As an automotive journalist, I've spent my career identifying the difference between "good" cars and "bad" cars. And because the distance between good and bad cars has been rapidly shrinking over the past 10 years, identifying — and subsequently quantifying in written word — those differences has become ever more challenging.
Where once upon a time the build quality chasm between a Chevy Impala and a BMW 3 Series was something even Evel Knievel couldn't jump, the 2005 versions of both cars are more along the lines of say something Bart Simpson could jump. That's not to say there isn't still a difference worth mentioning — there is! I'm only pointing out that spotting the differences takes a sharper eye than it used to.
This suggests two things. First, as already mentioned, it appears that the average automaker's build quality is on the rise. But more interestingly, it also suggests the possibility that the average automaker's efforts to hide poor build quality is also on the rise. However, there continues to be a simple "build quality litmus test" that I can always depend on, and it's a surprisingly easy test to administer. It doesn't require weeks of research, or paying for the latest Consumer Reports study, or even asking your car-freak friend. All you have to do is reach out and adjust the exterior mirrors.
Now, like anything that sounds too good to be true, this rule does include one stipulation. The car in question must have power mirrors. If the mirrors are adjusted via a manual lever then they won't provide the same information. But, with the exception of low-priced economy sedans, almost every new car sold today has power mirrors, meaning my litmus test for build quality will work for most car shoppers (and car owners, too).
I first noticed the difference in power mirror operation several years ago, shortly after joining Edmunds.com. It was during a comparison test in which we would drive a 60-mile test loop, switch cars and drive it again. Because the first few seconds after each swap meant adjusting the driver seat and mirrors I quickly discerned that, in certain cars, the exterior mirrors would move with a smooth, fluidlike motion while making little or no noise. In contrast, the mirrors in other cars would grind like a dentist's drill as they shook and shuddered in the mirror housing.
In the years since that test, I've almost become oblivious to the diversity in exterior mirror behavior, in spite of its ability to consistently reflect an individual car's overall build quality. But my wife recently reminded me of this characteristic when she mentioned that the exterior mirrors in the Chevy Malibu she was driving didn't operate with the same smoothness or refinement as the mirrors in the Mini Cooper we recently sold. I told her the mirror operation gave an accurate snapshot of the larger incongruity between a Mini Cooper and Chevy Malibu's build quality.
And although the Mini Cooper and Chevy Malibu aren't typically cross-shopped, I would suggest that using my litmus test on direct competitors may surprise you with its effectiveness. Try it on something like a Hyundai Sonata versus a Honda Accord. Or maybe a Buick LaCrosse versus a Volkswagen Passat.
I don't know if the results will surprise you, but I bet the ability of my test to accurately predict the results will.
Does this mean I've boiled my opinion of all cars down to the simple smoothness and refinement of their exterior mirrors?
No not yet.