Princess and the Pea

This isn’t about the Opel Insignia though the words came from a review of the car. It’s about what kind of lives automotive journalists lead. It’s about language.

Where does “reasonable comfort” lie on this scale?

“The previous Insignia fulfilled the purpose of getting you from A to B in a well-equipped and reasonably comfortable manner…” wrote Car magazine the other day. What could they possibly mean***? 

My eyebrows raised at the use of the word “reasonably”. Let’s assume the Insignia is/was just average on the comfort stakes. Given that all the cars in the class are very good (apart from the Avensis), that means even being dead average is far above the minimum levels of acceptable comfort. I don’t think that’s an outrageous claim, more like a quite conservative one. So, in the light of that, what is it that the writer at Car magazine meant by “reasonably comfortable”?

In trying to interpret this one could say it was an understatement as in “we were reasonably comfortable in the limousine…”. Or it could be irony as in “under the circumstances – the caviar, the sun, and free drinks – we were reasonably comfortable”. Or did the writer mean that, in his view, and compared to all the cars on sale, the Insignia was only slightly above the minimum acceptable when one takes into account some factors which we are not privy to. If the Insignia is at least average, does the writer think most of the cars in the class are just “reasonably” comfortable too? They aren’t a whole lot different, to be honest.

“Acceptable comfort for car journalists”. Image via autoblog

So where does this leave the Opel which Car considered “reasonably” comfortable? I think that Car’s writer has lost his sense of perspective. It’s my contention that if you are in the habit of driving luxury cars very often then driving an “ordinary car” (from the Polo/Fiesta/Corsa class and up to, say, the Mercedes E-class in boggo spec) is something of an endurance test, something of a penance, a real act of suffering. That’s how the pretty decent Insignia gets rated as “reasonably comfortable.”

I’ve driven quite a lot of different cars in the last three years and even the Toyota Aygo of 2015 proved to be “reasonably comfortable”. For goodness’ sake even the awful, awful Avensis was more than reasonably comfortable, if nothing else.

Mercedes 600: car journalists’ standard of comfort?

To conclude I think that either a) this journalist has lost sight of the cars most people drive and how comfortable almost all of them are or b) this journalist slipped into Vauxhal/Opel mode where nothing is good enough and faint praise is the order of the day. Or indeed it could be both.

I have prepared a diagram above with a small Peugeot and a Rolls Royce as opposite poles. I’d argue that if you were to drive from Calais to St Jean Cap Ferrat (the standard DTW touring route) you’d still be reasonably comfortable in the Peugeot. It would be pretty much okay – soft seats, fresh air, not really noisy but not exactly plush or refined. “Reasonable comfort” is, in my view, what all manufacturers aim for as a minimum. It’s good in the context of what you are offered. A commercial van is reasonably comfortable today. And such cars have been for 20 years.

Referring to this graph above, where do readers put “reasonable comfort” on that somewhat unevenly distributed scale of 1 to 10?


***Apart from the sloppy writing: “getting you from A to B in a well-equipped […] manner…”


Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

15 thoughts on “Princess and the Pea”

  1. Astute observations Richard. This sort of thing deserves far more consideration than it receives.

    For mine, there is a real art to reading between the lines as far as contemporary motoring journalism is concerned. It is impossible, for instance, to conceive of the current CAR editors running a modern-day version of the magazine’s infamous Leone review headline (“Subaru launches joke Quattro”). But this is not a problem unique to CAR – they are all the same. Motoring journalism is perhaps second only to travel, and arguably equivalent to tech, in terms of the sheer lavishness / distortion of reality put on by the companies to help make the journalistic wheels go around.

