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Motor Mouth: Motoring journalism at its best and glossy-fluff worst

Press releases are one thing, research quite another. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

By Gordon Hall

Motoring journalists come in all shapes, sizes and ages; with differing agendas, points of view, experience and motivations. Some even know a little bit about cars and how they work.

Unlucky ones work for editors more intent on getting copy into print or lineage onto websites than on writing quality or accuracy – editors whose driving motivations are cost-slashing and speed.

The lucky have more time; to research, to refine and to check facts – not always getting everything perfect, but succeeding more often than not.

Kinsey, who inducted me to this line of foolishness, always says: “Place yourself in the mind and wallet of the person most likely to buy the vehicle.” Or, “Don’t compare apples with oranges. Don’t judge a baby Fiat or Renault against the thrills of a Mercedes-AMG costing five times as much.”

And remember at all times that it’s not only about you. Don’t criticise a small car because it’s slow and you’ve just stepped out of something powered by a turbocharged V12. The little car’s buyer is more interested in fuel economy than in outright performance; performance you can’t use anyway.

A to B: The 2020 Hyundai Atos 1.1 Motion

Primarily, you should thank journalists for filtering the drivel presented in most carmakers’ press material; stuff like this true-life example:

The 2020 Hyunda Atos 1.1. Picture: Quickpic

“Its distinctive geometric design language exhibits a clear and independent character within the … family creating a design that’s sharp and edgy. At the front, a strong image is created by the single-frame grille in octagonal design that is positioned high and complemented by large air inlets. Especially eye-catching is the low roof that descends and merges into the C-pillars with colour-offset blades which accentuates the sportiness of the (car). The rear gains its sporty appeal with a long roof edge spoiler and an extended rear diffuser. “In the side view, the high window line is especially striking as are the concave flanks in the door area. The latter emphasise the wheel housings and thereby the … character of this compact SUV.”

PR people evidently generate lots of words to be seen to be working.

Print journalists, on the other hand, need to cram maximum information into minimal space between ads needed to ensure the publication’s continued existence. And that of the journalist who depends on its livelihood for his or her own. So aren’t you glad we filter it for you? And provide pictures so you can judge the car’s appearance for yourself?

Gimme, gimme!

My second complaint is about smoke-screening. Whether it’s deliberate, caused innocently by time pressure or shows lack of understanding is debatable.

The 2019 Audi Q8 55 TFSI.

For background, here’s a paragraph from chapter two of Robert M Pirsig’s 1974 classic, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance: “… editing technical manuals is what I do for a living … they are full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so completely screwed up you have to read them six times to make any sense out of them.”

My version: “Motoring writers who take their jobs seriously study manufacturers’ press releases in an effort to know and understand the vehicles and their features. In most cases, such literature is full of errors, ambiguities … ”

The kind of thing I have in mind is the cagily worded suggestion that all models within a new range are fitted with LED headlamps, night vision, adaptive cruise control with automatic braking, 10 air bags, every exotic handling aid and a panoramic sunroof. And the car conquers quarter-miles in 11 seconds flat. Truth is that most of these features appear only at the most expensive spec level and the lightning quarter is achievable only by the multi-million-rand, special-import version. On which the sunroof is optional.

Still the king

At other times it’s evident that the original material came from someone whose talent is engineering, rather than clarity of written words. It is then expected of the PR person to present something that he or she can’t decipher anyway. The result is confusing garbage that takes six readings to unravel. And commonsense, coupled with technical and practical knowledge, to re-present it in language that Joe and Joanne Average can understand.

Those of us who can call our own deadlines either do this or leave the hard stuff out. Others, desperate to be first, simply parrot the press release and prolong the confusion.

That’s why I avoid reading generic motoring reports. Most are glossy fluff, patently inaccurate or unbelievably clumsy.

Although some of us try harder. For that, please be thankful.

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