They came from small towns and big cities, from the heartland and the coast. One was a police officer, while another was a school teacher. Still another was a stay-at-home mom. But they all had one thing in common — a passion for cars.
Edmunds.com selected six "ordinary" people — two women and four men — to be car critics for a day. They were chosen from some 800 applicants who wrote short essays to prove they had the skills to judge which car was best: the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu 2LT, the 2008 Honda Accord LX-P or the 2007 Toyota Camry LE.
For a car buff it was a dream job: Put real life on hold for a few days, fly to Santa Monica, California, and spend the day driving cars on a racetrack with the staff of Edmunds.com and Inside Line. But it was also a tough assignment for these rookies with an awful lot at stake. Representing Detroit steel and national pride, the Malibu was pitted against two Japanese cars that have dominated this class for years.
Learning How Shoppers Shop
As consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, I found this a unique opportunity to learn more about how car buyers shop. I tagged along, rode along and eavesdropped on them — all the while trying my best to keep my mouth shut and let them make up their own minds.
Meeting this group of consumer critics for the first time, I was impressed with how different they were from the Californians who surround me every day. These folks were refreshingly genuine, friendly and enthusiastic. Little did I know they were also quite well informed, observant and analytical.
Here was the lineup of critics: Rick Bancroft, a police officer from Lyman, Maine; Scott Barr, a high school science teacher from Red Lion, Pennsylvania; Deena Dwyer, a full-time parent from Roanoke, Texas; Phil Jensen, a retired pilot from Eagle River, Wisconsin; Rob O'Donnell, a sales manager from Monroe, Connecticut; and Romona Redding, a nurse from Sagamore Hills, Ohio.
To kick off the event, the consumer critics and the editors of Inside Line and Edmunds had dinner together near our Santa Monica, California, headquarters. The topic of conversation at dinner was — big surprise — cars. "My wife would have killed me if we had talked cars that long," one observed.
Going to the Track
The next morning the group was shuttled by van to Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, California. Stepping out of the van into the bright, cold winter sunlight of the high desert, they found the three cars lined up and ready for their inspection. The group was drawn to the cars as if by a magnetic force.
"There they are!" Dwyer said. "They're so shiny!" But then, moving closer she added, "What? No leather?"
In fact, the trim level and options of the test cars were later criticized by one participant. Jensen wrote an eloquent e-mail saying he found it hard to believe that we couldn't have gotten a better color for the Toyota Camry to stand out better in the test. It also had a few small scratches and 16,000 miles on the odometer. His point was well taken, but we can only say that each manufacturer was given the same information about the event and they delivered the cars we tested.
The consumer critics were ready to dive into the cars right away. But instead they were invited into the garage for a quick briefing by our testing staff.
The consumer critics each gave a thumbnail biography of themselves and more than one person described themselves as a "car junkie." Many cited their father's interest in cars as a starting place for their own automotive passions. Barr seemed especially focused on the task at hand, saying that he wanted to see if the Malibu was "up to the high standards of the Honda and Toyota." That was indeed the question of the day.
Editorial Director Kevin Smith welcomed the group, saying, "This is an excellent opportunity for people like you, for consumers, to have a voice." He added that he and his staff would be "scrupulously fair and unbiased" while letting them evaluate these cars that were "in the heart of the market."
Karl Brauer, Edmunds.com editor in chief, concluded his remarks, saying, "This is as real as it gets — real people driving real cars."
Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com and Inside Line, got down to the nitty-gritty. There would be four tests:
- A perimeter loop around the racetrack to simulate ordinary city and country streets;
- Acceleration test from zero to highway speed;
- Braking test — normal and emergency stops;
- A drive on the small but technical Streets of Willow 1.8-mile road course to evaluate handling.
The consumer critics were given evaluation forms (the same ones our editors use), notebooks and clipboards and paired off in the three cars. They would drive a lap, switch drivers and then drive another lap. Then they would change cars until each person had driven each car. This was the pattern through all the tests.
Despite the fact that these consumers were under the microscope (a still photographer and video crew were recording the event), they seemed remarkably poised and impressively focused. In fact, as I watched them methodically undertake the evaluation of these cars, I couldn't help but feel a creeping threat and illogically wondered, "Could they somehow take my job?"
