In other articles in this special issue we've covered some of the highlights: the best columns, the best feature cars, the best pix, and so on. But over those 100 issues all has not always been sweetness and light!
Product reviews are seldom a high point of our existence. Unfortunately, and literally more often than not, performance products do not live up to the manufacturers' claims. In fact, it seems that often we are the first people to have ever tested the products - the manufacturers don't appear to have done so...
The upper suspension A-arms that I bought for the Skyline GT-R that I (then) owned is a case in point. We had them recommended to us, we ordered them, we told the company that we were going to test them in AutoSpeed - and we were dumbfounded when they arrived. Poorly welded, poorly plated, poorly designed. In fact, the first pair were so bad that we sent them back, receiving some more shortly after. These were a little better - through still having at least some of the same problems - and we had them installed. And the plastic bushes in the arms then squeaked and squeaked and squeaked.
The following email from the product retailer (with AutoSpeed replies included) show a typical scenario that unfolds after an unfavourable product review.
(Retailer): Firstly, I must thank you for your independent view on the adjustable control arms. I'm glad to hear that they have in fact made a difference to the handling of your car.
(Retailer): I must apologise for sending you the second hand unit, some serious "arse kicking" went on for that, because I knew that it would make it to text.
(AutoSpeed): They were sealed in bags - they didn't appear to be packaged as though they were second hand. Nor did you inform us to that fact when they were returned.
(Retailer): I agree with you about the quality of the welding and product finish that you noted. However, we can supply a "prettier looking" set, just sit down before I give you the price, because they are from Stillen. The set I supplied to you are a product of Australia and easy outsell the US product as not many people are concerned about appearance in the location that they are fitted. I'm sure you agree. Julian, please let me know if you have a concern with any of our products as I have noticed that your articles very rarely give companies the opportunity to show you customer service, should a problem arise, which and as you know, can and do happen.
(AutoSpeed): I did let you know of the concern - I sent a written note with the first set that I returned! Can't be much plainer than that.
(Retailer): Furthermore, I have spoken to the manufacture of this product and are awaiting for their reply and more importantly, action to what you have noted. Once again thank you for taking the time to review my correspondence and we assure you of our continual interest. I am sure you understand that the first set we sent you was a mistake.
(AutoSpeed): I had no such understanding - especially when the second set had some identical faults eg quality of plating.
(Retailer): ..and most unlikely to happen again, so it is not really necessary to publish that fact as it doesn't help us. I think it could be best to keep articles a bit more to the point being the actual product others may get.
(AutoSpeed): Magazine reviews are not meant to "help you". They are an impartial appraisal of the product that is supplied. Are you suggesting that you supplied us with an inferior product to review?!!
That's about the norm for such correspondence.
After the review was published I also received a personal phone call from someone who said he was a 300ZX owner. He had heard that we'd reviewed the upper A-arms (the arms fit late 300ZX's as well) and wanted to know what I thought of them. I said exactly what we'd already said in the review - that was the truth, so why would I say anything different?
The man seemed doubtful about my points, and so in the end I offered to pull them out of the car and sell them to him, saying "Well, their squeaking drives me mad so I'm taking them out anyway - you may as well have them at a much lower price than new if you think that they're okay." At this the man exploded, bellowing down the line, "I made those bloody arms myself, and if you think that they're so bad you're nuts; they're a great product! You just don't know what you're talking about...." And on and on and on.
It's not much fun reviewing products that aren't very good; we've now reached the stage where we're unlikely to review any products that don't have excellent, detailed testing available from the manufacturer. In fact just the other day we received a call from someone who had invented a new boost control that apparently gave a 6kW gain at the rear wheels - even on the very same boost level!
He wanted us to do a review of the controller, but he was totally unable to explain how it worked, let alone how it caused a greater peak power development without changing max boost.
I won't even bother telling you about the electric water pump, or the power-releasing oil additive, or the blow-off valve (that, after jointly developing a test methodology, the manufacturer backed out of us testing), or the electric supercharger, or the.....
Exhausted, I leant over the handle of the shovel, dry-retching onto the shellgrit sand. Only metres away, the roar of the remorseless breakers pounded the beach, huge waves backed with the power of thousands of kilometres of the Southern Ocean. Majestic in beauty, each wave built to a three metre height, the crest piling higher and higher until, gravity overcoming the friction of the shelving seafloor, it broke onto the beach in a deafening explosion of spray. Still not entirely spent, the white swash slid slyly up the beach, salty tongue slowing to a halt just scant centimetres from the alloy wheels of the irretrievably bogged Pajero io.
