I’ve commented on this, oh-so-subtly, in articles previously, but it’s time that something was said in more straightforward terms. I’ve been going through articles written by some of the “old media” types. Automotive journalists who write for big, respectable, recognized outlets. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal or the Globe and Mail; car magazines like Motor Driver or Car and Trend… or whatever it is. I’ve been surveying the conclusions these journalists tend to arrive at, and by-and-large, they usually seem to agree wholeheartedly with one another, like some kind of Old Boy’s Club circle-jerk.
Let me be perfectly clear, then, on what needs to be done: the Old Media journalists need to be taken out to the back forty and Old Yellered as soon as possible.
I’m not kidding, either. The whole lot of them need to be rounded up and off-loaded onto a remote island with no Internet access and no access to cars. I would even go so far as to say that they are to blame for the problems in the automotive industry today.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the general populace’s opinions with regards to two vehicles. They are direct competitors, but really couldn’t be much more dissimilar: the Toyota Venza and the Ford Flex.Now, if one were to browse the popular automotive blogs, it wouldn’t be hard to garner the general overall opinions on these two vehicles. The Ford, by and large, generates somewhat mixed reviews. Some love it, some hate it, but all agree on one thing, it’s a bold styling move, and it’s the kind of strong approach the populace wishes carmakers would take more often. Even the commenters who hate the car are pleased with Ford for taking a bold risk. The Toyota, on the other hand, inspires an almost universal reaction amongst the web’s populace: “Yecchhh.” Let’s be blunt. That’s a damned ugly car. That thing approaches Aztek levels of ugly, but with a nicer set of wheels. the grille is awful, the headlights don’t fit, the nose is all wrong. That is a badly-designed car. So. Having established what the correct reviews would state, let’s see what Old Media had to say, shall we?
One magazine, action-packed with the oldest of Old Media types, was practically gushing over the Venza. They struggled to find a description for it, calling it (over the course of the article) a low, car-based, two-wheel-drive family-oriented crossover utility vehicle. Come on, let’s face facts, it’s a station wagon, and not a very nice one. They called it “handsome”, “stylish” and “edgy”, the latter primarily due to its available 20-inch wheels, which gave it “street cred”. But then, on their website, they gave it a 2/10 “enthusiast rating”, which basically boils down to how appealing the car would be to people who like cars.
The Globe and Mail, similarly, sang the Venza’s praises, speaking of how it was “civilized”, “comfortable once you’ve settled in”, and “smooth”. They even praise it for being “bland”, saying that Toyota really understands what the public wants.
By contrast, let’s look at what Old Media has to say about the Flex. The Globe and Mail said that the Flex was a warning that car designers “should always be supervised by responsible adults. Which in this case apparently didn’t include the Ford management team that signed off on the vehicle.” I’m not kidding, those are their words. The author admits that his thinking may be dated, but he’s believed for 50 years that cars should be things of intrinsic beauty, not “blinged-out boxes on wheels”. I’m sorry? I wasn’t around for the ’50’s and 60’s, but I’ve seen the cars that resulted. I’m aware of the huge fins that were tacked onto the rear fenders. And I liked them. He grudgingly admits that it attracted a lot of positive attention and was widely admired wherever he took it, and almost reluctantly admits it was very pleasant to drive, with an excellent interior, great features, and good on-road driving dynamics. And then he closes, wondering if it will be another Edsel.
Motor Trend, meanwhile, was not hesitant about mocking the Flex’s daring style, saying it was the 2009 equivalent of the old Country Squire station wagon.
These are the kinds of reviews that are going to end up foisting another thirty years’ worth of bland, vanilla-flavoured snooze-boxes on us. If we keep telling the public how wonderful the boring Toyota cars are, and how questionable and quirky any cars that dare to be a bit different are, automakers are going to stop taking risks.
Automotive journalists have a big responsibility, particularly those journalists who write for the magazines and newspapers with massive circulations. They need to actually love cars, to be passionate about them, and to genuinely be willing to call a spade a spade. Let’s boil it down. Yes, Toyota makes very good, reliable, sturdy cars. But they’re by-and-large boring and ugly. When the current-generation Camry was introduced, where were all the articles that actually said what every car lover said the first time they saw it? Specifically, “Kill it! Kill it with fire! It’s so ugly, it burns my eyes!”
Ford should not be let off the hook either. Their new three-bar grille is a terrible styling move, and in fact the Flex and the next-gen Taurus are the only vehicles on which it hasn’t looked ridiculous.
So why isn’t anyone saying it? Simply put, most of the people writing for these established magazines are well-established writers. That’s a polite way of saying they’re fat, tired old men who have long ago lost their true passion for cars. These are people who are more interested in copying the stats into their notebooks than with really pouring over the beauty of the car, or savouring every moment of the enjoyment of driving it. I don’t care if the 0-60 time is 5.4 seconds or 6.2 seconds; how does it feel to drive it?
I was speaking with a marketing representative for Aston-Martin in Canada; when I identified myself as an automotive journalist, he tried to conceal a heavy sigh, and handed me a sheet with all of the car’s stats on it. I looked at it curiously, threw it in my bag, and asked to go look at the car. We then spent ten or fifteen minutes pouring over the beauty of the DB9, and discussing how Aston really understands the concept of passion in automotive design. As I was leaving, he warmly shook my hand, and told me I was unlike any auto journalist he’d met so far.
Why? That’s just wrong. Every auto journalist should be like that. The stats are numbers that can fill space in your article. It’s the emotion the car inspires that should determine whether the car deserves praise or derision.
If these tired old paper-pushers continue to write half-hearted articles about vehicular appliances that will be inoffensive enough to continue to persuade advertisers to pay their bills, we will continue to get more vehicles that are lacking in soul, style or substance. And it is for that reason that I say again, it’s time to bring in the new breed.
I won’t cry a single tear if magazines like Car & Driver continue to lose readership to websites like RideLust or Jalopnik. I stopped buying their magazines years ago, restricting myself to car and evo who are unafraid of speaking their minds.
It’s time for a shakeup, ladies and gentlemen, and it needs to happen now, before more Toyota Venzas are allowed to go into production. We, the automotive enthusiasts, need to start reminding the car-buying public that your vehicle can, in fact, be a joy to drive, not only an appliance to move you from one place to another.
So grab your torches and pitchforks, folks. It all starts with you.