The independence of car reviews is under increasing pressure. Now, more than ever, it needs a strong media to push back against it.
Matt Prior
30 March 2015

Can I talk shop? I don’t very often, because motoring hackery is, after all, a pretty straightforward and lighthearted business,mostly developed around providing impartial, independent reviews of cars to people who like ’em.

That’s a pretty simple premise and one you wouldn’t think was so hard to get right, would you? And yet there are parts of it that feel rotten to the insides.

An email lands. It asks if I could spend an hour on the phone with a client – a car maker – talking about cars. Of course I can talk to them.

But: they want to pay me for my time. Ah. Now, they can’t do that, I say, because three weeks later I might be reviewing a car these people built, while their pounds sit in my bank account. That’s a non-starter.

They say they understand entirely but – and here’s the thing – it’s the first time someone has declined because of a conflict of interest. It’s only a phone interview, after all.

It is. But if you don’t draw the line there, where do you? I’ve been asked to do some benchmarking before, and even to drive a prototype, to provide feedback to aid development, with my valuable time recompensed. Sure, sometimes car makers want outside expert advice, but it’s hard to believe there’s no other agenda.

It’s not just individual hacks, either. The Geneva motor show wasn’t just a festival of fast new metal, but also of sharing concerned stories. Whether someone can get their car featured on a front cover for a certain amount of money. Whether some video content is sponsored, and by who. That one US car magazine is actually presenting a TV car advert. And how advertorial features – which would once have been flagged to the hilt as manufacturer-paid content – slip into print with barely a mention of it. Although none at this publisher, I’m happy to tell you.

But the hard truth facing all publishing is that, when you are giving away so much content for nothing, the money has to come from somewhere. Accompanying all of this is a legion of content bypassing the ‘old’ media and brought to the consumer direct. There are videos, billed as ‘reviews’ of the Peugeot 308, presented by a bloke flagged as a ‘motoring journalist’, produced and paid for by the car maker. You can watch a ‘review’ of the Range Rover Sport SVR presented by a bloke who consulted on its development.

Sometimes days like these, where some reviews are neither as impartial nor as independent as you’d hope, feel like dark ones. Not the end. But past the beginning of the end. Maybe the middle of the beginning of the end. And now more than ever, this business needs a strong media to push back against it.

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Comments
18

30 March 2015
You have my sympathies. The media business cannot be easy right now, with massively increased competition and falling traditional revenue streams.

I don't know what the answer is, but it is imperative that Autocar retain the trust of their audience.

Perhaps titles could devise some sort of industry-standard badge of independence?

30 March 2015
There was a hoo-ha over at AutoExpress over a number of Volkswagen-sponsored videos featuring one of the magazine's biggest and most well-known journalists. Before these videos appeared there was already talk that AutoExpress was very VW-group friendly, seemingly handing the company top honours in group tests where other magazines were not. This trend has continued and readers seem pretty peeved off about it. They crossed the line there, and I'm pleased to see Autocar hasn't gone down the same path and I hope they never do - I will cancel my subscription if it ever happens.

31 March 2015
Dark Isle wrote:

There was a hoo-ha over at AutoExpress over a number of Volkswagen-sponsored videos featuring one of the magazine's biggest and most well-known journalists. Before these videos appeared there was already talk that AutoExpress was very VW-group friendly, seemingly handing the company top honours in group tests where other magazines were not. This trend has continued and readers seem pretty peeved off about it. They crossed the line there, and I'm pleased to see Autocar hasn't gone down the same path and I hope they never do - I will cancel my subscription if it ever happens.

AutoExpress is blatant.

I've recently read three group tests - VW Passat vs Mazda 6 vs Ford Mondeo. Passat comes top. VW Polo vs Ford Fiesta vs Mazda 2. Polo comes top.
Fabia v Polo v Corsa. Polo 1st, Fabia (of VW group) 2nd.

30 March 2015
Of more concern are the five star junkets seemingly required for the launch of a new vehicle. Reviews would seem more partial if journalists just took cars fire a son around their home town IMO.

My friends and I were discussing this just the other day, actually. Looking back at our old mags, we were amazed at the supposed ginormous leaps in progress from model to model. Only for the very same model to be slagged when it's replacement is released some four years later. And when you look at two successive models, especially if they are 10-20 years old, the differences really aren't that great. In reality, the whole business seems geared towards promoting and selling new cars as opposed to any sort of objective journalism. Sorry!

But don't stress. We still like reading your articles and especially drooling over the beautiful photography!

30 March 2015
Sorry for the mumbo jumbo above!

30 March 2015
Matt,
Are we now approaching the death throes of independent journalism and can Autocar survive in its current format?

Where has all Japanese design went to?

30 March 2015
Well the problem is that the magazines are in the end just businesses. They need adverts and sponsorships to keep going. Same goes for the journalists. The choice of words and the tone of the reviews say it all.
I don't mind what verdict the reviewers reach as long as they are objective and they make the effort to reach that verdict. But then that's easier said than done. Autocar deserves credit for comparative objectivity.
Moreover it seems that Autocar somewhat heeds the readers' comments in addition to having a relatively relaxed policy. Autocar readers are a better lot as well and don't turn marauders at the first hint of a difference of opinion.

31 March 2015
I'm 52 yrs old, I've been reading Autocar since the early seventies, honestly.

Reading impartial reviews in car magazines/car websites these days is getting more difficult.
I think part of the problem is that much of the motoring press seems to concentrate on the high end product, seems they are queueing up to reveal the latest Bentley has increased it's top speed by 4mph! etc.
Car reviews are part of a manufacturers armory it's just a shame there aren't more journalists who are more objectively critical and not so easily won over by absolute performance increase gains.
Autocar magazine has a very long history, it's a shame the magazine has lost it's balance in reporting on the sorts of cars that are more relevant to most of us.
Some of the photography aint that great either, some is, but there is much which is lacking, I wonder is there an image editor these days ?

Sorry to sound cynical but to my mind journalism of any type should never be predictable!

it's not how fast you get there, rather where you are going!

31 March 2015
Although I whinge and moan this is still the best Euro site and mag.

1 April 2015
jason_recliner wrote:

Although I whinge and moan this is still the best Euro site and mag.

Absolutely agree. I am 54 and have been reading Autocar for over forty years. I would trust the opinions of their journalists and always use them to inform my choice of cars. Moreover, I think that the contributions from readers are generally very thoughtful and interesting, and respectful of different opinions, unlike some other websites...

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