    Generally speaking, I would say it is rare for even an obvious also-ran to receive anything less than a reasonable ‘first drive’ review. If it’s clearly a total shed, it is not unusual for this fact to be gently masked with phrases such as the following:

    “At anything up to eight-tenths, the chassis is perfectly capable”
    “Refinement is generally on-par with rivals”
    “Equipment levels and pricing are competitive for the segment”
    “We understand that tweaks are on the way for local market cars, which should help improve its prospects against (insert relevant VAG/BMW offering here)”

    And of course, the ever-trusty kiss of death:

    “It’s an excellent motorway cruiser”

    It seems to me that “reasonably comfortable” is likewise a phrase cast exactly in this mold. What it, and similar phrases, say to me is this:

    “We think this car is perfectly competent judged against current class benchmarks. Your neighbours will not laugh at you for purchasing one. It will function entirely satisfactorily in its intended role. It does not do anything significantly better than the current class benchmarks. As such, we shall proceed to ignore it until we can rubbish it for being hopeless at the first drive of its replacement in seven years.” (More on this below.)

    My default example to illustrate this phenomenon is the Alfa 159 (although it is also true for plenty of other Fiat Group output, or indeed just about any non-German effort against the 3-Series). In the best Alfa tradition, the 159 was not really a fully-finished car at launch. The engines in particular were underdone and the dynamics were not quite there. Journalists knew it, too.

    Was this pointed out?

    Only in the most oblique terms, and shaded over with a hefty dose of the inevitable “The 159 is the individual’s choice” (another kiss of death, that; see further, Saab). In fact, if memory serves, one German test actually held up as significant the fact that the 159 was quicker than a 3-Series through a slalom test. Cue crowing from Alfanatics that the 159 was dynamically superior to the 3 as a result.

    Of course, I have omitted a step that goes some way to explaining why Alfa is presently undertaking a(nother) brand relaunch and BMW isn’t.

    Somewhere between six and twelve months after the broadly-positive-but-not-gushing initial reviews of an also-ran, there will invariably be a quiet adjustment of the star ratings in the back of the magazine. The four stars might become three and a half, or three. An initial three may drop to two. Question this, and it will be justified as a dynamic process – the marketplace is not static, and as such, nor can our publication’s ratings be.

    Yeah, yeah, righto. Except none of that explains why you said it was a four-star car compared to the class benchmark half a year ago, and now it’s a three-star one, even though the benchmark hasn’t changed.

    This observation leads to a broader general point. One thing that tends not to garner consideration, especially from casual readers, is that the truth invariably seeps out not merely months after the fact, but invisibly. A very simple way of keeping in the good books of manufacturers who are churning out bilge is simply to ignore them. After all, if you aren’t talking about them, you aren’t disparaging them. What was the last time you saw a review of any Mitsubishi product? The new Tipo will never appear in the pages of CAR again – at least, not until they revive the Crap Car Cup in 20 years’ time and one team selects it as the “offbeat, ironic” choice.

    If you really want to know what journalists think are the class leaders in any given segment, the clue is in which models they select to take part in comparison tests. Observe for a while and you shall find the same names crop up again and again, across different mastheads. In my experience, that – not any given single review, and especially not a first drive – is the most reliable way to gauge what journalists really think are the runners and riders in any given class. I would add they are almost invariably not the cars I would choose in any given segment. But it is as close a representation to the truth as you will get about what journalists collectively (and probably not without a small amount of groupthink) consider to be the benchmarks.

    Ultimately, there are a confluence of factors at work here. To take the example at hand, most all D-segment saloons will do everything that the average owner asks of them in dynamic terms with ease. Indeed, in the course of his infamous Vectra review, Clarkson actally unwittingly nailed the underlying point – in their basic underlying function, a Vectra is a Mondeo is an Avensis is a 626 is a Passat. Deciding which one to purchase comes down to one’s priorities and the detail differences that mark each out. To that end, I strongly believe that motoring journalism should expend more effort on the stuff that actually drives purchasing decisions – depth and quality of engineering (with an eye to reliability, informed also by recent historical trends), and far more detailed consideration of design and aesthetics, by people who actually know what they’re talking about. We know that aesthetics drive a lot of purchasing decisions, yet they are virtually entirely ignored by contemporary motoring journalistic culture under the lame pretence that “everyone has their opinion” on design. Indeed they do. Journalists don’t stop reporting on politicians just because everyone has an opinion on them as well. Your job is to aggregate, inform and critically analyse. The truth is that design and aesthetics are significantly more relevant to a lot of peoples’ driving routines than how a car handles on the limit.

