The grass is always greener on the other side. According to some, this is how automotive journalists see the world.
Accusations of bias have surfaced repeatedly in the auto industry. Australian car critic John Cadogan has even claimed that the entire review system is broken beyond repair.
Reading: Are car reviews biased
Cadogan mainly criticized the widespread use of payola: persuading journalists to get favorable ratings through expensive travel and “exclusive” stories. others consider import bias an even worse problem.
these accusations matter. If you can’t trust the verdicts of the major auto magazines, what do you base your decisions on?
Are these claims real or baseless? read on to find out.
car reviews: not as objective as you might hope.
We all take it for granted that reviewers will favor certain brands. Obviously, we expect the reasons for these biases to be based on facts and figures. After all, that’s what car magazines (UK) are for: to separate the wheat from the chaff and dispel negative beliefs and replace them with established truths.
Needless to say, this is not always the case.
We’re not just talking about payola here. Rather, just like regular car buyers, every car journalist has their own personal preferences. to pretend otherwise would be absurd. therefore, even the best-informed rating is always colored to some extent by individual taste.
with an import bias, the claim is that these biases are directed for or against national brands.
focus on: the united states and the united kingdom
It is interesting to see how these alleged biases play out.
in germany, for example, experts tend to assume that the local press traditionally favors german brands. after all, car manufacturing is part of the country’s national identity. it would be considered a sacrilege to bite the hands of the one who feeds you.
In the UK and US, the print is exactly the other way around. at home, some commentators feel that both English makes and Japanese cars are treated unfavorably compared to German makes, as well as some select American cars.
Across the Atlantic, topspeed auto magazine published a simmering critique of Consumer Reports, the leading US consumer rights publication.
According to the magazine, consumer reports have been misleading the public into believing that American cars are inferior to foreign competition. This, they say, despite the fact that US automakers have improved a lot in recent years. today, they are further behind the rest of the world in the quality department.
So, let’s take a closer look: is this criticism warranted?
We all have our biases.
As mentioned, car inspectors are human beings too. it is impossible for them not to have opinions.
In fact, while most critics would never admit it, what we’re looking for is your opinions. after all, everyone can read a data sheet. But what does all this data mean for consumers? this is where the journalists came in, with their experience, expertise, and the fact that they’ve driven a lot more cars than you and me.
What’s a problem, however, is when car fans don’t question these beliefs.
To exemplify this, take a look at the evasion study done by j.d. Energy. this US corporation publishes annual reliability ratings, but some of their other studies are also worth checking out.
As part of this investigation, j.d. powers asked respondents which car brands they would never consider buying and why. the results were quite intriguing.
many people avoid certain brands because they assume they are of inferior quality.
Just to be clear: This is not to say that potential car buyers base their decisions on reviews they’ve read or expert evaluations.
no, they decide based on what they believe to be expert opinion.
Clearly, that’s a big difference. If you’re under the general impression that you can’t go wrong with a Mercedes because, well, it’s a well-established brand that regularly outperforms the competition, then that’s simply not correct. Due to a long streak of mismanagement and poor business decisions, Mercedes, by contrast, earned a reputation for poor quality control. they even lagged behind in the reliability rankings for a long time!
however, if you based your decision on the moment mercedes lost its shine, then you would also be wrong. The somewhat less spectacular truth is this: Mercedes has recovered from a severe setback, but is still on the road to recovery. In the luxury car department, there are probably better options right now. but at least you can be pretty sure that the car you buy won’t be a complete flop.
This is where import bias comes into play.
Nearly all discussions of import bias can be traced back to a singular event: the rise of Japanese car brands and the loss by European brands of their dominant position in their home markets.
This has hit the US and UK markets the hardest. some of the established national brands were suddenly relegated to not just second, but third tier. customers flocked to the Asian competition. they preferred them for their reliability, much lower costs, and no-nonsense minimalist approach.
Over the past decade, both countries have seen a concerned effort by local automakers to improve their products. His reliability survey scores have confirmed this, as Jon Osborn, J.D. Power’s Director of Research notes, “Reliability is a top reason buyers say they avoid Ford Motor Co.’s Lincoln brand, but it turns out that Lincoln scores very highly in our reliability studies. are among the top 10 all brands. there is a real disconnect between perception and reality.”
As a result, these improvements have not translated into a real, tangible increase in sales. And, as topspeed points out, many reviewers have not yet adjusted their perceptions to these new facts.
but… is it true?
Import bias is not just an auto industry thing. in many areas, the prophet is not welcome in his hometown. take music and literature, for example, where American and British bands are generally considered the best worldwide, despite excellent local talent in many other countries.
There seems to be an incentive for this type of journalism: criticizing local manufacturers always has a political dimension as well, which makes the headlines stand out. If Toyota were to experience a drop in the rankings, few would feel a sting in the United States. with ford, chances are there will be a lot more excitement.
Unfortunately for critics, the numbers just don’t show this.
import bias is mostly a construct.
When car website The Truth About Cars faced criticism for its alleged import bias, they decided to run some numbers.
The result was clear: there was no significant import bias on the site. the American brands were almost on a par with their Japanese counterparts. the claims of systematic abuse were simply unfounded.
same goes for topspeed’s angry op-ed. The article is a critique of a recent comparative review by Consumer Reports, which pitted American trucks against Japanese models. The Japanese won, although, as topspeed claimed, their models were clearly from a different quality segment and thus not a fair matchup.
the argument does not seem very convincing to us. on the one hand, the Japanese won the review, but only narrowly. discerning readers should be able to understand individual benefits and drawbacks.
In addition, topspeed tried to strengthen its case by pointing to previous instances where the organization had been disingenuous. in fact they had been, only to Japanese brands, not American!
in the UK, there doesn’t seem to be a bias either.
at least not in the sense that there is a concern about undermining the success of local brands.
It’s not like there’s much to criticize anyway.
vauxhall usually gets more than decent results for its adam, astra and corsa models. and you can check almost any car review website to confirm this.
Similarly, Land Rover and Range Rover have become the subject of much praise. Top Gear has given each of its latest model generations an 8/10 minimum; the current iteration of the range rover even came close to a perfect score.
Japanese models scored similarly to Vauxhall, with some models better than others.
surely that’s how it should be. after all, the goal of automotive journalism is not to eradicate bias. it’s to make sure the bias is based on fact, not fiction.