August 4, 2010

POINTS THAT DIDN’T QUITE MAKE THE MAIN COLUMN:

* This column has been harping on the themes that electric cars are heavily subsidized and that average people are being taxed to support battery-powered luxo cruisers that will be marketed to the well-to-do. Since my latest table-thumping on same, the press has noticed this issue – must have been on the agenda at the latest Media Conspiracy meeting. (Knock three times, the password is “swordfish.”) See here and here and here. But where’s the populist outrage against taxpayers being compelled to subsidize electric playthings for the rich?

* General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner, ousted during the 2009 restructuring, received $11 million in taxpayer money as a severance bonus: had the company dissolved, he would have received nothing. Wagoner did one of the worst jobs in management history – General Motors lost about $65 billion in his final three years. Wagoner invested billions in one of the worst ideas in corporate history, the Hummer brand: a ridiculous rolling gimmick that had no long-term sales prospects even if gasoline was free. (The last Hummer was built in May, and good riddance.) For a spectacularly poor job, Wagoner was handed $11 million forcibly extracted from the pockets of taxpayers whose median family income is around $53,000. Why did the Obama White House approve this obscene tax-funded reward for failure? Why was there no populist outrage?

* Blame some of the near-collapse of Detroit on auto reviewers.
Traditionally, they swoon for high-horsepower, low-mileage cars that offer acceleration and top speed that is irrelevant – or even dangerous – in real-world driving. Because auto reviewers fixated on speed, carmaker executives paid too much attention to horsepower, not enough to manufacturing quality, MPG and safety. The excellent 2002 book High and Mighty by Keith Bradsher not only offers what reads, in retrospect, as a prescient warning of Big Three arrogance and slipshod management. The book also contains a hysterical description of an auto-reviewers’ junket during which Big Three publicists lavished favors on reviewers who, wagging their tails like lap dogs, later wrote press-release-like “stories” exalting the huge engines of the most wasteful new models.

Warren Brown, longtime auto reviewer for the Washington Post, once was among the offenders in this category, lauding max-horsepower, low-mileage cars intended for the super-rich: those were the kind he wanted to be loaned to drive for the week. When General Motors and Chrysler almost folded, Brown came to his senses and began writing about MPG and safety.  So the scales have fallen from the eyes of the Washington Post, while Joseph White of the Wall Street Journal long has emphasized safety and fuel efficiency in his auto reviews.

Then there’s the New York Times. The “wimpy” Cadillac SRX has a “peashooter” engine with a mere 265 horsepower, and “takes a lazy 8.5 seconds to reach 60 MPH.” The Hyundai Genesis has “just 210 horsepower.” The Times recommended that Genesis buyers pay extra for the optional 306 horsepower big-block engine, and didn’t warn that this option drops the car to 20 MPG.  The Mitsubishi Outlander has a “disagreeable” engine because it only cranks 230 horsepower. The Times lavished praise on the 355-horsepower Ford Flex, especially lauding a blazing time of zero-to-60 in 6.1 seconds, while never getting around to mentioning the car’s awful 18 MPG fuel thirst.

What do numbers like this mean? Zero-to-60 in less than eight seconds is sports car acceleration; zero-to-60 in six seconds or less is Corvette-class acceleration. A generation ago, the average U.S. new car engine produced 130 horsepower; today the average is  225 horsepower. The average fuel efficiency of new cars sold in the United States is 23 MPG. So a car with more than 225 horsepower, or less than eight seconds to 60 MPH, is a high-horsepower car: while less than 23 MPG is bad gasoline mileage. (Find any car’s MPG and greenhouse emissions here; check the “combined” mileage, which is the realistic number). That 18 MPG the Times didn’t mention about the Ford Flex? A mileage rating of 18 or below was what qualified a car as a fuel hog under the 2009 Cash for Clunkers program.

Back to recent New York Times reviews – all citations here from car reviews subsequent to the General Motors bailout. The Times warmly praised the new Infiniti M56, with a 420-horsepower engine, a terrible 19 MPG rating and just 4.7 seconds to 60 MPH. The mere 325-horsepower engine of the previous model was “lazy,” the Times huffed. The newspaper loved the Porsche Spyder, which crams a 320-horsepower motor into a small roadster – but somehow the Times just couldn’t get around to mentioning that this Porsche records a mere 22 MPG for only two seats!

The Times gushed over the BMW 5-series, reporting the 400-horsepower 550i can “turn impressive racetracks laps” while never mentioning its dreadfully low 17 MPG fuel consumption or dreadfully high 11 tons of greenhouse gases emitted annually. Though, the Times did grouse about the 550i’s gear-shifter. Complaining about something minor – while providing sounds-like-a-publicist-wrote-this praise for everything else – is a classic way for an auto reviewer to appear to have at least a shred of independence.

On July Fourth, the Washington Post extolled the Ford Fiesta, an average person’s car with an impressive 33 MPG; the same day, the New York Times drooled over the Porsche 911 Cabriolet. The latter has a 500 horsepower engine — the 500-horsepower club is “a fine club to join,” the Times cooed — and the Cabriolet is all about “the motor’s capacity to crush your skull against the headrest.” Don’t forget to pay $1,010 for the optional monochrome air vent slats. The next week, the Times applauded the Mercedes SLS AMG, with an “appealing” 565-horsepower motor and a dangerous zero-to-60 time of 3.5 seconds. The Times recommended plunking down an extra $12,500 for “Alu-Beam” paint, whatever that is.

Why the New York Times gets weak in the knees regarding overpowered cars is hard to figure, since there is no place in the borough of Manhattan where one can legally exceed 45 MPH, and hardly anywhere in the vast four-state traffic jam that is the New York City region where full-throttle acceleration may be employed. Perhaps the Times reasons that its readers are rich twits who want to read about toys for the wealthy. Perhaps New York Times auto reviewers simply are in the pockets of auto-company publicists. This has been a problem at many publications for years. Traditionally, auto-reviewers’ professional standards are bottom-of-the-barrel, and many newspapers don’t care because car companies are a leading advertiser.

But by lauding high-horsepower, low-mileage cars, the Times shifts the focus away from real-world policy issues such as oil waste and highway safety. And the paper doesn’t do its readers any favors, since extreme horsepower is useful only for road-rage behavior such as running lights and cutting others off, while high-horsepower cars have higher occupant fatality rates than sensible vehicles.

Please New York Times editors – stop demanding conservation on the editorial page while promoting road rage and gasoline waste on the auto pages.

3 comments

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did you vote for obama? be honest

Look at the sales numbers for those high horsepower models. The American people are smart enough to recognize that those are not for them. Its always fun to dream about cars you can neither afford, nor justify. No one has ever been able to justify logically a Ferrari, a Porsche, or a Cadillac (a Chevy with the leather option).

Posted by JBinNC | Report as abusive

Seems the “new” fuel economy numbers are now underestimating, as opposed to the old numbers that often overestimated. I guess that’s better, but it’s still frustrating. My car is rated at 18 & 26, whereas I regularly get 22-23 & 30-31. Small sample size, though, I suppose.

Posted by jizoshula | Report as abusive

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