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Whale Watching: Auto Enablers

G. R. Whale
May 12, 2010
I HAD JUST PARKED A CAR with a 9.7-kilowatt motor as part of its driveline when a Bentley release popped on screen: The Naim audio system in the new Mulsanne delivers 2.2 kilowatts of audio power. That's one-quarter of what was moving me around my driveway. If I turned all the speakers the same direction would it move the car?
Following a drive in a different modern car, one with plenty of driver-assist systems, some buddies (including a delegation of local constabulary) and I wondered if these systems would cause a sense of overconfidence behind the wheel. When turbocharged AWD cars were first gaining traction, numerous ostensibly intelligent and wealthy people stuffed them into snowbanks by forgetting that tires are tires however many are pushing or pulling.
Photo 2/2   |   Whale Watching Skid Marks
We surmised that this wave of driver-assist systems--which will return your car to within a lane if you wander, alert you to the presence of a car next to you, advise that your attention is waning via the ISO icon of a coffee cup (despite that caffeine is recognized as a bad idea for the sleep-deprived or inebriated), stop the car if it senses an impending collision, or adjust its speed and following distance on cruise control--may well encourage folks to try driving when they shouldn't be. For the time being, these systems are found primarily on more expensive rides--but so was all-wheel drive in its infancy.
What do you think? If you're among the selfish who might be inclined to drive under the influence, would you allow yourself one more drink because your car might improve your odds of not getting caught? Is this a non-issue, or will driving while you shouldn't be reclaim its part in more than 37 percent of all fatal accidents?
I recently discovered a Web site that critiques the critics in automotive editorial. I took a quick look at the site, but it was a test done for Truck Trend that really got me looking harder.
In summer 2008, we tested a Suburban 2500, and this story is on the site as a Motor Trend test though it was never published in that magazine; except for racers towing cars, the 2500 is not MT's kind of ride. When I did a search for "Suburban," I found six reviews, with scores ranging from 61 to 78; only Truck Trend's 61 and one other rated it lower than 74. However, ours was the only HD-specific story, all of the others covered 1500 models. For a vehicle--especially a truck--where every major mechanical component is different between the 1500 and the 2500, that's a major gaffe. The site does not list Suburban 2500 separately nor the only other recent HD SUV, the Excursion.
This site claims proprietary methods, thousands of reviews, and hundreds of reviewers (the "virtual staff" of 20 people in five countries must have been working overtime) to provide "unbiased analysis of automotive criticism." Their reviewers are said to scan every story for positive or negative statements, input data, the computer munches, and poof! an average score comes up for the vehicles. The site also states its algorithm will adjust a score given by a reviewing publication, which doesn't sound unbiased or kosher to me: What next, they decide our Truck of the Year isn't actually the one we pick?
I did learn that, while light- and heavy-duty models aren't listed separately because most site visitors don't decide until well into the process, the scoring for them varies slightly. Of the six editorial categories (drive ride, drive performance, design form, design function, build quality, relative value), HD vehicles carry more weight (no pun intended) in design function.
The gentleman behind the site was asked on the vLane blog what the "best thing about driving" is, and his reply was "arriving." I'm speculating the reviews he did at a business magazine weren't about cars or trucks. The Web site states it does not accept advertising while the Sources page has a link to "Advertise" and a 4/9/09 posting on the company says the site sold its first ad and it could be a "$250,000-revenue company within 18 months." I used to work on major magazines where advertisers read, edited, and/or approved road tests prior to publication, so don't think it can't happen on the Net.
Owners of vehicles listed on the site can register with their VIN and weigh in on the credibility of the writer/tester, despite the fact that we can base value only on MSRP, not transaction price, and build quality only on perceived fit and finish of a new or nearly new vehicle.
Most top writers in this biz get a score in the mid-6 to low-7 range, including Motor Trend's test engineers who have forgotten more about cars than most owners know. (I presume the score is out of 10, though some publications are scored out of 110, so who knows?) Many who write more about the societal implications of vehicles as much as the products themselves have higher average credibility scores.
I believe most Truck Trend readers who are in the market for a truck decide between LD and HD early on and would not compare the two apples to apples. Our only reader comment on that Suburban test related to the truck having two separate fuel tanks, which was not mentioned in the owner's manual, and how they operate to keep fuel fresh.
And readers certainly let us know when they don't agree with our opinion, regardless of your polarity at the moment.
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