The Asphalt Jungle

My Friend Malcolm “The Critic” Is Exceedingly Hard to Please

And that's just fine.

It reminds me of the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata,” my friend Malcolm said, eyeing the 2018 Subaru Crosstrek I’d parked in his driveway. “There are deep wounds on display here, the shame and stench of inadequacy, and of course the inescapable if unspoken allusions to a gruesome degenerative disease.”

Yet again, apparently, Malcolm did not like my test car.

I’ve known him for roughly six years now, and in that entire time I can count the test cars he’s actually approved of on two or three fingers. Mind you, while Malcolm is knowledgeable about cars, he’s not an enthusiast. But it would be a mistake to write off his judgments as the groundless rantings of a dilettante. See, Malcolm is a top political and culture writer for one of the country’s best-known websites. It’s his job to hold opinions on a dizzying range of issues, and he undertakes that mission with the tenacity of a Navy SEAL.

His analyses are deeply thought out and often startlingly accurate. For instance: Malcolm correctly predicted the Boston Red Sox would blow out the Los Angeles Dodgers in last fall’s World Series. (That alone hardly makes him Nostradamus; unfortunately, I foretold the same for my team.) He rightly prophesied the outcome of the 2016 presidential election—four weeks before election day, he called his projection “a slam dunk.” Like what he says or not, Malcolm reminds me of the old EF Hutton commercial: When he talks, people listen.

That said, I listen but don’t agree with most of Malcolm’s views on cars. Maybe it’s the giddy enthusiast in me, or maybe it’s because I understand the relentless challenges involved with creating a new car amid today’s daunting engineering strictures and fickle market demands—but I always try to find at least something to like in most automobiles. For Malcolm, on the other hand, every car is guilty of first-degree murder until proven otherwise—and that’s almost never.

Malcolm’s musings sure are fun, though. I remember the afternoon I showed up at his office in a new BMW i3—a design I’ve likened in print to a painting by Picasso, or maybe it was Salvador Dalí, for its eccentric swoops and cutlines and irregular window shapes. The bodywork is so avant-garde that I find it endearing. I was curious, of course, as to Malcolm’s take.

“That thing should be terminated,” he said with a sneer.

“What do you mean? What don’t you like about it?”

“Terminate . . . with extreme prejudice.” I had to promise to pay for lunch just to get Malcolm to finally climb aboard.

Every car is guilty of murder one until proven otherwise. And they are almost never proven otherwise.

In retrospect, I should’ve expected The Critic’s response to the goofy i3. But Malcolm’s jaundiced eye is an equal-opportunity shade thrower. He also hates cars the rest of us find sublime. There was the afternoon we set out for a drive in a 2017 Porsche 911 Turbo, all black, 540 horsepower in a skintight steel catsuit. Malcolm? He just yawned. “This car feels like going on a date with Brigitte Bardot—today. I loved it 50 years ago. I still kinda liked it 30 years ago. But now? Don’t you find this design way too old and way, way too . . . familiar?”

“Did you see the new active rear spoiler? It pneumatically adjusts to—”

“If you told me someone heaved a giant Frisbee and it crash-landed into the rear end, I’d believe you.”

There was no use arguing. Malcolm had made up his mind. For Malcolm, even the low-slung Audi R8 supercar was an eyesore. “It looks like someone beat a Karmann Ghia to death with a George Foreman Grill,” he said when I showed up in a white 2017 R8 V-10.

“What the hell does that mean?” I asked, incredulous—and having just received several enthusiastic thumbs-up from nearby motorists.

“I hate the way curvy has given way to chiseled,” Malcolm said. “It’s like they squeezed all the fat out of it—all the juiciness is gone. That shape is flatter than a Justin Bieber high note.”

“How about the cockpit? You have to admit, it’s pretty sweet in there.”

Malcolm peered inside. “The last time I saw that much red leather I was shopping for my girlfriend in the holiday aisle at Trashy Lingerie.”

What can you say? The man seems to like having bad days.

Even stranger than his choices for thumbs-down ratings are the cars about which Malcolm waxes rhapsodic. One example: The moment he saw it, Malcolm went gaga over the Ferrari GTC4Lusso T, the Italian maker’s fleet-footed if uniquely proportioned four-seater. Never mind the car’s stubby-butted “shooting brake” profile; Malcolm was in lust. “Every SUV in the world should bow down in admiration of this magnificent automobile,” he said, eyes big and smile wide. “Classic long-nose/front-engine Ferrari, set relatively low but with four-wheel drive, plus room for four adults. Just brilliant. You know who would’ve loved this car?”

“Helen Keller?”

Malcolm rolled his eyes. “Andy Warhol. The transcendent elevation of everyday commercial commodities and consumerist needs into the realm of fine art, foreshadowing the market systems that would shape our current propensity to . . . ” Sometimes, if you didn’t have any aspirin handy, it was best to just stand back and not try to figure out what Malcolm was saying.

Another of his faves: Toyota’s hydrogen-powered Mirai fastback sedan. Personally, while I heartily applaud the car’s pioneering fuel-cell technology, I find the Mirai’s shape bizarre, almost horrifying in a Kafkaesque way. On my worst day as an orthodontics-shackled teenager, my mouth never looked as grotesque as the Mirai’s gibbous prow. Malcolm loves the beast.

“You don’t get it, Arthur,” he told me. “The Mirai is like a piece of origami shaped to breathe the winds of the future.” (Or to ride the runoff into the storm drain, I thought.) I think Malcolm’s infatuation with the Mirai’s cutting-edge powertrain had blinded him to the car’s utter contempt for pulchritude. “Imagine,” he said, “driving more than 300 miles without a gram of greenhouse emissions. Gorgeous.”

“By that logic, you must think Thomas Edison should’ve been a male stripper.”

Malcolm stared at me. “He was quite the magnetic individual, yes.”

After all these years, I’ve learned not to take Malcolm’s views too seriously. Instead, I enjoy them for their candor and the originality of his perspective. Mostly, though, Malcolm just makes me laugh my ass off. One afternoon a horrific, bright yellow Mercedes G-wagen on what must’ve been 26-inch rims passed us.

For a moment Malcolm said nothing, then he turned to me. “Did you see who was driving that rig?”

I shook my head.

“Yuri Pulsive.”