    I should note here that Car and Driver actually does have an engineering department of sorts that pores over and underneath their test cars to work out what bumf in the press kit is legitimate and what is nonsense. know Quattroruote similarly puts a good deal of effort into this side of the ledger. In this day and age, I personally consider this essential for any magazine that wants to be taken seriously. As far as I am aware, it is, tellingly, not a practice conducted by any British mag.

    But then, I suppose postulating that an Opel’s comfort level is “reasonable” is altogether an easier task.

    1. I mentioned C&D in a comment here the other day and reading it last week in tandem with Car, underlined how shallow the latter’s reviews are. Not wanting to get off on a Car kicking again, but it seems that too many car journalists don’t understand engineering, don’t understand styling and don’t enjoy driving unless it’s balls-out. That really isn’t good enough.

      It’s hard to know what ‘reasonably comfortable’ actually means. Bearing in mind you’re travelling in a moving device and being pitched around, I suppose it could be high praise. But, of course, I do read it as grudging praise when used above.

    2. I wish I’d written all that. It slips my mind that most reviewers are “owned” by the manufacturers: subs don’t pay the bills, ads do. And Jason Carhart-Anorack won’t write about the Wolseley 16/67’s crummy ergonomics because he’s not interested or competent and b) Jeff Signor at Wolseley’s PR dept is a good pal and would not invite Jason to the next Spanish launch if the reviews weren’t “on message”. Time for a new car magazine, I think, one with literacy and independence.

  2. Hmm. I had an uncle who earned his living as a travel writer. He went on tours, junkets, cruises, inaugural flights between points that hadn’t previously been connected by non-stops, … All paid for by the nice people who wanted to sell tours, … He was catered to, ate and drank well but, he said, worked hard interviewing paying passengers so that he could report on their views.

    He once explained his neighborhood of reality to me. If he didn’t write strongly positive reviews and sell them the invitations to go on tours, … would stop and so would his income. So, I think, it is with automotive journalists, with one slight difference. Let an automotive magazine publish a negative review, advertising dollars would stop and so would many incomes.

    I don’t know how GM now treats senior executives. I understand that free cars, replaced frequently, used to be one of their perks. Small wonder that they believed GM sold durable cars. They never had a car long enough to experience the joy of ownership. So, I think, it is with automotive journalists.

  3. The other thing, easier to sympathise with but, in the end, equally inexcusable, is that journalists become friendly with people in the industry. Then comes the feeling that you don’t want to hurt their feelings, or even risk their jobs, by coming up with a bad review.

  4. The only possible thing about the previous Insignia was that in Buick Regal form, it was measured as the car more people traded in on something else within a year of new purchase. Some 12.8% of new owners, if I recall correctly, and the main problem was the driver’ seat and forty different shades of black within the cabin reflecting light differently. The Verano, a sort of magpie-worthy upscale Corsa, sold better but not well enough to avoid being deleted from the range this year except in China. I found both not the best for ingress or egress due to overly wide sills.

    Now, I have no idea whether the seats in the Regal are/were the same as the Insignia, nor do I give CAR the slightest credit for possibly knowing this situation in the US of A. I read the first drive review of the new beast from the link provided here, and it’s a bit dunning as well.

    Car and Driver have recently gone to these awful “in-depth” reviews, where a first year intern gets ten pages to churn out a spec sheet with bogus-looking graphs and remarks on measurements compared to others, perhaps a couple of sentences of opinion and that’s it. No real idea if the beast is worthy of consideration or not – so neutral it’s anodyne. The thing I do like is that they actually weigh their vehicles. No silly brochure curb weights there, the truth is revealed, er um Jaguar.

    1. Yes, in a couple relative comparisons with Car, I’ve spoken well of Car & Driver’s attempts to be more rigorous. And I like the fact that they actually produce figures themselves. But their charts, particularly a 360 degree 8 point plotting comparison of cars on test, can end up looking suspiciously rather like the pseudo-science you’d find in a religious cult.

