Can I Trust a Car Review?
The definitive guide to dishonesty and bias in online
Did you know?More than two-thirds of car buyers are influenced by online reviews.Online reviews are the biggest single source of buyer research and information.Fewer than half of new car buyers are swayed by carmaker websites.The internet has given an unprecedented voice to uninformed opinion. So, are you really prepared to bet $40,000 on that review you just read, and the opinions expressed within it?
CAN I TRUST A CAR REVIEW?
The definitive guide.
When Mercedes-Benz launched the all-new C-Class back in 2015 (right), it was widely and critically acclaimed. This was an important car from arguably the most broadly aspirational car brand on earth.
Events like this represent a perfect opportunity to take you behind the scenes, so you can see how the car industry really does business. But be warned, you might feel the need to take a shower afterwards.
The $64,000 question is - literally - through the prism of hindsight, did this car prove to be, as Mercedes-Benz says:
“an elegant figure that provides the ultimate in refinement.
With a design idiom and flowing, precise lines that embody
sophisticated sportiness.” - Mercedes-Benz
Barf bag at the ready: I’m not kidding - the company actually said that. In the very first brochure. And that’s where unashamed bias and naked marketing hyperbole should remain. Only, unfortunately, it doesn’t. Many so-called motoring journalists lap it up - and there are good reasons why this is so.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, C-Class ultimately fell - let's be kind - somewhat short of Benz’s lofty self-assessment. Consumer Reports in the USA named it the 20th least reliable car in 2015. Apparently, the power steering has a certain dark enthusiasm for shitting itself. Additionally, and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t in the original design brief either, the vehicle contemptuously stalls at idle, and the infotainment system regularly makes like Elvis on August 16, 1977.
If I was thinking about buying that car, I would really want to know about those C-Class faults.
Pointing out deficiencies is what reviews are for. Or, are they?
What Reviews Actually Say
But fair criticisms don't make it into many online reviews. For example, none of these concerns made it into the review by 'million dollar car blogger' Alboz Fallah on the website he founded, CarAdvice, one of Australia's most popular automotive review sites. Instead, Mr Fallah went to excruciating lengths - excruciating - to draw parallels between the C-Class and the Benz S-Class luxury flagship. He said:
"It's a challenge to fault the C-Class interior."
- Alborz Fallah, CarAdvice
I guess you'd have to run that up the flagpole on someone who's had the infotainment system crap out, 45 minutes into a six-hour drive, to determine how much of a challenge it really is to find fault there. To me, the CarAdvice review reads like a hasty compendium of poorly crafted platitudes designed mainly to keep Mercedes-Benz happy. But Mr Fallah is not alone.
James Whitbourn, writing for Whichcar (a poorly resurrected online version of a former failed paper publication with the approximate half-life of colbalt-60) points out that the C-Class is:
"Efficient, potent, safe and great value."
- James Whitbourn, Whichcar
In my view, these assertions are nothing less than epic fuckwittery. Six words, and four of them are bullshit. Let's test them:
Safe: Absolutely. Independently tested by ANCAP. 36.47 out of 37. We agree. Quod erat demonstrandum. Absolutely.
Efficient: Well, the popular C250 has a 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol engine that requires 95-octane petrol. So does a Subaru WRX. You can test efficiency, easily. Mathematically. Objectively. Unfortunately for Mercedes, the brake mean effective pressure of the WRX is 25 per cent better than the C250. It just is. That's measured thermodynamic efficiency. Facts, science. Not opinion. So let’s scratch ‘efficient’ from the C-Class’s CV. It’s not.
Above: WRX engine beats Benz on thermal efficiency by 25 per cent - on the same fuel
Great value: When you assess the objective relative sum of features and benefits. The base-model C200 petrol shitbox is $61,400 before on-road costs. The Mazda3 SP25 Astina is $37,040. So, you're paying 66 per cent more for the Benz, but you are in fact getting a whole lot less car. The Mazda offers 13 per cent more straight-line performance (drinking cheaper fuel) and costing 40 per cent less. The Mazda also has a staggering array of standard equipment that the C200 lacks, and which will cost you more than $20,000 to option up. It is not possible to mount a pub-test-passing claim that this is a value proposition. You’re paying through the neck for the three-pointed star. It’s got a higher social standing, more cachet - but value is poor.
Above: Mazda smashes Merc on objective criteria including features, value and performance
Potent: The C200 petrol offers 12 per cent less performance than a Mazda costing $24,000 less, and running on cheaper fuel. A C250 is completely eclipsed by a Subaru WRX Premium. It just is. The Subaru is 19 per cent quicker in a straight line. It has all-wheel drive and more standard features, and costs twenty-two-and-a-half thousand dollars less. The flipside of which is, it makes the Benz look positively limp-dicked on the potency scale. You cannot make a rational case that it’s potent.
