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(ABCNEWS.com)

Some safety advocates say the automotive press shies away from writing unfavorable reviews of vehicles.



July 12 — Looking to buy a car? There are so many models — and they all look so good when they're new. How do you know which one to choose? Many consumers go to glossy car magazines, but do they give you the whole story?



Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Road and Track are among the most popular automotive magazines.
Consumers often turn to industry magazines such as Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and Road and Track to get information about new cars.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a national non-profit advocacy group, and a longtime critic of the automotive press, says the amount of criticism in automotive magazines is "minuscule."

"I think the automotive press is promoting cars. They're not trying to tell you what the problems are with cars and distinguishing them," said Claybrook, who is president of Public Citizen, a national non-profit advocacy group.

For example, in January, Car and Driver listed the Ford Focus among its "10 Best Cars of the Year." It never mentioned that Ford had recalled the Focus eight times for various problems when that review was written. Also, just this month, when Motor Trend's review came out — no mention of the recalls or the fact that the government has five ongoing safety-related investigations of the Focus. (It currently has six ongoing investigations, but only five that Motor Trend could have known of when it went to press.)

Claybrook says the automotive press is "whitewashing" its car reviews. She cites the press's treatment of a Chevrolet minivan as an example.

When Chevrolet introduced the Venture minivan in 1996 — also sold as the Pontiac Trans Sport — the vehicle performed well in government crash tests and General Motors said it passed its own extensive crash tests. However, when the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) performed its crash test on the minivan in November 1996, IIHS Director Brian O'Neill said the occupant compartment collapsed, making serious injuries likely.

"In our frontal offset crash, there was literally hardly any part of the compartment left after the crash. The whole compartment collapsed in on the test dummy," O'Neill said.

C. Van Tune, who was Motor Trend's editor when the magazine reviewed the Chevy minivan, with no mention of the IIHS' crash test results, said that his magazine and its competitors were less responsive to safety information in years past. "It was sort of considered a boring subject," he said. Almost a year after those first reviews Motor Trend did another review of the Venture with no mention of any crash tests.

GM said that the IIHS crash test is not a good estimate of the Venture's overall safety. According to a Newsweek poll, safety is the number one concern of a majority of auto buyers. Van Tune says that Motor Trend is now responding to this with beefed-up coverage of safety-related issues. Van Tune now sees safety-related coverage as a big selling feature for his magazine. "They want to know about safety? We're going to give it to them and we're going to do it better and more completely than any other of our competition." The magazine has since covered safety-related issues such as crash tests, SUV rollover ratings and air bags.

On the other hand, Car and Driver says it does not emphasize safety-testing of cars. They say they focus on performance, and their readers recognize that. Both Car and Driver and Road and Track say while crash tests are part of a car's safety performance, so are such features as handling and braking.


Along for the Ride?

Some critics say the auto magazines are so reliant on advertising revenue that the magazines do not slam cars in their reviews.

Van Tune said the advertising has no influence on the editorial content of his magazine.

Matt Joseph, a freelance writer and co-host of a Wisconsin radio show called All About Cars, said he thinks automakers have a major impact on editorial content. "There's a general sense that if you really trash a car in a review, you're just not going to sell advertising to that vendor in the quantity you might have, or perhaps at all," Joseph said.

Joseph said he was threatened with a lawsuit after he wrote a scathing newspaper review of the 2001 Land Rover Discovery 2. Joseph wrote, "It's gas tank position was unsafe. It's ride noisy. And the rear visibility terrible."

After the article was published, Joseph said, "They essentially put a chill on me and everybody else."

Joseph later clarified a point he made in his review and Land Rover apologized for its reaction.

Joseph added, however, that there are other subtle ways that automakers try to woo the press. BMW, for example, offered journalists an all-expense paid trip to Spain to test-drive one of its sportscars on a Spanish race track. Claybrook said this is automakers' way of softening up the writers and influencing their perspective.

It's unclear whether the perks influenced the reviewers in this case, because many reviewers who weren't given the trip also loved the car. Van Tune said the freebies don't influence press coverage. "There's nothing wrong with accepting a trip from a manufacturer, because we keep our journalism integrity in our minds when we're there."

Jason Vines, the former communications chief for Ford Motor Co., said buying writers dinner or providing them with hotel rooms is not an attempt to buy good press. He said he believes products receive comparable treatment from journalists who've been given perks and those who haven't.

Despite Joseph's criticism of the practice, he acknowledged that he routinely accepted the free trips. "I need to go on those trips, and unfortunately, I can't pay for them personally and none of my employers are able to either. So, it's sort of a necessary evil of doing the job."

