Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thinking About Cars ... and Auto Journalism

There's some rumors running around that Ford is planning to re-introduce a four cylinder engine to the Mustang lineup.

To me this seems like "Deja Vu ... all over again.." (borrowing an old Yogi-ism ). Basically ... remembering these horrendous failures :
Mustang II - possibly the worst car ever made
EXP - The evolutionary joke
Early Fox Bodied Mustangs with four bangers

The Merkur - a quirky misfit with some redeeming qualities in the performance and handling departments
The SVO Turbo - which was not all bad either ... but still a failure as a true performance/enthusiast car

However, the thing that gets me about this train of thought in motoring design/marketing is that it follows the behaviour that leads to the most common trap that North American car companies are prone to find themselves in. The error they make is in thinking that the opinions of motor journalists, who are grasping for something to write about and thus justify their existence, are a sound source of ideas that need to be developed. This is essentially a failure of vision in the design/engineering and product development groups, but the willingness of the marketing people to embrace the perceived wisdom of the chattering cretins in the press combined with the executive office willingness to be guided by false assumptions about what public demand is really based on ... sadly ... seems to wind up on the showroom floors.
Why this bothers me is that it is instead of being offered vehicles that actually are better we ... the automobile buying public ... get crap shoved at us with the attitude that we ... as in you and I ... are too stupid to know what we want or what is good for us. In the process of getting to this point the manufacturers waste hundreds of millions of dollars that could be otherwise used to actually make their products better. The fact that they continue to do this time after time is one of the reasons I have never invested in auto manufacturers and is also one of the reasons the so called Big Three are in the financial state that they are today.

As in the 70s and the 80s the cycle of car development is once again being impacted by the government meddling and arbitrary regulations being imposed by people who simply have no idea what they are doing but are bent on doing it anyway... hang the cost and screw the consequences. The auto company brass are cravenly eager to placate the meddlesome pols and bureaucrats .... foolishly pandering to demands they imagine the public to making.

Hence .... once again ... the Four Cylinder Mustang idea.

Now ... realistically ... the current mustang is a bloated little lump of steel and plastic. It's not bad looking but it has NO SOUL. It is overweight for it's dimensions. It has terrible driver feedback and most of the power plants it comes with are weak feeling if not just sedated and unsuitable for a performance car. The reality of the Mustang is that it is a vehicle with bland characteristics and sporting pretensions. Of course ... if you lay out the cash for one of the high performance packages you do actually get some kickass horsepower. But what is the point of a car that is being sold as raucous driver satisfying beast when it fails to actually inspire? Looking at recent motor-press efforts ... they seem to be mightily confused about just what a Boss 302 or Cobra or GT is supposed to be ... how many of these dummies actually did comparisons between the Mustangs and BMWs?

Frankly ... I don't care how a car that is supposed to be a muscle car/ pony car/ hooligan ride compares to some Euro sedan that is sold primarily to wankers and their girlfriends. I don't really care what they use for a motor and I don't care what knob polishers in the motor-press think.
But ... let's assume for just one moment that the Ford guys were actually serious about producing a four cylinder Mustang. Let's also assume that the reasons for this would be to make the car better.
Then the underlying goals would seem to be less weight and better handling. Part of the rumor mill take on the supposed new mustang is also supposed to be Independent Rear Suspension... which is something that Ford should have made standard in the Mustang decades ago... and the overall benefits to the car and the driver experience would be a lighter and more responsive and more FUN car.
I would heartily approve a a lighter and more responsive car that is more fun to drive... wouldn't you? The speculation on the four banger and the tone from Ford seems to indicate that the four will be an especially potent little mill.  All right ... let's say we have a quick revving four that kicks out some impressive numbers and actually has some character.
What is stopping  Ford from putting the same character into the V6 or the V8s? The 6s and 8s are NOT currently free revving motors ... they are tuned for low and mid-range torque and have far too much flywheel plus they are severely rev limited ... all in the supposed name of "drivability" which is really marketing wonk code for safe and easy to drive. Same for the handling ... these cars all push the front end when driven hard and are overly soft. Again a lighter and more fun car could be built even with a four banger .... or the 6s or the 8s.

But sadly the guys at ford could have done this years ago by keeping the mustang lean and mean. There never was the need for this car to weigh in at the 3500 lb plus range ... even with the V8 engines. And most of all there never was a need to make the Mustang anything BUT a sports car. And that is the root of the problem.

Please ... DO ... give us a lighter and better handing Mustang ... but don't try to do it while shoving another  four cylinder powerplant down our throats.

While I'm on the topic of motor sports and the motoring press ... I watched a few minutes of Motoring 2012 today. I've never really enjoyed the Motoring TV production because the show is much more of an effort to display and market the cars as products than to actually evaluate and inform in any meaningful way. But today ... one of the talking heads ... Jim Kenzie ... found the need to offer his opinion on the merits of building prisons versus the merits of the federal government regulating traffic safety programs. For the record ... Jim Kenzie clearly does not know what the hell is talking about and should stick to talking about cars .... keeping his political opinions to himself.

Also related ...

The word "bespoke" .... this seems to have cropped up in the last couple of years ... originating as far as I can tell in the British motoring press. The term itself refers to tailor made clothing ... specifically made to order men's clothing and suits. Somehow ... some person in the Automobile Journalism field though it would be clever to describe some car as "Bespoke" ... it seems to have caught on as well in marketing circles and is not limited to the auto industry. However, the frequency of the word "bespoke" appearing in articles related to the automobile and  the enthusiast automobile is on the rise.

I think the guy or gal who first applied this esoteric little adjective was being somewhat original and witty. The trend seems to be leading to mindless copy cat repetition and misuse of the word as a pronoun which I find annoying and unnecessary.
In short ... most people you will see using this term are in fact nothing but pretentious knobs who have glommed onto something they think makes them sound more clever and intelligent than they will ever be.

Rant Off /

Something to think about :





Anonymous Michael Banovsky said...

Perfect analysis, sir.

And although I try to write—and inspire our writers to write—with real, cash-in-hand consumers in mind, it's difficult for the industry to shake off its legacy thinking.

I don't call it automotive journalism, because journalists are beholden to readers. Automotive writers, sure—marketing departments are what many in my industry try to please first.

Some of us (young ones) get it—and are working to change it. Keep supporting automotive forums, sites that blog about anything-other-than-the-latest-beige-sedan-in-XE-trim, and you'll send a message to the major players—'buff books included—that you're tired of the same old crap.

Our job is to give readers the information they need to spend their money how they want to spend it. It's also to draw out interesting stories, insight, and analysis.

That's what real journalists do. How well my industry survives depends on how quickly we realize that readers come first.

Email me any time! Would love to hear more of how we can improve. (michael dot banovsky at bell dot ca)


Michael Banovsky
Editor, Autos

1/25/2012 7:52 a.m.  

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