Thursday, 4 November 2010

Reviewed:- The whole damn act of Reviewing.

I just spent a day behind the wheel of a Volvo V70, a thoroughly pleasant experience with its offbeat five cylinder rumble and the feeling that, maybe, people think I’m in an unmarked police car.

Subjectively, though, in a straight road test review of it against its rivals, the BMW 5 series estate, the Mercedes E-Class and the Audi A6, the Volvo would be whipped soundly, and not entirely justifiably.  Now, far be it for me to throw my weight around, but I’d like to see a fundamental change in the way cars are reviewed.

Every brand is different, often reflecting the fact that every country is different. We all know that the Germans have a particular approach to the way a car is designed and engineered with the emphasis on efficiency and dynamics. It’s a national characteristic of Germany, their train timetables are unfeasibly reliable and their hotel rooms meticulously organised. They can’t help themselves.

The Scandinavians have a different set of priorities. Comfort is important to our Northern friends, their furniture is clean and simple and suited for family living. Geography comes into it as well, a Swedish car will typically have big, simple controls suitable for operation with gloved hands when the weather gets, well, Scandinavian.

The list is endless, we could go through Italian, French and American cars ticking off all the traits they have which reflect the country they come from, but it would be a pretty pointless exercise. Everyone here knows the difference between a Porsche 911 and a Ferrari 430, they do the same job but stir a different part of your soul. It’s an Apples and oranges comparison.

Put yourself in the position of a Volvo brand manager at the launch of the V70. He’s filled with pride, his team has worked on the new car for ages to ensure that it properly represents the epitome of what Volvo can do. He is deservedly confident in his product with its stylish new dashboard and characterful engines. And then somebody mentions that it doesn’t drive as well as a BMW. Talk about the wind being taken out of his sails.

Ah, but what if Volvo designers, the people who build them and the entire Swedish population don’t like BMWs? What if they’ve tried them but find them too dour, too starchy? Chances are the same will be true for those people who buy Volvos around the rest of the world. The only fair way of reviewing the car is to compare it against other Volvo products. Also, take the positive attributes of the previous car and see if improvements have been made. Were there obvious flaws in the old model? See if they’ve been rectified. We need to determine not whether it’s a good car, but a good Volvo.

Any review you read is only valid if you have the same taste in cars as the reviewer. When I review a car I try to focus on how it makes me feel, not any subjective view of how good it is. The goodness of a product can only be measured by numbers or tickboxes, and is effectively irrelevant. How good is your Girlfriend? I bet she isn’t as good as mine. You went to the South of France last year? I went to Disneyworld. Which is better?

Driven hard across country the BMW 5 series will absolutely pulverise the Volvo in terms of ground-covering speed. On the way home, when your wife is driving and you just want to go to sleep, fifty quid says you’d rather be in the Volvo. We can’t account for this in a review, though. People want headline figures and track-times are sexier and easier to sell than load-bay practicality.

It’s fair enough to say that there are very few cars, if any, which can be deemed utterly incompetent. At a given price-point the cars available are all going to reach a certain standard, but journalists are paid to dream up some kind of hierarchy to decide which car is more equal than the others. Across the industry, the accepted zeitgeist rests on the car that feels “the best” to drive, for which: read “sportiest”. This commonly accepted theory has led to the new Mercedes E-Class being declared a massive improvement over the previous one, with its sharper turn-in and more modern interior. But I prefer the old one for its stateliness. To me, it felt more like a Mercedes than the new one does.

Ultimately, read the reviews to learn about the product but don’t let a magazine make your decision for you. Reviews are a good read, they’re entertaining and give you an idea of what the car is like to drive, but only from the perspective of the reviewer. If you want to decide between a Volvo and a BMW, for heavens sake get out and drive them. Drive them, literally, as if you own them. You’re going to have to live with your purchase for donkeys years, not some guy from a glossy magazine who likes driving fast around corners.

The car you buy should be the best car for you, not for me.