Still, many automotive journalists — especially those from large, mainstream news organizations — refuse to allow automakers to pick up their tab. David Kiley, a reporter for USA Today, said, "We pay for ourselves. That's the way it should be."

As for Van Tune, he said his magazine could afford to cover its reporters' expenses, and may begin to do so in the future.

So far, the big magazines don't seem to have changed their policies. So, be aware: When you read and see reviews of this year's models, some of those reviews were written by reporters who've been fed and fueled by the car companies.
 

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You would think ABC News would have something better to do with its money. Like, maybe, having all their TV anchors get a personality or something.

Bob
 

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DUH! Follow the money trail.
No advertising means no magazine which means no job and the kids don't get the GI Joe with the kung fu grip!
 

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Well I'm shocked, stunned and amazed. Car magazines focusing on car performance?... not focusing an article on what can kill you behind the wheel?...

Grrrrrrrrrr!!!

Car Magazines are for car enthusiasts - they don't focus on what goes wrong with cars.
Computer Magazines are for computer enthusiasts - they don't focus on Microsoft's monopoly.
Fashion Magazines are for style enthusiasts - they don't focus on drug use and anorexia.
Video Gamer Magazines are for video game enthusiasts - they don't tell kids to go outside and play soccer or baseball.
Knitting and sewing magazines are for sewing and knitting enthusiasts - they don't talk about the way knitting needles can be used as weapons.
Cigar and Wine magazines are for oenephiles (sp)and stogie enthusiasts - they don't have articles on getting stains and smells out of clothing, furniture and cars.

See a trend?
 

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The fact is (and has been forever), enthusiast magazines concentrate on the driving experience, and not the consumer-interest aspect. And yes, in spite of what they say, potential advertising influences editors' final products.

Occasionally, if a particular car line has an outstanding reliability or safety record, the road-test editors may mention this as being a bonus. But if a car has an average or below average safety/reliability history, nothing is said, generally.

How many times have I read glowing reports on Chrysler minivans (it's true - I actually skim those articles) without seeing any mention at all of the fact that many owners (going back to the original vans back in the 80s) never get more than 60k out of an automatic transaxle? This is an engineering problem Chrysler is well aware of and has only made feeble attempts to address. I cannot recall ever seeing an acknowledgment of this fact, though, in a road test (except in consumer mags).

There are a couple of exceptions to this ignorance on the part of enthusiast publications though: long-term tests and owners' surveys. I have confidence that if the transmission failed during one of these tests (and they have done so), that would be reported - even if it were fixed for free under warranty.

I subscribe to 6 enthusiasts mags - and that is where I go to understand the driving experience. I also subscribe to Consumer Reports - and that is where I go to understand the objective reliability and safety data on a car. I doubt the editors of Consumer Reports would even understand "driving experience" very well - since cars are simply appliances to them.

So....Claybrook has broken a big scandal? One that every enthusiast out there has known about for years.
 

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I've posted that ordinary people are generally good.....they're also generally obscenely complacent!!!!

Most folks don't pick up a C/D or M/T to read about safety

As for ABC news personalitites, I too wouldn't be surprised is peter jennings was an android, or maybe a computer generated character (like Max Headroom, LOL!!!)
 

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That's why I like Consumer Reports. However, I agree with the others here: auto mags need to feed themselves, most are not focused on minivan safety which is good, and ABC News needs people with personalities. /forums/images/icons/smile.gif Fortunally, I have plenty of those. /forums/images/icons/wink.gif When is the last time anyone picked up Car & Driver to see the latest crash test figures on the Ferrari F-50, or better yet anything?
 

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I think most of us enthusiasts agree that auto magazines, especially the TV magazines, are self serving. I remember that there was one that pretty much called it as they saw it; Auto Week (the newsprint version) up to about ten or fifteen years ago would sometimes surprise me with their unflatteringly frank comments on some cars. These comments were mostly from the enthusiasts point of view; Oh well, so much for progress and corporate greed.
 

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Sheesh! Next thing you know, 60 Minutes will be passing on hard-hitting stories for fear of getting sued! Thank God we have Saint Joan to save us!
 

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I understand perfectly how these magazines cater to the enthusiast. But just once, I'd like the writers and editors to throw in what they don't like about the cars, even if it is subjective and their opinions. You can't really use any of the mags to decide what cars to look at and consider buying; everything is perfect!

I imagine they even liked the styling of the Aztek.

That's why I don't subscribe to them, or even read them on airplanes.
 
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