The Appliance Enthusiast

Jamie Kitman
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consumer-report

Ouch. Well, better them than me.

It turns out CR's high-minded founding propositions, un-American as they sound, have added up to a pretty excellent business model. By the standards of most magazines today, and even accounting for its own post-Internet revenue issues, Consumer Reports is rich, with more than 600 employees at its Yonkers, New York, headquarters. Its car-testing facilities in southeastern Connecticut make up the world's largest independent vehicle-testing center, a 327-acre affair, with a staff of about two dozen, including automotive engineers with industry experience, as well as professional drivers, writers, statisticians, technicians, and mechanics. Their huge property in rural East Haddam features a 1.2-mile handling circuit, two skid pads (wet and dry), dedicated headlight and tire-testing buildings, and an off-road course.

Arriving at the CR premises with senior editor Joe Lorio one sunny morning a few months back, we felt we had stumbled into a serious automotive test facility; in addition to regular corrections for temperature when testing, the circuit is repaved often to maintain a consistent coefficient of friction for more accurate and comparable results. It wasn't long before we were speeding along in a Fisker Karma test car -- the very one that bricked a few days after Consumer Reports bought it, before the test officially began, news of which was tweeted and spread like wildfire, dealing the start-up carmaker perhaps the most crushing blow it has received yet. As we found ourselves drifting through a corner in the repaired Fisker, it occurred that we've actually touched down in some kind of gearhead's paradise. Who knew?

In addition to the road course with its 4100-foot main straight, there is, for example, 100,000 square feet of vehicle-dynamics area for wet and dry handling and tire testing. If you happen to be CR's new director of automobile testing, Jake Fisher, that's not a bad place to be, because the new man in charge is a club racer and a ChumpCar and LeMons veteran. An avid drifter, Fisher owns a Nissan 240SX (set up, you guessed it, for drifting) and a race-tweaked first-generation Toyota MR2. He gets to hone his skills on CR's course daily. A former General Motors engineer, he shuttled between Saturn's Spring Hill plant and the GM Tech Center in Warren. Fisher's overt enthusiasm for automobiles is emblematic of the change in CR's worldview.

Looking at CR's newfound credibility in the automotive world, one sees two things. First, there's the general industry trend of facing the facts. For the fact of Consumer Reports is that its impartiality, engineering seriousness, and the size of its sample provide an invaluable service not just to consumers but also to manufacturers. That's one of the reasons car-company engineers make regular pilgrimages to rural Connecticut, to plead their cases, to get advance warning of what CR is thinking, to discuss methodology and strategies.

That is where the second element of CR's rehabilitation comes in. The test-team members are gearheads now, and you can feel it. They look for more than just squeaks and poor plastic-interior-panel fit. Fisher explains, "We're not just looking at cars like pure appliances anymore. When we originally tested the Miata, our report was 'Small trunk. It's noisy, a lot of wind noise. You have to bend to get into it.' And there were a lot of nasty [reader] letters saying, 'You guys probably don't like sex because it's noisy. It's uncomfortable. It's awkward and sweaty.' We've come a really long way.

"You may have seen the video of me driving the Scion FR-S on the track? I mean, we like these cars. We enjoy a car that handles well. It's not just going on about every single metric."

For all these public displays of automotive enthusiasm, credit must be given Fisher's predecessor, David Champion. The day we visited CR was the day before he would turn over the reins to Fisher and leave his post as director of auto testing. After fifteen years, Champion would return to Nissan in Arizona, where'd he been a quality-assurance engineer back in the '90s. Being a Brit, he's obsessed with the sun and began worshipping it formally after coming to do hot-weather testing in the desert with Land Rover in 1985. Only the third director in CR's history (his predecessor, Bob Knoll, lasted thirty-two years), Champion has become a bit of a rock star in the automotive world, not least because he and his staff brought manufacturers into their world and made themselves and their methods a little more visible.

Even before the advent of the Internet and video content (which inevitably injected more personality into the mix), Champion worked to change the culture at the magazine. "It was a very closed community. Manufacturers weren't invited here. They weren't given anything in terms of 'This is how we test. This is what we found on your car. This is the reason why we really didn't like it.' We didn't promote ourselves. It was like, 'OK, we're here. We test. We give the report to editorial. Editorial publishes it. End of story.'"

The proud owner of two Jaguars -- an XK120 roadster and an XJ6C coupe -- and what must be the only Rover SD1 Vitesse west of the Outer Hebrides, Champ, as he is known to colleagues, clearly places only so much of a premium on reliability when it comes to selecting his own mounts.

Chatting amiably as he chauffeurs us around the test track sideways in a Fisker, we come to understand that Champion, like Fisher, whom we'd driven with before, is not only a fine driver but a shrewd judge of automotive quality. Sadly, they did not rate the Fisker highly -- it had been very unreliable and no one liked the interior, which was compared to a bordello. But they liked the chassis a lot, and Champion had an idea for what to do with a used Fisker once their prices crater. "Take the engine and the battery out and put a [Corvette] Z06 motor in. That would be a fabulous car. You'll also probably lose about a thousand pounds in weight."

Champion is obviously a character, and whether Fisher can do as much for Consumer Reports remains to be seen. But don't tell me either one isn't a gearhead. And the Consumer Reports automotive enterprise? Recommended, definitely.

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