Critics perform a public service
It's the question every motoring journalist dreads being asked and it's enough to make me tell strangers that I clean carpets for a living: "So, what's the best car you've ever driven?" Not a week goes by without some well-meaning inquisitor coming out with those words and I always give the same response, which is along the lines of: "That question's impossible to answer, but I was recently impressed by [insert name of whatever supercar I've just driven here]."
I suppose it's the same for a critic of anything you care to mention, from fashion and restaurants to music, films and books. What's the best song you've ever heard? Don't even go there. But the role of the critic is - and I'm not just saying this because I am one - actually important. We at Motoring get to drive many dozens of brand new cars every year and, through this experience, we form opinions and write about what we find so that you, our loyal readers, have an informed choice when it comes to choosing your next new car.
One of the most important lessons I learnt as a teenager, when it came to the opinions of critics, relates to pop music. In 1985 it seemed that everyone in the UK was buying an album called No Jacket Required by Phil Collins, but the weekly music magazine I relied on for reviews gave it a right kicking. I reasoned, in my naivety, that if so many copies were being sold it must be absolutely amazing, and the reviewer surely just got out of bed on the wrong side the morning he wrote about it.
So I went and spent my money on this CD. I listened to it, hated it, listened to it again, hated it even more and eventually traded it in for something by Bruce Springsteen. The masses and I obviously heard two very different things and I realised that, just because something is popular, it doesn't mean it's any good. And it's no different with cars.
I'm constantly astonished by how many dull, lacklustre models are bought by people more interested in keeping up with the neighbours than seeking out a car that's genuinely deserving of their money. And when we lambast these cars in reviews that are sometimes quite harsh, don't think we have an axe to grind because we don't like them. What we have is experience that tells us what makes a car worth buying.
Sometimes I'm accused of only giving positive reviews to sports or luxury cars and this is simply not true. While I unashamedly love the thrill only a sports car can offer, I have recently been astonished by how good cars such as Hyundais and Skodas are these days. And I'm not afraid to say so in print. But so many people will disregard a glowing review of something like this and plump for something inferior because they feel the family next door might sneer at them. So they instead get a car that's been thrown together because it's big, thirsty and covered with chrome trim. They simply don't care if a car is good or bad, as long as it scares people half to death on the outside lane of Sheikh Zayed Road - or it comes with a fancy name on the boot.
But we'll soldier on regardless, telling you how it is. We upset manufacturers and make them happy in equal measure by what we write, but if it wasn't for critics keeping these guys on their toes, I shudder to think what new cars would be like. You may not agree with what we say (it is, after all, just an opinion) but you can't say we don't know what we're talking about. We do, and we're looking out for you.
Don't mention it - it's our pleasure.
Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM