Car Journalists: Are we sheep?

And if so, can I please be the black sheep in the herd?

By Shahzad Sheikh

Are car journalists just like sheep?

Don’t know if it’s because of Eid Al-Adha or something, but I suddenly got to thinking about herds of sheep, and then I got to thinking about car journalists, and then I got to realise – we’re actually the same aren’t we?

‘Senility has set in,’ ‘Cuckoo City has a new inhabitant,’ ‘care-in-the-community really needs to be reconsidered,’ one of these thoughts or something similar has no doubt entered your mind at this point.

Look, I don’t mean that we motoring writers all bleat a lot, have fuzzy hair and need to be trimmed regularly (although in some cases the trimming would be a good idea, and for some others just having any kind of hair at all would be good!).

Actually I guess we do bleat a lot too… but no, that wasn’t the point. Sheep follow each other around in herds you see. Erm… no, not that we do that exactly, but… Oh for goodness sakes this metaphor is turning out to be a lot harder work than I thought – so let’s take a more obvious tack.

Whenever an all-new car hits the press-launch circuit, you car fans undoubtedly dig out and lap-up the latest first drive reviews and impressions from your favourite international motoring titles and journalists ASAP. Many car journalists do the same. You see not every motoring writer will get first access to the new cars.

There’s usually a hierarchy in which the major international press – the big titles from the UK, US and Germany mostly – will be on the first or second international press-event rotations. Sometimes these launches can last a couple of weeks. The Middle East motley crew usually bags one of the last few days jostling with the Russians, Indians and Chinese.

As a result, the first reviews are already online before we even get to the launch. You’ve already read them and so have some of us. Which means that the tone for the verdict on that particular car has already been set, to some extent. Try as one does, it’s hard not to be influenced by what another ‘esteemed colleague’ has already said.

Well think about. If Jeremy Clarkson and Chris Harris drive a new car and say it’s the best thing since the Ford Model T AND breathing, or Matt Farah and Jonny Lieberman pronounce that a particular car is so bad, they rather take the bus even if Keanu Reeves was on it, then who’s going to commit to writing (or video) and say that these experienced, knowledgeable and well-respected experts are talking out of their dump valves?

And you guys (yes, you the readers) aren’t any help towards independent thought either – and believe me I’ve experienced this – because if one should perchance contradict a Tom Ford or a Carlos Lago, you’ll question our right to even sit in a car, never mind review it!

But I’ve been planting my backside in cars and passing judgement on them on a professional level for over 25 years now. And I’ve done this by trying to ignore what other reviewers have said before me. Personally I avoid reading any reviews until I’ve had a chance to drive the car myself, and even then will only skim through to check for facts and titbits I might have missed out on, whilst dialling out any of the writers’ opinions.

It’s only when it looks like I might not get to drive a car at all, at least for not for a while, that I have to give in and catch up on what’s been said, because at some point (as a ‘motoring expert’) whether through the website, on the radio show (Dubai Eye 103.8FM Monday nights at 9pm) or in person, I might be asked about.

But the danger of this was proven during a recent test drive. I jumped into a certain car fully expecting it to rock my socks off having read rave reviews about said vehicle, and with my fellow writers in the field nodding approvingly every time the model was mentioned.

And indeed it certainly is a good car, hardly putting a foot wrong at all. But I didn’t end up with an annoying pang of want at the end of my time with the car – which usually denotes something truly exceptional.

So could it be that my expectations had been raised too high or – playing reverse psychology – did I end up reacting against it precisely because everyone else thought it was the dog’s doodaas? I’ll need to book in time with a therapist to unravel that particular ball of confusion.

Fortunately, and usually, even after reading other’s verdicts, I tend to still bias my thoughts based on my own prior experience with that brand – indeed I usually have a rough idea of what most new cars are going to be like before I get into them. Rarely do cars actually surprise me these days (though it does still happen – the new Volvo XC90 and Jaguar XE for example)

However the trouble is that reviewing cars is very much a subjective thing – sure the bods at Consumer Reports and ‘What Car?’ try to make it as scientific a process as possible with specific tests, fancy rulers and crisps clipboards, but that only sizes up a car, and mostly serves to corroborate what a manufacturer’s brochure tells you anyway.

You see a car could flunk out on all those carefully considered parameters and still be so popular that they can’t build them fast enough, or it could get straight As and go to the top of the class but end up very lonely there, because no punter is interested in its super-efficient personality.

So we ditch the measurables and resort back to biases – ah, and therein lies the problem. Journos, are just like you car guys (actually they ARE car guys – or should be), they never agree about which car is best.

And they’re very biased. Again just like you, they may base their opinions on past experience and brands that they own or are loyal too, but further, they also factor in their deep knowledge and understanding of their own market needs and preferences, as well as keeping in mind reader demographics.

For example we love big petrol engines and SUVs here in Dubai; in Europe they like economical diesel hatchbacks – we’re both coming at the conundrum of personal transport from entirely different perspectives. It follows that as far as you, and indeed I, are concerned, Tiff Needell’s verdict on the new Electra XR40 Ti (don’t look it up, it doesn’t really exist) may be spot-on for Colin from Cumbria, but completely off for Riyaz from Riyadh.

That’s why we try very hard to bring our intuitive and intimate percipience of the region to bear when testing a new vehicle, and it’s why our verdicts may entirely contradict what other titles say, yet will be more relevant to you and YOUR real-world needs, requirements and desires than anything James May or Michael Spinelli could tell you.

Admittedly our views might also represent a totally personal emotion, and we might even contradict each other – more often than you’d think. But that’s just a case of being honest with how a car makes us feel – and surely THAT, at the end of the day, is what’s important – as long as it’s in context.

I think we’re definitely black sheep here at MME – or perhaps I should say brown.

 

Here’s an example of not following the herd – Aston Martin Vanquish review

We’d love to hear what your thoughts are – please leave them in the comments below

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