. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, it comes across as a regurgitation of figures that might as well have come from the respective manufacturers’ press releases.

    You can get the same level of facts and figures in an issue of Car and Driver, but it is mixed in with a well written and typically entertaining writing style.

    The diversity of Car and Driver ensures that it won’t get stale if you have a subscription for more than a couple of years. I haven’t ever had a subscription to 5.0, or Super Chevy, or whatever the Mopar equivalent is, so I can’t make an assessment of them, but given the narrow product focus, I can still make assumptions. How many times do you need to see a different Fox Body with twin Garrett turbos?

    If you ever see an issue of Sport Compact in my bathroom, rest assured, it is not there for reading.

    Get the C/D subscription.

  5. FuzzyPlushroom says:

    If you appreciated the wit here, I can’t wait for you to get to Automobile, where old Bentleys have “all the dynamic stability of a giraffe on mescaline” and third-row seats are “best forgotten about except when a pair of primordial dwarfs happen to be traveling with your party of five regular-sized people”.

  6. Car and Driver magazine reached its peak when the late Leon Mandel took over the reigns as editor, shortly after David E. Davis Jr. left for the first time. Leon’s goal was to make C/D the best magazine in America – period. And he didn’t mean just the best car magazine.

    That meant features such as Brock Yates trenchant and prescient analysis of Detroit’s short-sightedness, entitled “Gross Pointe Myopians.” He wrote that in the late 1960s; but it could have just as well been written in the late 1990s.

    Moreover, features such as the ones which focused around the original (and actual) Canonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash rallies, made C/D a magazine that was not just fun to read, but essential reading, for anyone who was an auto enthusiast, or whom wanted to understand car culture.

    Now, with DED Jr. writing a column for C/D, and his one time acolyte Eddie Alterman as editor-in-chief, the magazine is back to DED’s idea of “wall to wall cars” again. (His dictum in the late 1970s, when he moved the magazine to Ann Arbor, MI.)

    Thing is, cars is only part of what the scene is about. Oftentimes, the people behind or in the cars really make the story.