From the April 2013 issue of Automobile Magazine
by Jamie Kitman
Illustrations by: Tim Marrs
One of the long-standing raps against Consumer Reports has been that when rating cars it's prone to overlooking crucial matters like driving fun, lateral g's, and smoky-burnout capability, focusing instead on minor concerns like safety, fuel economy, reliability, and predictable handling. Having just visited its premises, I'm obliged to report that this tendency is alive and well, even now that gearheads are in charge.
For example, CR felt compelled to rate the Lotus Elise very poorly in 2005 because of difficult ingress/egress, limited luggage capacity, and unforgiving behavior at the car's (admittedly high) limits. Whereas I thought a gentleman-and, fellows, you know what I'm talking about-always grades ingress/egress on a curve. Personally, I try to stay away from an Elise's limits, because they exceed my own.
However, one popular notion in our great gearhead nation’s vast cauldron of resentments against CR is just plain untrue. That’s the idea that CR was (or is) biased against American cars and singled them out for opprobrium while letting European and Japanese crap cans off easy. I broadly subscribed to this belief, at least until I actually went through some back issues recently.
Here, it transpires, is the outfit that in the crucial 1970 model year summed up the Triumph GT6+ as “one of the most uncomfortable and annoying vehicles we have tested.”
That’s not as cruel as it could have been—remember, CR had been testing cars for only thirty-four years at that point. One can infer that there were more uncomfortable cars they hadn’t tested. But CR couldn’t have helped prospects for Triumph’s crap can much. The U.K. firm was at least wise enough to keep its mouth shut about it, unlike Suzuki and Isuzu, whose SUVs showed a propensity to roll over in CR’s avoidance exercises. Both companies protested CR’s findings by initiating high-profile lawsuits, which they’d then noisily go on not to win.
In September 1969, CR presented its findings following a group test of the new Ford Maverick, the English Ford Cortina, and the Japanese Datsun 510 and Toyota Corona. And God bless America if the U.S.-built Maverick wasn’t a top choice, with a secondary recommendation that consumers might want to try a Rambler American while they were at it. “For service as a small family’s only car, and for cruising long distances regularly on turnpikes, the Maverick or the Rambler would be, in our opinion, a better choice than any of the tested imports.” And they weren’t even testing a Rambler yet mentioned it anyway. That’s true blue.
But back to the Cortina, which I view as an excellent small car, technological light years ahead of the Maverick, thanks to much lighter weight, front disc brakes, and a strut-type suspension. CR disagreed. The Cortina they tested was badly designed, badly assembled, and badly prepared, altogether “not very competent.” They didn’t like the ride (“unpleasant”) yet noted that “the Cortina’s steering and handling were nearly as miserable as its ride.” It was slow (unable to reach 60 mph from rest in a quarter mile) and cursed with poor directional control.
Road and engine noise were excessive but the brakes were OK, a small consolation given the harsh words to come on the Cortina’s way to garnering last place in the test: “A sorry enough car when working properly was even worse as it came to us. Its right front [MacPherson strut] leaked oil and had a ruptured dust seal. The upper front suspension mounts were preloaded so that the car pulled strongly to the left . . . The original steering gear on our car was defective; it made strange grinching noises and required a great deal of effort to steer. The engine stumbled along weakly because its carburetor fuel-float level was incorrectly set. Its ignition coil was defective, its ignition timing and dwell angle were incorrectly set, and the manual choke was set too lean. An out-of-balance driveshaft made the car shake at 35 mph, the exhaust system leaked, and on and on for a total of 32 defects.”
Yep, those Europeans sure knew how to build them.