The Appliance Enthusiast

What’s the publication most widely read by Americans in search of a new or used car? Hint: it’s not the outstanding periodical you’re holding in your hands, insightful and award-winningly excellent though it is.

No, the most favored advice comes not from this or any of the other “buff” books you’ve spent a large portion of your life buried in. The holder of America’s car-advice crown is and has long been Consumer Reports, a distinctly nonenthusiast monthly that dispenses its plainspoken views on cars along with similarly frisky reports on things like dishwashers and microwave ovens, chain saws, ink-jet printers, and margarine.

OK, maybe not so frisky. But with 3.8 million print subscribers, Consumer Reports (CR) is, by circulation, one of the top magazines in the United States. Entering its seventy-eighth year, it is, in influence, arguably the most powerful outlet in the entire world of automobiles. With a huge reach (including 3.2 million paid web subscriptions), its concise monthly helping of scientific road tests and highly clinical ratings have in the past made some cars (Honda Accord, Toyota Camry) and broken some car companies. Suzuki (Samurai) and Isuzu (Trooper), anyone?

CR’s annual car-ownership surveys are typically based on about 1.3 million vehicle histories, making its reliability rankings for new and used cars unusually well-founded and widely watched — last year alone, its reliability surveys reached some eight million consumers.

Indeed, CR’s findings have been closely followed by carmakers for years, despite the fact that in the past, the industry has often been openly antagonistic to the magazine, an outfit they — along with most of the enthusiast press — derided as a fever storm of pocket-protected Puritanism, staffed by lab-coated alarmists neurotically fixated on discovering design and assembly defects where all was well and there were none. Of course, all wasn’t well with consumer goods, not by a long shot.

The funny thing is, things are generally much better now, if hardly perfect, in terms of quality and safety. Yet car companies have changed; they all suddenly seem to think — at least they act like they think — that the magazine they once hated with a most shrill gusto must now be afforded the utmost in deference and respect. In years past, CR’s advocacy for better seatbelts and children’s safety seats and for the adoption of rollover standards for SUVs put it squarely at odds with industry positions. Nowadays, it seems that CR is de facto correct in most any criticism it might level or position it might take, whether the manufacturer agrees in its heart of hearts or not. This marks a new sensibility in the world of building and selling cars, one worth exploring.

Consumer Reports visits with automakers on a regular basis — both at the CR test facility in Connecticut and on the manufacturers’ home turf — to discuss their products. After Consumer Reports rated Ford’s MyFord Touch and Lincoln’s MyLincoln Touch poorly in 2011, members of the magazine’s test staff found themselves behind closed doors in earnest discussion with Ford designers and engineers. Ford tried halfheartedly to make the case for its system, which operates radio, climate control, navigation, phone, and music-player functions from a single touchscreen — and by many accounts works pretty badly.

It didn’t help the cause that Ford engineers seemed considerably less pleased with the system than its designers, according to participants. Soon, all of Ford was vowing to improve it on an expedited basis, including CEO Alan Mulally himself. That’s not entirely surprising, since MyFord Touch is one of the most annoying of touchscreen interfaces. Its promised makeover has since arrived, but to Ford’s frustration CR continues to maintain that the system is overly complicated and places too many controls — for which a knob would have sufficed — on a screen that cannot be easily or safely navigated while driving. (For the record, CR doesn’t care for Cadillac’s Cue system, either.) MyFord Touch has dragged down Ford’s reliability ratings in CR’s annual consumer survey and fared poorly in J. D. Power research as well. Expect further changes.

Ford’s game plan of addressing CR’s criticism frontally was hardly unique, however. In 2011, Honda’s latest Civic was sent in for a comprehensive rethink within veritable moments of its launch and chilly reception by CR and other media outlets. Accusing the Japanese maker of building a car with “a choppy ride, abundant road noise, vague steering, and cheap interior,” the magazine refused to give the car one of its prized “Recommended Vehicle” designations. In failing the Civic, Consumer Reports opined, not unlike a car magazine, “We do expect the Civic to be reliable, but that alone doesn’t make it a good car.”

Eighteen months earlier, the day the magazine judged the Lexus GX460 a “Don’t Buy: Safety Risk” because of faulty handling in extremis — attributable to a late-to-intervene stability control system — parent Toyota yanked the model from the market until a software fix could be developed for dealers to install. Rechecked by CR with the new software in place, the SUV was given a clean bill of health and the magazine immediately lifted the damning label. The power of the press, indeed.

Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports is the official organ of the Consumers Union, an advocacy group raised by prominent professors, engineers, journalists, and labor leaders of that faraway day. From the start, a central part of CR’s appeal — its USP if you will — has been editorial independence, an ingredient that was baked into the mold, along with the vaguely pinko, Depression-era notions that people ought to know what they’re buying, that manufacturers have an obligation to make their products as safe and durable as practicable, and that the people doing the testing oughtn’t be beholden to those manufacturers in any way.

CR doesn’t accept advertising, and its staff is forbidden from taking anything of value from carmakers. This means that they don’t attend any of the myriad car-launch junkets scheduled for the press each year — no free hotels, ponchos, or iPads to cloud their loyalties. Instead, CR buys its long-term test cars outright from random dealers, a procurement procedure it adopted early on when its initial 1930s practice of borrowing test cars from friends and neighbors grew old quickly. Moreover, staffers report even today, when they do receive short-term cars directly from manufacturers, that the test data sometimes reveals them to be quicker and more powerful than identical cars CR purchased privately.

Last year, the magazine bought new (and sold slightly used) more than eighty cars. It’s a situation made possible only by a very positive cash flow, one has to figure, especially when you consider the depreciation hit they take on every car and every other product purchase they make as an organization. Last year, for instance, Consumer Reports took a $37,000 bath on a BMW 7-Series they’d bought and run for only eight months.

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.