The fine art of the Car Review

I’m often asked: What happens if you don’t like a car? It’s a valid question, and often requires a bit of a complicated answer that involves explaining the fine art of the car review and automotive journalism as a whole. It’s about more than driving around in fancy cars, looking posh and cool then writing a bunch of fluffy stuff to make the manufacturers happy. Over the years, I’ve learned a few valuable lessons in the automotive world and I will share them with you, oh faithful reader (because I like you).

First off; this whole business of driving around in cool cars is harder than it looks. And, no, I’m not trying to be humble or downplay the whole thing. It’s still a job. And for me it’s a second job, a job on the side on top of my 9-to-5 writing job in the engineering world. That wasn’t the case this summer when I was full-time freelance as a gearhead journalist, and it was still hard then.

How can this “job” be hard, you ask? Well, for starters it ain’t easy getting people to believe you can actually do it — especially when you’re a woman.

Now, I’m not about to turn this whole thing into a sexist rant about how women are treated in the auto world and wax on about Danicka Patrick’s talents as a driver or complain about how women drivers are always blamed for accidents, that’s not what I’m here to do. However, I’m not going to lie about my own journey — and I’m telling you the truth when I say it was extremely hard in the beginning.

I’m a short little blonde who wears glasses and looks to be about 16 years old (when I’ve had enough sleep that is). So, when I showed up at BMW and Porsche dealers asking for the press vehicle I’d booked, it was only natural that I was met with some resistance, a few raised eyebrows and a bit of disbelief.

At auto shows, I was often the only woman in a sea of aging, old men who’d been in the auto industry for decades and the disapproving, disbelieving stares continued. I even roused a disbarraging comment from Tanner Foust while on a press trip with him in Hawaii. He was quite shocked that I would be joining “the boys” on the supercar drive instead of manning one of the pace cars (rented base Ford Mustangs). I’ve never forgotten his shocked look and mocking tone.

Comments on my online reviews were always the same: “She’s a woman, what does she know?” “Don’t trust her, she’s a chick.” “Stupid review from a stupid woman — figures.”

And those comments stung like you wouldn’t believe. But at the same time, they made me a helluva lot stronger and more confident. They also made me research harder and learn more. They made me throw myself deeper into the field just so I could thumb it to the doubters.

And thumb it I did.

I look at my very first car reviews now and man are they ever dry and boring. In the beginning it was all about getting the facts right, following a formula and not screwing up. I truly was a rookie, and perhaps I deserved some of the doubt that inevitably came my way.

But, oh, how things have changed.

I feel like I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent here, but I promise you this is all leading back to the daunting question: “What happens if you don’t like a car?”

As I grew as a writer and a reviewer in the automotive world and the Old Boys got used to seeing my young, female face at all the events, I also grew in confidence, feeling strong enough to back up my opinions on cars — even if those opinions were negative.

I had my first review rejected for publication just a year after I started reviewing vehicles. It was a Ford Fusion and I remember I absolutely loathed it. It had just been released and automotive journalists everywhere were ga-ga over it — but I wasn’t.

This was my opening paragraph from 5 years ago:

While driving the Fusion SEL AWD through all sorts of trying weather conditions, I tried my best to think of a politically correct way of putting how I truly felt about this vehicle as a whole. Through, snow, slush, high winds and beautiful sunny days I cruised along in the large sedan pondering this dilemma. From highway to side streets, parallel parking to shopping center chaos, it continued to plague me. After all was said and done, and as I sit here looking out my study window onto the driveway where the Fusion sits in silent contemplation, I have managed to come up with this; ho hum. In those two words, the Fusion is sufficiently summed up – driving experience, exterior design, interior design and all-around character. Now, that’s not to say the Fusion is an entirely horrible car, far from it. It’s just missing that integral automotive charm – the Ford Fusion has no soul.

I truly disliked the car — and the editor disliked my opinion enough to reject the piece and not print it. It was the first review I’d had returned and again, it stung. I was unsure of how to proceed. Would I rewrite the piece and instead fake being jolly behind the wheel? Copy what other journalists had heralded the car for, or simply slink back into my dark hole of hatred and ponder my bad move for awhile? I was stumped.

I chose not to change the review and instead published nothing on the car in print. It was eventually taken online, but I wasn’t paid for it. My lesson was learned.

Reading the entire article now (which is slightly embarrassing in its entirety, I must add) I realize why my editor was hesitant: it was entirely negative. I didn’t balance out the bad with the good. Instead of trying to find something positive in the car (anything at all!) I chose to pinpoint every single fault. And that’s no good.

About a year later I was met with my next rejection, and this time it was from a national paper — the Montreal Gazette. I’d been writing for their Luxury Car section for quite some time and I knew the drill and I also knew the editor well. I also knew it was an advertorial section, meaning the section only existed because of the ads which were supplied by the manufacturers. So, I had to play nice — but sometimes it was hard.

I’d driven the 2009 Infiniti FX50, and I believe I said something along the lines of it looking like it had Down Syndrome and all the safety beeps and boops inside distracted the driver more than helped him. And Infiniti had planned to run a huge, full-page ad right next to my review. Oops. And so I was paid a kill fee* and the review never ran. I offered to lighten my tone a bit on this one, and only because upon rereading it, I really was a bit harsh. But come on, have you looked at the ’09 FX? Yikes.

And so, once again, I questioned my style, my opinions and whether or not I really had crossed that invisible line of political correctness in the automotive world.

Then I thought about Clarkson and couldn’t help but feel OK.

I’m currently reading one of his newer books Driven to Distraction and if you’re a motorhead and you like Clarkson’s sense of humour and outrageous opinions, I highly recommend it. Of course, I will never be Clarkson, but it gives me some comfort knowing that he’s still in the business and still being given cars despite his rude opinions and downright hatred for some vehicles.

So, what do I do when I don’t like a car? I say so. And sometimes it means I have to sit a timeout, and sometimes it means my work doesn’t get published, but at least I’ve told the world (and the manufacturer) how I really feel about the car. And that’s what automotive journalism is there to do.

We aren’t here to play salesmen for the auto companies, we’re here to point out the flaws, to test their PR mumbo-jumbo and to see if their stats live up to the hype. And we do it for you.

Drive on,
– M.

*A kill fee is an amount paid to a writer when their story is rejected — usually half (or less) of the amount agreed upon for the submission. Most major publications offer this, and if they don’t you should inquire!

~ by drivingmsmiranda on January 7, 2011.

2 Responses to “The fine art of the Car Review”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by G-LO, Miranda Lightstone. Miranda Lightstone said: The fine art of the Car Review: […]

  2. […] The fine art of the Car Review Filed Under: Car Reviews by admin — Leave a comment January 8, 2011 I’m often asked: What happens if you don’t like a car? It’s a valid question, and often requires a bit of a complicated answer that involves explaining the fine art of the car review and automotive journalism as a whole Read more: The fine art of the Car Review […]

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