Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Automotive Journamalism in the NYT: How 'Bout Some Elementary Research

by Tom Bozzo

A major curiosity of modern journamalism is the story whose rationale disappears with the slightest bit of research. (It's cousin, the opinion piece arguing X, whose author can be shown to have argued ~X by application of Google, is a major scourge too.) This example does not concern an Important Subject, but I don't really have the stomach this morning for an important one. Scene: Detroit Auto Show. Article: Fraternal Twins in the Showroom. Micheline Maynard, after mentioning that some cars look like they're in the wrong place, writes:
Consider the sporty new Nissan Altima coupe, whose sleek design looks a lot like the Infiniti G35, a car that Nissan’s luxury division sells for thousands of dollars more.
True, the Altima resembles its more expensive sibling. But this neglects the underlying cause: what Americans know as the Infiniti G35 — since we are willing to pay a premium for incomprehensible brand messages, showroom ambiance, and alphanumeric model designations — is sold as the Nissan Skyline in Japan.

But that's not all!
A short walk away is the concept version of a Honda Accord coupe, with crisp, muscular lines and an aggressive stance that would look far more at home across the Cobo center aisle in the display for Acura, Honda’s upscale brand.
Indeed, the forthcoming Accord more nicely steals design cues from Audis and BMWs than the Altima puts on the Skyline/G35, for my money. But if you're paid to go to auto shows by the Paper o' Record, you might note the detail that those Acura sedans are, themselves, based on Honda's midsize car "platform" underlying the Accord (indeed, as I've noted in the archives, the price range of cars based on the platform is enormous), and are due for full model changes along with the Accord.

This also misses a broader trend whereby bread-and-butter family cars have gained amenities that were sybaritic luxuries as recently as the '90s; aping the complicated shapes (due to the application of 3D design tools and new metal-bending methods) of luxury cars is part of this deal. For students of consumption inequality, it's perhaps worth noting the interaction with the development of the ultraluxury car market. When family sedans are faster than sports cars of the early-emissions-control era and warm their drivers' backsides on cold mornings, someone who wants to get ahead in the positional arms race (and has investment banking or hedge fund money burning a hole in his/her pocket) needs race car power and limited semi-bespoke production to keep the riff-raff out.

But back to the point about journamalism. So many people manage encyclopedic knowledge of the car market without compensation that you might expect that actual paid automotive journalists actually would know stuff about cars. (Think of jobs as professional LEGO builders, where the appeal of turning one's hobby into a job brings out top builders, even from highly-compensated conventional professions, in stiff competition for underwhelming pay packages.) On the important subjects, it seems like just dumb luck that there's a Dan Froomkin or David Cay Johnston to offset the Jonathan Weismans and Judith Millers.
Interesting. My MIL just bought a new Camry, which is a dead-on ringer for one of the Lexus models (we had a confusing moment one evening when we found that said identical Lexus was parked right next to her in a parking garage). To me, it proves that buyers of luxury cars aren't very bright, since the Camry was probably half the price of the Lexus.
Now that I've got my car almost paid off (or perhaps paid off, this is how bad I keep track of my finances), I'm going to beg you to help me figure out the appropriate asking and reservation prices if I end up needing to sell it.
Mrs. C.: The Lexus ES350 is based on Camry mechanicals and does bear more than a little resemblance to its sib. The premium for the "L" on the grille is pretty steep compared to the top-of-the-line Camry -- which tops out a thousand or so under the Lexus base price -- so I'd at least agree tha ES350 buyers aren't very bright. Though it's all relative -- my Lexus was several thousand less than the closest comparable BMW, so, uh, at least I'm not the world's biggest sucker. (Or, as I sometimes put it, I'm in recovery from spending lots of money on cars, though I'm not recovered yet.)

Certainly, the thing to think of is that filling product-characteristic space leads to maximum extraction of surplus from consumers. Vehicle platform sharing is a very efficient way to do this (up to a point).

The $45K Camry might be a tough sell, but vary the sheet metal a bit, add prestige brand and various high-end goodies, and voila, car for the empty nester who wants out of minivan land but not into Euro-sedans' repair bills -- with much of the fixed cost spread over a zillion family sedans.

However, design compromises needed to keep down Camry manufacturing costs effectively limit how far upmarket you can go. Honda has learned that a bit more than Toyota -- the Accord-derived Acura RL (a very nice car, except for the price) has in the end shown that the U.S. market for $50K cars demands a less Accord-ness than the RL provides.

Jeremy: Let me know.
Tsk tsk. You have to pay for the privilege of buying a crappy product (i.e., a BMW, etc.). What kind of self-respecting rich person buys a car that has high reliability ratings? Bitching and moaning and being fussed over with a loaner car is part of the experience of being rich. Did you see the article in the Times from last week about the trouble that the wealthy have finding people service high end appliances in their vacation homes?
I'd considered addressing that NYT article as a form of specialty lifestyle pr0n representing a kink that I think is not widespread in the population (hence the reactions at CT, LGM, etc.). I'm evidently not rich enough (or right-wing enough, or in possession of sufficent F***ing Nerve) to find sport in bitching and moaning (unironically) about how tough it is to be me.

That said, while the Lexus sales function has the kissing of ass down cold -- to smooth the separation fo customers from their money, fer sure -- I get my first service experience with 'em tomorrow. I have a stability control alert and a cranky trunk hinge for a challenge...
If any of you want to know more about Corvettes and its physics, tchnology and all other technical data, there is really only one person that pretty much knows it all. He was the original photographer and writer of the Black Box (SDM)Sensing Diagnostic Module that was features on the NTSHA site and NBC news in Indy. His name is Michael (something).
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