Eavesdropping on the Evaluators
On one of the perimeter loops, I climbed in with Bancroft and Barr to see what kinds of things they were picking up on as they evaluated the Accord.
"There's just a little muted dead spot on-center," Bancroft noted as he turned through a corner.
"Too much?" Barr asked.
"No, just barely noticeable..." he said, his voice trailing off as he paid attention to the feel of the car. Then, as he slowed for a corner, he frowned: "The brakes are mushier."
Barr, seated in the passenger seat, was passing his hand above his head, gauging the headroom. "Hmmmm," he said. "If the driver seat doesn't go down I'm going to have a real problem."
"This is going to be a tough call," Bancroft said as he switched cars. "It might just come down to whether you're a feel guy or a performance guy."
Nearby, Jensen was getting into a new car. "This is so much fun!" he exclaimed.
What's an Acceleration Test Without Squealing Tires?
One difference between these consumers and the professional automotive journalists I've consorted with on press events became obvious during the acceleration test: These drivers were hesitant to really step into it, whereas many auto scribes feel it is their God-given right to gleefully flog the test cars.
A chirp of accelerating tires drew my attention to the Malibu and I saw that O'Donnell was behind the wheel. Later, he explained that he had driven on a racetrack before in his own 1990 Porsche 911.
Pros, Cons and Trade-Offs
After lunch, I found Redding and Bancroft looking under the hood of the Malibu. Bancroft had pulled the plastic cover off the battery. "Nice feature," he said. "Might keep your terminals from corroding during the winter."
Redding considered the point. "I don't know," she said. "I have a covered battery on my Equinox and the local car parts store wouldn't do a battery check on it. I had to take it to the dealership."
Redding seemed like a well-informed car buyer, and she admitted that she is often drafted by friends who are in the market for a new car. This event would be very useful for a shopper, she said, because "the cars are right here, side by side. You don't have to go from one dealership to another."
Meanwhile, the other consumer critics were busy loading suitcases, coolers and golf clubs into car trunks and strapping baby seats into backseats. Impressively, they turned the luggage different ways, measuring the clearance height left in the trunk. School teacher Barr even went for the tape measure, stretching it across the trunk opening and frowning in disapproval.
Comments and measurements all went onto the pages of the clipboards. I put myself in their place and imagined having to review all the notes. When the event concluded, they were tasked with writing a 600-word road test on the cars and ranking the cars in the order of their preference.
Driving on the Racetrack
The last event of the day was the chance to drive the cars on the Streets of Willow racetrack. The tension mounted as Dan Edmunds told everyone they would have to wear helmets. This apparently was an invitation to push the cars through the corners at any speed they wanted. Ample space was left between each car, and right away it was evident that some drivers were into speed, while this was a fairly new experience for others.
"It wasn't as scary as I thought," Redding said as she returned from her first lap. A testing team staffer nodded understandingly, "OK, so maybe you can pick it up for this next lap and see how it feels?" Redding pulled out at a brisk pace and returned beaming with excitement.
The others followed suit, settling into the experience after only a few laps around the Streets. Speeds increased and soon the air was filled with the sound of roaring engines and squealing tires. Now the real testing had begun.
And the Envelope, Please?
The consumer critics seemed more excited than tired as they filed back into the van for the return trip to Santa Monica. Shooting a last look back at the cars and the test track, they sat down, reviewed their notes and compared impressions. With the test driving and evaluation behind them, it only remained for them to return home, write up their reviews and rank the cars.
A week later I received an e-mail that contained the reviews from the six critics-for-a-day. As I read the words, I matched them with the people I had met and could almost hear their voices. I could also sense the struggle behind the words: wanting to be thorough, wanting to be fair. I even detected a small desire to see the Malibu top the list. And yet they had all those notes about all those cool features and different impressions.
Maybe they found out that this job is tougher than it seems.
Maybe they'll be knocking on the door and asking for a job soon.
In any case, you're probably wondering which car they chose. For the answer to that question, you'll just have to read the Consumer Comparison Test: 2008 Family Sedans.