Does a violent late night horror film encourage an impressionable viewer to turn off the TV, head for the nearest kebab shop, grab that big metal skewer they cook the meat on and plunge it into the heart of the nearest passer-by? Let’s hope not – I walk past a fast-food shop every evening – but the arguments for and against such a link have raged for years.
Today, there’s almost as big a debate in the motoring world about a very similar subject. Does the portrayal of new cars in mainstream motoring magazines and TV programmes, doing high speeds on private test tracks or sideways and smoking through a tight bend, encourage bad driving on public roads? Again, whichever side of the fence you sit on, you’ll find evidence to back your view. But the issue has sparked a bigger, more all-encompassing, discussion – is there a growing gulf between what’s presented in the pages of mags like Auto Express, Autocar and Top Gear and the realities of everyday motoring?
It’s a fair question. As the associate editor of Auto Express, I’m responsible for overseeing much of the news and features content. As such I can’t comment on other magazines, but I firmly believe our pages are packed with more information that’s relevant to the consumer than ever before.
Take our road tests; the final page doesn’t just feature the traditional spec table. Sure, there’s information on 0-60mph times and top speeds, but there are also sections on insurance, servicing, fuel costs and even residual values. And we try our hardest to get the mix of cars just right; not too much fast stuff, sporty cars, SUVs, etc, that aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. We try to create a blend of metal that Joe Public can afford to buy next time round, some aspirational models he might choose if he gets that hard-earned promotion, and a handful of supercars he would need a lottery win to sign up for.
In terms of mainstream cars, performance is relevant and people want to know about it, but they also want details on interior space, quality of the trim, size of the boot, etc., and how they compare to the previous version and its class rivals. Conversely, if a new Ferrari is being put through its paces for the first time, how many overnight bags can be shoehorned into what passes for load space isn’t high on the list of what people want to know.
Like the words, photography is influenced by the type of vehicle being tested. Yes, we’ll hold our hands up to using shots of cars going sideways, but much of our snapping is done on private test tracks where there’s no risk to other road users. Are we to blame if somebody tries something similar on the local High Street? Absolutely not. Passing your driving test brings with it an amazing freedom, but it also creates responsibilities. Not ploughing into a bus stop full of pedestrians is one of them, but so is distinguishing between motoring reality and fantasy. When it comes to Auto Express test results and car reviews, we’re the former. But if we’re showing a supercar going sideways, we’re the latter.
There’s another thorny topic that raises its head regularly too, and again it’s linked to what’s relevant to everyday motorists. It’s eco-friendly cars – battery-powered hybrids, plus things like ethanol, methanol and biodiesel vehicles. The motoring press is often criticised for giving them too little space, for not promoting them as the panacea to all ills. And it’s true, we don’t devote many column inches to green motoring. There’s a reason; these cars are all very clever, but one of two things happens when they’re launched. People either can’t buy them or choose not to.
Take the 56mpg Toyota Prius. In close to five years that both the MkI and MkII versions have been in British showrooms, total sales stand at nearly 3,500 units. But Ford sells that number of Mondeos in a fortnight! So why don’t Toyota dealers shift more Priuses? The manufacturer will probably say it’s down to supply, but if dealers had 100,000 drivers waving their chequebooks at them, I’m sure the factory would find a way of getting more here. Perhaps the £17,000 basic price tag has something to do with it. If you look at the ‘aim to pay’ prices, which appear in most consumer motoring publications, a bit of haggling and the same money could get you a dynamically superior 2.0-litre diesel Mondeo with all the whistles and bells, and it will still do 48mpg.
Talking of Ford, it gave journalists the opportunity to drive an ethanol-powered Focus recently. The event was in Sweden where the car is on sale and where they have forecourt pumps selling the fuel.
Will it go on sale here? All the company will say is that there will be “trials next spring” involving a few fleet operators. “If that goes well, we might consider a retail version,” said a spokeswoman.
The same is true of hydrogen-powered cars. How the technology has come down in size is frankly amazing. But you ask the experts when we’ll be queueing up at the pump marked H, and they take a deep breath, pause…. and then give an answer best counted in decades.
The bottom line is that not many British motorists want these eco-friendly cars. They aren’t yet mainstream motoring, and for that reason they get limited coverage. So magazines like Auto Express most definitely reflect what’s happening on UK roads.