9 Oct 2014

Why Some Car Reviews Are Bullshit

Yes, you read that right, some car reviews are utter bullshit.

Reviewing cars is a subjective thing. It's not an art but the putting together of words in the right order and in such a fashion as they make sense and impart information in an interesting manner does require an artistic touch.

Anyone conversant with the English language and possessed of a technical mind can write. It takes skill and lots of experience to write a review of anything but writing a review of a car is particularly difficult because you can't take notes or write it whilst driving the car and the differences between cars is often minuscule.

Also, a review demands a degree of emotion and cars in themselves are not emotional items rather they bring out different emotions in us as we interact with them. A car may cause one person to feel happy whilst the same car can make someone else feel disgusted. How? Why? Who knows, they're just lumps of metal and plastic.

All a reviewer can do is try his or her best.  Often they don't. Sometimes they cannot be bothered, sometimes they dislike the car and just use the review as a means to say so, sometimes they can write but are incapable of writing about a car, sometimes they simply cannot write.

Sometimes they have no interest in the car and want to tell their audience how fabulous they are, sometimes they treat their audience with disdain, sometimes they expect the audience to know everything about the car already, sometimes they are in the pocket of a manufacturer or the person who supplied the car, sometimes they write about aspects of the car no buyer really cares about.

I have written around 200 car reviews and am not an expert but I have enough experience to spot a bullshit review when I see one.

A car review by someone who has no interest in cars has to be right at the top of the bullshit scale - see this example from a Guardian reviewer who didn't even drive the car and signed off by saying he doesn't like cars.

The next category of bullshit car reviews are those written by celebrities. Take this Peugeot 108 review by Chris Evans in which he talks about how much money he has, his celebrity friends and finally about the car of which he says, "She is the new carnival queen who is a natural in the modern world of retail speed-dating."

Next up is the review for entertainment's sake. The one magazine I buy every month is Top Gear, yet I know that no review in Top Gear magazine actually tells you anything about the car itself, unless it's written by Paul Horrell.  But Top Gear is a fun read so I don't mind. Its reviews are still bullshit though.

Then we get the regional newspaper bullshit review. Some regional newspaper reviews are excellent, particularly if they are crafted by Andy Harris. That's because Andy's employer, The Yorkshire Times, has hired someone who likes cars, can write and can write about cars.  Sadly not many regional titles do the same. Often they buy in substandard articles from substandard writers, others get their cars from dealers who advertise on their pages so the article is biased, others get someone on the staff who knows nothing about cars to write them.

My biggest bullshit bugbear is so-called experts who's work is the modern equivalent of the Emperor's New Clothes.  These are writers, often well known, who have a high regard of their own abilities, bolstered by the hype created by their fawning fans on social media who are either too young to drive or so enamoured of their hero that they can't see that he speaks mostly bullshit.

This class of writer will disregard such areas as interior quality, cost to run, how comfortable it is on a journey, if the stereo is any good, how it will make you feel, whether the driving position is dreadful or whether it is any good at going round corners in real world conditions. Instead he will write about its ability to drift, whether it is possible to buy upgrades, that it is dull when compared to the supercar he has just bought and how good a driver he is.

Cars are expensive and glamourous. They are a lifestyle choice as much as a functional device.  Cars are thrilling to drive but the driving experience is a personal one. Telling someone else how that car made you feel is a difficult task.

Manufacturer press teams have limited resources and publications are chasing readers and money. Bullshit reviews are often the result of a magazine, newspaper or website doing anything to sell more copies or get more hits. They are sometimes the result of publications only being able to get cars from organisations who have a vested interest in a good review.  Sometimes they are simply the result of complacency.

But don't despair. Many car reviews are not bullshit.  You'll find informative, if dry, reviews in WhatCar. I also like the reviews by the talented team at Autocar and will often check out Honest John if I'm looking at buying a used car.

Many bloggers write decent reviews, although some can be a bit biased or lacking in the writer's skill, but part of the fun is finding those who have the skill and can make the read interesting as well as conveying what you need to know about the car.

Of course you can also take a look at our own database of reviews which are, hopefully, not bullshit.

By Matt Hubbard