The Truth About Press Cars
One of the dirty little secrets of automotive journalism is that media
scribes get perfect cars to drive. You might not think that from the
lousy reviews some cars get, but if journalists took their chances with
true production cars, the reviews would be a lot worse.
Needless to say, automakers want to show off their cars to best
advantage. But somewhere along the way, the definition of “best
advantage” got more than a little stretched. It’s one thing to make sure
the press cars are clean and the tires aired up. But vehicle preparation
has become a virtual rebuilding of press cars to make them absolutely
perfect in every detail, and, in many cases, better than perfect.
In the Detroit area, there are a number of prototype shops that “build”
press cars. These shops normally build complete prototype vehicles for
shows and for engineering evaluation. So fixing a few flaws in a
production car is nothing special. Special paint jobs, closer panel
alignment, and reduced door gaps are standard operating procedure.
One car maker, annoyed by press reports of wind noise, had a shop
develop a special fixture to replace the window glass. Then the car
could be pressurized, and air leaks easily spotted. A rework of the body
flanges, door seals and related parts fixed the leaks. No more reports
of wind noise on those models! Of course, the average buyers, without
the benefit of this careful massaging, took their chances.
The same company introduced a slightly revised version of their full
size van a few years back. The press releases bragged about the
dramatically improved build quality, and the media agreed. But none of
the reporters had seen the press’ vans at the shop, where not only were
they completely repainted, every visible spot weld was filled and
sanded, creating a flawless surface everywhere you looked. The cargo
version of the van, with no interior trim, had lots of visible spot
welds. A lot of man-hours went into that bondo job but the van sure
looked nice when it was done.
Another company introduced a new sedan to challenge the BMW 3 series for
sporty credentials. That meant that every press car had to handle and
steer very well. Unfortunately, the first fifty cars off the line were
so poorly made that proper wheel alignment couldn’t be achieved,
steering gears were sticky, and the tire supplier sent tires that were
out of round and out of spec in other areas. The prototype shop went on
red alert. The factory sent over another fifty cars, and truckloads of
Subframes were swapped, steering gears were disassembled and
blueprinted, and the wheel alignment guys worked around the clock.
Eventually the shop was reduced to welding up and redrilling mounting
holes to make sure that suspension geometry was correct. This was in
addition to the usual repainting, refitting and other preparations.
Somehow the shop got all fifty press cars together in time, and the car
got great reviews. Unfortunately for the paying customers, it took a few
years for the production versions to get as good as the press cars.
Why does this situation continue?
The press needs the cars, and the companies need the press. If the press
blew the whistle (assuming they even cared enough to find out about the
extent of the pampering their cars get), they wouldn’t get cars to write
about, putting them out of business. If the companies don’t provide
perfect cars, they get savaged in the press. It’s a classic case of MAD
(Mutually Assured Destruction), just like the days when the US and the
USSR faced off with nuclear weapons. Neither group wants to change the
The only way to get the right stuff about cars (other than reading
thetruthaboutcars.com) is to listen to writers who get their cars from
dealers, like everyone else.
At present, the only magazine that buys its own cars is Consumer
Reports. Despite the puritanical editorial stance about fun and cars,
they often have surprising insights about quality, performance, and
dealer service. CR gets cars with wind noise, flawed paint, water leaks
and other problems that somehow escape the notice of the buff books.
One way this could change is for the buff books to buy their own cars.
But the economics of the publishing business make this prohibitive. So,
since the car makers need the press, perhaps they should set up a trust
fund equal to what they spend on press cars and preparation. Buff books
can requisition enough money to buy a showroom example, test it, sell it
when they’re done and rebate the proceeds back to the trust fund. This
would also give the manufacturer invaluable insight into resale values.
Which car maker will be first to step up and make a bold commitment to