Claims like these, in reviews, which just roll off the keyboard, are everywhere. This car gets 8.3 out of 10. That one gets 8.7. It’s all good. Mr Fallah and Mr Whitbourn are not particular culprits. They're just examples of a widespread sickness. Like, uh, Houston, we've got a problem. And that problem is: after reading these so-called reviews you might drive home in your new poverty pack C200 and only later discover that you're the one driving 2020's Beirut taxi, and the guy in the Mazda SP25 Astina is the one luxuriating, and the guy in the WRX is slam-dunking like LeBron James, and all you’re doing in the Benz is dribbling.
Whichcar even has an especially intelligence-insulting section in its reviews entitled 'what might bug me?'. Here, Mr Whitbourn alleges the only thing that might bug you is the run-flat tyre. And I agree that this might bug you, because run flats are expensive and they last only 80-odd kilometres after a puncture. But the run-flat would not bug you as much as the power steering shitting itself in the middle of the CBD, or intermittent stalling, or the infotainment system going 100 per cent control-alt-delete, three hours from home. Whichcar actually has the gall to have, as its motto: "Helping find which new car is right for you." Epic failure, right there.
So, you're searching for a new car. You're reading these reviews, the baseless bullshit is washing over you. If you're not wondering Can I trust this review? there's something profoundly wrong with your investigation into what car to buy next. Increasingly, car reviews are merely an extension of big-budget car company marketing activities. An under-the-table positive propaganda delivery system.
How Reviews get Corrupted
When Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific launched the C-Class, they flew a group of hand-picked reviewers to the international launch, in the south of France. Which sounds quite nice. Every car company does this.
Those reviewers fly business class. They stay in five-star hotels. They receive rock-star treatment. Helicopters, gifts, hot laps, limo transfers, exclusive this and that, and more than sufficient Veuve Cliquot to wash down any number of lobster tails poached in butter. About the only thing they don’t get is complementary hookers.
Above: An average car launch is less like this (above left) and more like that (above centre and right)
I am not exaggerating. In the spirit of full disclosure: I'm as guilty as sin when it comes to attending these things. At least, I was. I've driven SL-Class Benzes across Italy, Range Rovers in the mud at Eastnor Castle in the UK and Italy, I've driven Jeep Cherokees through the jungle in Thailand, and Wranglers across the Rubicon Trail in the High Sierras - luxury all the way. Later, as a consultant to the car industry, I managed the logistics for equivalent local launches here in Australia. And as a participant on both sides of the fence I have to say that any normal person - like you - would be shocked at the staggering scale of bilateral fellatio going on below the deck. It’s unhealthy, co-dependent, and out of control.
What Car Launches Are Really Like
If you are one of those journalists, this treatment is much better than you can afford on vacation. Attending a launch is like having the best holiday imaginable, only with - at best - barely competent fools you generally can't stand. And you can do it forever - as long as you don’t criticize the cars.
Any attending journalist absolutely will not be invited back if he or she is terribly critical of the car or the company. It’s also fair to say that most reviews do not disclose the 20 or 30 thousand dollars that have been spent on them, facilitating this rockstar opportunity to write a pleasant report about the car du jour.
Think about it - in recent automotive news, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has been identified by the ACCC as, proportionally, the most complained-about carmaker in Australia (and Jeep sales have consequentially tanked), Volkswagen (and their arsehole sub-brands Audi and Skoda) have committed a literally breathtaking criminal actrocity >>, after sucking on the taxpayer teat since the dawn of time, Holden and Ford have betrayed the Australian electorate >>, Ford has left no less than 60,000 customers in the absolute lurch with its epic dual-clutch transmission failure >> and consequential elastic interpretation of consumer law, Holden continues to sell the worst shitboxes on Australian roads - the Captiva >> and Cruze >>, and Mercedes-Benz keeps launching el cheapo cars that are simply embarrassing, by objective analysis >>. Of course, if you want to luxuriate up the pointy end of Carmaker 489 to London, Paris, Rome, New York or Stuttgart ... you'd best not point any of this out in public.
A former colleague of mine, Michael Pachi, is Macquarie Media's chief political correspondent. He's currently covering the Australian federal election campaign. He flies on the Prime Ministerial jet (or the opposition leader's jet) to report. That's his job. But those flights are not free. He tells me Macquarie Media gets a bill for the travel. That seems less open to corruption. Apparently there's a completely different standard in play in that arena.
