Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Power of Preconceptions

I've been pondering this issue for many years, in the context of my role as an automotive analyst. When you read a review of a car, odds are the writer's opinions will be hard and fast, giving you the impression that the car in question offered a unique driving experience in every way, with some traits good, others bad.

As a semi-experienced road tester with some good track time under my belt and access to some of the best roads in the country when I head out to Santa Barbara where my company is located, I must declare that my experience has been quite different.

For the most part, new cars drive pretty nicely, with much more parity than Car and Driver would have you believe. I know that I'm still working on tuning my own senses to be able to detect the minute differences between machines, but the fact is that most of the characteristics under discussion in car reviews are minimally felt differences that are amplified by the writer for the sake of drama and usefulness.

After all, who's really going to pay attention to a writer who declares that his experiences in the Nissan 370Z and the Hyundai Genesis Coupe were too close to call. Readers demand conclusions, which is why C/D ranks their road test subjects in every face-off--and possibly why Car and Driver is the most popular enthusiast rag.

But aside from the most obvious cues, like exhaust note (in which the Genesis absolutely shone) or parking lot steering effort (the Genesis was a bit too heavy here), the ride and handling can be tough to compare accurately, even when driven back-to-back. And this is where I feel like preconceptions play a big role.

Going into this particular duel, the Nissan would naturally have a big advantage, purely because of its badge. The driver believes that the Nissan is a better-handling car, and it may well be, but the only way he or she will give the Hyundai the advantage is if the Nissan has noticeable deficiencies, which it really doesn't.

Which brings me to what set off this rant in the first place. I'm catching up on the Autoblog podcasts, which by the way, are fantastic. If you want to learn about cars, and how auto journalists think, these hour-and-change rant sessions are a gold mine, and a great source for honest opinion. But I was just listening to blogger Dan Roth talk about the Audi Q5 he has in his garage right now, and the first phrase he used to describe it is, "It's a fancy Tiguan." That was quickly pointed out to be untrue, and you could just hear the wheels turning in his head as his conceptions of the vehicle were adjusted.

After learning that the Q5 is actually based on the A4/A5 platform, it felt like his impression of it got more favorable. Not to pick on Dan, though, since I know that I do the same kinds of things. When discussing cars with my colleagues after a test drive, we'll often have wildly different impressions, especially since we're struggling to pick out the traits that stood out in any way, and exaggerating them to show that we really noticed something. When this happens, the viewpoint that is most supported by preconceptions of a brand is the one that always seems to carry the most weight.

Perhaps this is just me wrestling with my frustration at the trouble I have with evaluating cars. But I really feel that, especially in every-day, public-road driving, most people wouldn't even be able to tell the difference between a front-drive and rear-drive car, let alone which car has the best handling balance.

And when it comes down to it, having fun in a car is usually more a function of the road than the actual car. Even with wildly different abilities, I had about as much fun in a Nissan Altima as I did in a 1-series BMW, simply because the road was a blast.

No doubt any auto journalist who reads this will take complete umbrage with it. But part of the point is that cars have just gotten so good that it's tough to find a sub-par driving experience anymore. Sure, few machines can approach the experience of a Lotus Elise on a twisty mountain road. But daily drivers are all tuned within such a narrow spectrum that a lot of the time, they all seem to blend together.

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