March 23, 2012

Confession #41: Don't hate it just because it's pretty, unreliable

You don't have to read too deep to find Consumer Reports' biases when it comes to testing cars. They place heavy emphasis over value and practicality over things like styling and emotion, things they probably say, "We leave to the enthusiast rags." Rightly so, since Consumer Reports also reviews things like TVs, laptops, butter and similarly prosaic products.

Don't get me wrong, I read their Cars blog religiously. And if someone who buys cars like they do microwaves, I base my recommendations off of some CR reviews. But if I, or anyone who puts emotion and style on a level with practicality, were in the market, I'd take CR's data with a grain of salt. 

The chronicles of their troublesome Fisker Karma then leaves me a little puzzled. First of all, who of their Prius-loving clientele is really interested in the Karma's gorgeous exterior and six-figure price tag? And it's such a low-volume vehicle, who, other than enthusiasts and celebrities, are really considering such a car? Those people are probably uninterested in reliability anyway, and they're tired of looking environmentally conscious while driving around in a Prius.

Consumer Reports doesn't do emotion. They measure how well a car performs on paper, so how it goes and stops and slides is all important. But how connected the driver feels to the car doesn't seem to elicit many marks, nor does the way it looks. That's probably why they usually rate the Toyota Camry as the best midsize sedan you can buy, a car with no steering feel, squishy seats and a general lack of style or any indication it was designed with the intention actual humans would operate the thing. The new one may be much improved in those regards, but the old one was a classic airport rental special. Even the ill-fitting interior panels and mouse-fur upholstery didn't register on CR's radar as much as its fuel economy and quietness.

Jaguar XJ (Jaguar Cars photo)
So when the Fisker broke down, that was bad. But the misses kept coming when testers tried to see out of its narrow windows. They didn't like the weird upholstered dash, or the noise from the turbo engine. And they really hated the slow touchscreen. And they think for $100,000-plus, there should be more interior space. Maybe that's why they like the Mercedes-Benz S-class or Lexus LS over the very stylish Jaguar XJ. No, you can't see out of the Jag, it's less reliable and has a slow touchscreen. But it's built more beautifully than either, is lighter and more agile and doesn't look like a German airport taxi. Or a Toyota Camry. And if you're spending a lot of money on a car, shouldn't it look special?

Land Rover Range Rover Evoque (Land Rover photo)
Earlier this year, CR railed on the beautiful Land Rover Range Rover Evoque, a vehicle praised by Top Gear, Wall Street Journal, Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Automobile Magazine and Autocar, to name a few (pretty much anyone you can name who also praised the Karma). Guess what? They didn't like the fact you can't see out of it, the touch screen is slow, you don't have acres of space for your fat American ass and that, for $45,000, you get a turbo four-cylinder. So does a BMW 5-series, but I haven't heard any moaning from them.

Admittedly, criticisms like mine are certainly not new. And CR does show some credibility when they rank the mediocre new Civic and Jetta at the bottom of their rankings. But they also give the Jeep Wrangler an appallingly low rating because of its on-road manners. And they said they weren't going to buy an Audi A7 to test because it was a niche car. Well ... isn't the Fisker? And the Lotus Elise they tested years ago? And, for that matter, the Jaguar XJ?

Sure, there are problems like bad build quality and a generally high price that let the value proposition of cars like these down. No doubt, something German is a more logical choice. But logic would dictate that no one needs to spend this kind of money on a car, especially when they say models with more generic labels (like Hyundai, Nissan, Kia, etc.) do roughly the same for less money.

I'll let you dig around for more negative reviews. The point is, if I were a rental fleet manager trying to buy dependable cars, I'd gladly trust CR's reliability and rankings data. If I were buying the car of my dreams, I wouldn't take them too seriously.

People who buy expensive cars do it because they like the car. It's an irrational purchase, so what if it's irrational to like it if there isn't plentiful headroom, a big trunk or if it breaks down from time to time. Cool cars, even immobile, are still cool.