Having worked as a journalist for about 20 years, I sometimes forget that consumers don't really understand the media as a business. You can watch the news and read newspapers and not get it. As a business, the media - news, reviews, whatever - is simply an advertising delivery system. Websites, TV and radio stations, newspapers have a two-stage business plan: Stage one is to develop the largest possible audience, and stage two is to pimp that audience out to advertisers. Opening your legs for that advertising is the price you pay for consuming all that allegedly free content.
People on the content side of the media business - journalists, producers, editors - they can be passionate about reporting - many are - I certainly am - but people on the advertising sales side of the business actually rule the roost because the content side burns money, and the advertising side generates it. And car companies spend so much money advertising. They are one of the last truly big spenders. Even in an embarrassingly small market like Australia, the top automotive brands are each spending tens of millions on advertising. The right advertising relationship between a media outlet and key carmakers can mean millions of dollars of profit.
Let's pretend you're a car reviewer on that launch in the south of France. Big bad Benz is tipping wads of cash directly into your company's bank account A critical report from a journalist potentially jeopardises all that cashflow.
If you’re that reviewer, this is a double-whammy of disinclination to be critical. If you're a shallow fuckwit, you really want to be invited back. The south of France is better than covering a prime ministerial press conference in a ghetto. Correction: marginal seat. But on top of that, no reviewer wants the group advertising sales director screaming for his head on a pike because Mercedes-Benz - or whomever - just yanked its advertising spend as a result of some critical comments you made. No matter how fair and reasonable those might be. No matter how much of a service they might be to actual car buyers. People like you.
I know this because I’ve seen car companies over-react to critical comment. Correction: to my critical comments. Step one: We're not taking you on any more launches, and you’re not driving any more of our cars. Step two: (to the publisher) we're pulling our advertising until you get that prick into line. It's ugly. If you put the readers first, as opposed to the advertisers - you can lose your job. If you tell - dare I say it - the truth. If your moral compass works only intermittently it's easier to bend over, pre-apply the lubricant, and play the game.
Massive Double Standard
In our society, not too long ago, then-NSW state premier Barry O’Farrell was forced to resign for accepting a $2000 bottle of Penfolds Grange as a gift, and yet every major car company slings - with complete impunity - healthy five-figure sums at any number of selected journalists, repeatedly, to curry favourable comment from exotic locations. Here's the rockstar treatment - now write a glowing review. That's the arrangement. When a car company does this over and over, nobody says ‘boo’. When a property developer does it once, political heads roll. It hardly seems consistent. At the very least, it’s a massive double standard. Not to mention a kind of covert assault on the freedom of speech.
Perhaps you think I am bullshitting - or at least embellishing. At the time I produced this report, Wheels Magazine - a former major player in automotive journalism - was advertising via Linkedin for a senior journalist. According to the publisher, Bauer Media Australia, the third key responsibility for the lucky applicant will be:
"represent the brand at Automotive shows to advertise and partner at all levels"
- Bauer Media Australia current motoring journalist job ad
Really. Advertise and partner at all fucking levels. Let me translate: To write partial truths and perform fellatio. Here's the hot tip: if you want a real journalist, advertising and partnering at all levels, on your knees with your lips apart, is exactly what you must not do. You really can serve only one master, and if the story you present is really just ‘advertising’ for the your 'partners' in the industry, it's going to be doing the readers a real disservice.
Next time you read a car review, ask yourself: Is the journalist who copped that $30,000 gift - correction: $30,000 all expenses paid trip to Europe - is he really inclined to put you first, as a consumer, when he writes that review? Or is he deeply motivated to dry hump that gravy train and keep the advertisers happy? You can go to Europe, America, Asia … once a month, or more, get out of the office - pretend you’re important - if you play the game. All you need to do is write nice things. This is critical for you to consider, as a review consumer, if you are going to spend your money on any car, based on ‘advice’ (if that’s the right word) from a car reviewer.
When is a Car Review Corrupt? The two-step test.
But you can crack the code and find out exactly how to tell if any reviewer is reviewing the vehicle for you - or merely keeping the boss and his favourite car company happy. First up, if there’s no disclaimer about who paid the bill for the south of France pub crawl (correction - important opportunity to advertise and partner at all levels) then the review is simply not worth your time. And it can’t just say: ‘We went to the south of France to drive the new C-Class.’ It has to say: ‘Road test editor, all-level advertiser and partner, Cletus van Damme, attended the C-Class launch at the South of France as a guest of Mercedes-Benz.’ This is not optional in an ethical universe. No disclaimer means you’re just not getting the facts about what could be influencing the reviewer.
Next - and this is just logic - car reviews contain two things: Facts and Opinion. Facts aren’t up for debate - how many kilowatts. The on-sale date. Number of seats. The price. But opinion tells you a lot. Opinion comes in two flavours - praise and criticism. Credible reports contain both flavours, not just praise. So, if I were you, to assess any report, I’d be looking very hard for a reasonable chunk of considered, critical comment - and if that’s not there I’d be walking away, and not looking back.
