Various and sundry corporate finagling has resulted in the four major auto mags being owned by two publishers: Motor Trend and Automobile by Source Interlink, Car and Driver and Road & Track by Hearst. You don’t have to be Warren Buffett to see the merger and/or consolidation possibilities, and indeed an outfit called 24/7 Wall Street is predicting the imminent demise of R&T.
All of these magazines write their reviews to the benefit of their advertisers instead of their readers. The only other recurring theme is expensive cars as porn. Why do they have fresh specs for every engine offering and trim level of every $60K and up car and occasionally run a one page “drive” review of models that outsell them all? Do they think their readers are all looking for clues how to spend their $300 a month option budget on their new Porsche Boxsters? Is that the dream demographic they want to present to their advertisers? The classiest products advertized with any regularity are cargo liners for CUVs, discounted tires, and radar detectors. Chinese collectibles and male inadequacy products may appeal to German car buyers, but there aren’t enough of them to justify expensive ads.
The readers don’t want to know about cars they see three abreast on the freeway every day: they want to know about dream cars, cars they can buy if they win the lotto, cars that will serve as their delayed reward for having suffered all those years with a ’99 Corolla. It’s all about the Higher Level. It’s why Cosmo’s cover story is never “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with your sex life.” And Lamborghini doesn’t have to advertise in these mags because hey, they’re freaking Lamborghini, anything they do gets covered automatically as a matter of editorial judgment, based on the fact that the readers want to know about dream cars.
CAFE is poised to set us back to 1978. People are going to need auto journalism with a consumerist bent, much as we had from these dinosaurs thirty years ago. They were far from perfect then in their unwillingness to condemn technologies that bit buyers, but they were far better at reviewing mass market cars than they are now. Consumer Reports is probably better positioned to hire some people that can write than the buff books are to start writing about the realities of their advertisers’ products.
Then again, CR originally positioned itself as the oracle to the Automobile As Appliance submarket, and while we have since learned that not only do they not hate cars, they drive the living whee out of them, their target reader is still the person whose greatest fear is “Will this break down on me?” That person won’t care whether Sedan X garnered more points than Crossover Y in testing: he’s peering into long lines of red or, yes, black dots. Which is as reasonable a criterion for selecting a car as any other; but it’s not a place the buff books, which get extended experience with only a handful of cars, have any reason to be.