Let’s face it: we live in an era where almost all of the internet “autojournalism” is done by people who have little to no understanding of how to design, build, sell, drive, or repair an automobile. Does it matter? Maybe not — but my three-Viper drive in this month’s issue of HDC, coupled with Don Sherman’s outstanding and detailed technical explainer, should serve as the most cogent case I can make for the idea that it does.
Three weeks ago, we were invited to a press event for a brand-new sports car. I didn’t have the ability to travel on those days, so I suggested a left-field alternative: someone who had owned the last three generations of this car and who had put over 75,000 miles on a genre of vehicle that typically spends its life in a pressurized plastic bubble. Who better to put this new car in context? Who better to say if you, the typa dude who usually buys these things, should make the $200,000 commitment to the 2022 model?
The automaker flat out rejected my candidate. “We know who he is,” they said, “and we don’t want him. We want an experienced autowriter.” Imagine my surprise when I saw the list of people who had been chosen to attend. Very few of them had ever driven a car of this nature at even lead-follow trackday pace. One particularly egregious choice for attendance had never driven any car from the manufacturer. As in… not ever. As in… this person has never driven anything faster than a Camry.
Why would you turn down a qualified driver/owner while rolling out the red carpet for people who are, ah, not exactly high-quality candidates? The same reason that all three of the “sales systems” I learned as a new-car salesman in the Nineties emphasized getting the “up” in a car, ANY new car, as soon as possible in the process. You see, the average mark on the street is driving a car that is between three and thirteen years old, with:
* bad alignment
* worn bushings
* out of balance tires
* any number of squeaks and rattles
It doesn’t matter if it’s a “nice car”. A new Honda Civic feels significantly tighter and fresher than a five-year-old Mercedes S-Class. Almost nobody puts in the kind of maintenance effort that’s required to make a car feel “like new”. Most people would see a major difference in their car’s street behavior just from a new set of properly mounted and balanced tires.
So when you put the customer in your new car, he’s impressed. Because it’s not old. This sounds obvious but it’s not obvious to customers, who blithely compare the new Ford Escape on even ground with their eight-year-old CR-V on Chinese tires and the shriveled remains of the original suspension bushings. At that point, for most people the only question is whether or not they can get a bank to accept their 620 beacon score.
Press events work the same way. You want your reviewers to be daily drivers of genuinely crummy vehicles. You’re thrilled when you find out they daily-drive a 1998-whatever, because this person is not going to have the ability to determine if your new Gorgonzola 982TSi is actually quieter or quicker than the competition. They’re just pathetically grateful to be driving something that doesn’t smell like a dead dog.
Oh, and did I mention that you’ve also pulled them out of a shack somewhere and put them up at a four-star hotel?
This is why “mommybloggers” and “influencers” have no trouble getting access to new cars: they don’t have the context from which to be properly critical, or even properly informed. They’re just thrilled to be going on a trip somewhere. The “journosaurs” who populated this business head-to-tail when I did my first press-trip review may have been largely corrupt, corpulent, and contemptible, but they had a lot of context. They knew when a car was louder or slower or more cramped than the competition. Today’s crowd would be authentically impressed by a brand-new 1980 Citation. Why not? They’re driving cars with mismatched wheels at home.
When they get back, they write a bunch of meandering pop-culture drivel, sprinkled heavily with efforts to publicly align themselves with whatever political positions Mondelez and Pepsi-Cola are currently endorsing, and they call that a review. When in doubt, they read the press release — and that’s how the launch of the 2011 Mustang GT was peppered with praise for the limited-slip differential, even though the entire fleet of cars at that event had been mis-built with open diffs.
With this Viper test, I wanted to do everything truthfully, in context, and without much dabbling in dilettante politics. We rented a decent track, secured permission to drive all three cars at a pace that was safe but not tepid, and then hired Don Sherman to supply plenty of context in the form of a detailed technical companion article.
Having been lucky enough to drive every major Viper release at time-trial pace since 2008, and having worked with the Gen V ACR’s test driver to understand the car better, I felt that I was adequately positioned to drive and understand these cars, both as they appeared when new and as classic (meaning used) cars in 2021. As a result, I’m able in this article to explain how the cars differ on the move, something you can’t get from even contemporaneous first-line reviews.
It’s not a perfect article; I wrote it in a hurry and didn’t have as much space as I’d have taken in an online equivalent. No matter. I hope you enjoy it. If not, I’d like to hear why. As much distaste as I have for the hopeless bottom-feeders who do so much of today’s autowriting, I’d have even more self-contempt if I couldn’t listen to and incorporate feedback from the people who actually read this stuff. As always, thanks for your time.