If a car review is critical - in part - it validates whatever praise you might also read. But if the review is wholly positive, the lack of criticism instantly invalidates any and all praise. No car deserves not to be criticised. If it’s all praise with a smattering of specifications, the reviewer who wrote the review is just riding the car company fellatio and all-level-partnering gravy train. Look hard for criticism. If it’s not there, run.
What the Car Industry Should Do (Partly Satire)
Twenty years ago this year, alternative Australian rock band Regurgitator released a pivotal counter-culture song entitled:
I Sucked a Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am
- 20yo Regurgitator rock classic.
It’s still socially relevant. The song was criticised heavily by various narcs and in particular by neo-conservative AM breakfast radio shock jock and card-carrying climate change denier Alan Jones. The one-man Fox News of Aussie radio. Mr Jones has a unique sense of appropriateness. He deemed it appropriate in 2012, for example, to allege the them-Prime Minister's recently deceased father had "died a few weeks ago of shame". That’s pretty classy. But he was apparently offended by the Regurgitator song equating fellatio with a path to progress.
This is a slight digression but because so many brain-dead Australians wake up every day hoping the Oracle that is AJ will tell them what to think today, it’s reported that Mr Jones works under a 22-year broadcasting contract with a base salary of $4.5 million per year. That’s about $19,000 per show. Until death do us part. He’s at the top of his game … but I doubt there's a shred of evidence that he sucked any cock whatsoever to get to the top of the AM Radio shock-jock cess-pool. No evidence of that - but history seems pretty clear that he was actually arrested in public toilets in London's west end in 1988 and charged with two counts of outraging public decency (right). Yet he took exception to a song. Investigative journalist Chris Masters is on the record pointing to Mr Jones’s … unconventional … behaviour while teaching at an exclusive Sydney boy’s school. And by ‘unconventional’ I’m referring to the practice of writing a love letter to a student, and other alleged conduct, which I’m pretty sure many people would consider at the very least distasteful, or perhaps highly suspect.
Former Prime Minister Paul Keating - who could cut anyone to shreds in a nanosecond, once described Mr Jones's commentary as "middle-of-the-road facism”. Jones is such an interesting guy - in 2001 it’s reported he moved into an exclusive apartment in the so-called 'Toaster' at Circular Quay - a building he had previously labelled as a (quote-unquote) "monstrosity" that would make a (quote-unquote) "mess" of the Quay and be out of reach of ordinary Australians - so: nothing intensely hypocritical there. Straightforward behaviour for anyone who wants to live in a monstrosity that messes up a major national landmark. According to the ABC, Jones has been convicted of defamation, and contempt of court, he's been compelled to apologise for outrageous and offensive remarks directed at aboriginals, and he’s been found guilty of almost 100 breaches of the radio code and the Broadcasting act. What's next? A reality TV show in Jerusalem with Mel Gibson?
Notorious hit-man and convicted murderer Mark 'Chopper' Read once repudiated AJ’s criticisms, poetically, in just 10 words. He said:
"I never got arrested in a toilet block in London"
- hit man Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read.
Take that, AJ. Like, the only wrong thing I ever did was kill people for money. There are limits to acceptable behaviour - and you crossed a line. More on Chopper Read >> and also 13 things you may not know about Chopper >>
Frankly, I just love the fact that a guy like Mr Jones, apparently with this much night soil on his track record took a stand about a song, the core message of which is merely giving head to get ahead. Fellatio and self-improvement. Please. But returning to the point at hand, motoring journalism in Australia is crying out for an anthem. It is. The Regurgitator classic would be a statement of exceedingly poignant relevance.
So I suggest, if possible, we get Alan Jones to record the a 20th Anniversary acapella version of I Sucked a Lot of Cock to Get Where I Am, only slower, perhaps a little sluttier, with some classic Jones falsetto, and a hip-hop beat. I further suggest we release this remake in a live global broadcast from the Vatican, with Mariah Carey and Beyonce on backing vocals, on a stage flanked by a couple of S-Classes, product-placed to defray the cost - with a disclaimer. I’d pay my own money to go see that. Thereafter, at the start of every subsequent car launch, the slutty, falsetto, hip-hop AJ acapella car reviewer’s anthem could be played to an upstanding audience of all-level partnerers, about to commence gravy train docking procedures. Perhaps they already do that, in heaven.
Listen hard for any criticism that’s not in those reviews you’re reading, contact me via the link below if you want to save thousands on the right new car. Leave a comment below to let me know what you think.