    2. I liked the Verano: it was an Astra saloon. In Europe it had no rear centre arm-rest and otherwise was a great-looking car. Sales: Left-Lane know; I’d guess under 15,000.

  5. “I don’t know how GM now treats senior executives. I understand that free cars, replaced frequently, used to be one of their perks. Small wonder that they believed GM sold durable cars. They never had a car long enough to experience the joy of ownership. So, I think, it is with automotive journalists.”

    Not just free cars, but ringers, with optimised mechanicals and a dedicated team going over them with a fine-tooth comb correcting any quality oopsies. Wheels Magazine profiled Roger Smith in 1985. At one point, he pointed out to the journalists the top-of-the-line Cadillac sitting in the ground-floor showroom at the RenCen. Clearly very proud of it, he asked them, unironically, if it was not the best car in the world. He doubtless believed it to be true and why should he not, when the Cadillacs he was being driven around in had been hand-fettled to be completely unrepresentative of an actual showroom product?

    Managing relationships with sources are a fact of life in any arena of journalism. On the broader point about comparisons with travel and technology, doubtless there are some that manage to escape the web of grift. But in general, those particular subsets of the media have a reputation for a reason.

    Many moons ago, one Australian motoring journalist made the point that under existing arrangements, the interests of the manufacturer and the journalist/publisher were met, and if you count the customer, that’s two out of three – not bad.

    I think one interesting point about this particular Insignia review is that they have already done the groundwork to set up the downward revision on the star count. Handling, performance and ‘feelgood factor’ (otherwise known as an entirely arbitrary assessment possibly used to keep favoured brands in favour, potentially at the request of the sales department, although I would never allege such a thing) all rate three stars. The only other cited metric, usability, somehow ranks four, even though they have a downer on the less capacious boot. This should ‘objectively’ (i.e. by their own rating) be a three-star car. It will become one sooner rather than later, especially since the PSA deal now means they don’t even need to suck up to GM Europe executives anymore and the new owners will view it as Tagora II. In fact, orphans are excellent news for everyone involved, because no-one who counts is hurt in the process of disowning them, and as a result, journalists can hype the replacement even more than normal by trashing the orphan’s obvious terribleness. It must have been awful, you see – no-one is sticking up for it.

  6. Perhaps the crucial word is ‘you’, and whether it is used in the singular or plural form.

    Many cars are ‘reasonably comfortable’ from the driver’s seat – for the passengers in the rear seat, sitting above a torsion beam bar and restricted in terms of leg room or head room, not so much.

    Despite their popularity as private hire vehicles, I cannot recall ever traveling in the back of an Insignia so I cannot comment on rear seat comfort – but perhaps it is merely ‘acceptable’ in terms of comfort. I would certainly prefer to travel in the back of, say, a Mercedes E class, which is admittedly a more expensive car.

    1. I’ve been in the back of a Merecedes E-class and it’s nothing special. It’s far from suffering but not much to write home about.

  7. SV: Yes, there a lot of bits of car screwed together and there are some hard surfaces draped in “leather” in the Mercedes. I didn´t find it all that yummy or enjoyable. If I was to be cheeky I would call it “reasonable comfort”. Of all the rear seats I have tried in recent years it would not rank among the best, possibly among the most disappointing. Any of the medium sized cars I have been in (apart from the Megane) were better or more pleasant. The Skoda Superb easily beats the Mercedes for room and plush and is hardly a monument to cosy bad taste. The Mondeo and Insignia were also much more comfortable. I am very sure Volvo are offerering better attempts at “reasonable comfort” than most of their peers.

  8. A key indicator of the journalist/manufacturer PR revolving door are in-house magazines. Flicking through an Audi magazine the other week, scanning down the credit block I recognised a couple of names from my magazine reading days. Ditto the copies of Zoom Zoom my wife is sent. It would certainly to be an interesting exercise to compile and draw a big diagram of Who Writes For Whom.

    1. They exist to co-opt journalists. You offer 3,000 GBP for 25000 words about a trip to Barcelona and you own that journo for ever. Simister and Setright wrote for Citroen and Alfa, I recall.

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