Northwards stretched Younghusband Peninsula, hardly more than a 300 metre wide spit of dunes forming the southern boundary of the Coorong National Park. Southwards the beach continued for hundreds of kilometres, the rise and fall of the sandy cusps shrouded in salt spray, the vast length of empty beach apparently totally devoid of help. Only the ruts left along the foredunes by other four wheel drives showed that people had been here; but whether that had been an hour ago, yesterday, or last week, God only knew. ("New Car Test - Touring in the Pajero io".)
It was even worse than that - waiting for the sea to claim a brand new press car; a car bogged basically through my inexperience and inability at driving on a sandy beach. Sure, a beach might logically stack up as an appropriate venue for testing a small 4WD like a Pajero io, but suddenly here was the unpleasant reality. If the tide hadn't been receding, that would definitely have been that.
While some magazine readers assume that journalists can do anything with a press car; the reality is that - if you wish to continue to receive cars from that company or agent - you'd better look after them. And so, you'd also better have a damn good explanation if a car is damaged. Fortunately, we'd told the Alfa Romeo importer where we intended taking the Alfa Spider - all the way to Ayer's Rock in the centre of Australia.
On the return trip we'd seen little wildlife - just the normal numbers of hawks, eagles, and cattle. No roos and no emus. But all of a sudden there they were - a gaggle of emus, standing 2 metres tall on the edge of the road, heads darting on their elongated necks. Weighing in at perhaps 100kg each, these birds aren't like pet budgies. And the impact when they decide to sprint out from the side of the road - straight into the side of the Alfa - wasn't too light-weight either! There was a thump! and then we were past, pulling to the side of the road to inspect the damage. In addition to emu feathers wrapped around the Pininfarina badge (how's that for a clash of cultures?) there was a dent as large as my hand in the passenger side door and a scratch down the side of the paintwork. Not what you want to have happen to a borrowed A$66,000 car..... ("Alfa to the Red Centre".)
The PR man was understanding.... and also continued to be when the Alfa 156 we had on loan was punted straight up the bum by a deranged Excel.
We were much, much luckier in the case of the Hyundai Coupe.
I approached a double-apex corner, marked at 35 km/h and bounded on one side by a guardrail overlooking a plunging valley, and on the other, by a vertical rock cliff. The Hyundai was settled and stable after negotiating the first apex - after all, it was all happening at only about seven-and-a-half-tenths - and then on a trailing throttle, I turned into the next part of the corner.
With terrifying speed and zero warning, the back arced out in a massive oversteer slide.
I grabbed a huge turn of opposite lock - then realised almost instantly that the car was still going to spin - and figured that stopping before I either went through the rail or into the rockface was vital. I ABS'd to a halt in the middle of the narrow road, facing the way that I'd come and with the car scarcely any further down the road. The Coupe had spun in almost its own length, with incredible luck touching nothing on the way.... ("New Car Test - Piloting the 1999 Hyundai FX Coupe").
Six Articles a Week....
Producing six full-length feature articles a week is a daunting task. To put that into context, a typical bi-monthly printed modified car magazine might have 27 or 30 articles - at the end of each eight weeks, we've produced 60 per cent more. Even subtracting Performance News and the weekly Columns leaves 32 features every 8 weeks, a very tall ask indeed from a magazine with just two full-time editorial staff - and a quite limited budget to buy freelance material. The upping of the article count to firstly seven - and now an incredible eight - stories a week has simply added to the pressure.
The reality is that as result, at times we've run some pretty woeful individual features! The Gotta Gets story on what people were buying from performance accessory shops sounded good in theory; the result was less than scintillating. The tech story on Modifying Cooling Systems was pretty bad, as was Jumpstart Your Battery Knowledge. Sure, the latter was all factual - just not very exciting. Light Action - Upgrading Your Forward Vision was meant to be the beginning of a series on giving your car better lights; the deafening lack of interest from readers quickly spelled the death of that idea!
Finding feature cars has never been a problem; finding feature cars that are accessible has always been. The trouble is that sourcing a feature car located away from our cameras means that substantial quantities of dollars need to be paid to a photographer. The text side of things isn't so bad - if required, we can always do an interview with the owner and other relevant people (eg a workshop proprietor) by phone. But when a photo shoot alone can cost $500, it makes it very difficult to run lots of stories on cars that are distant.
As a result, we've at times run features on accessible cars that we normally wouldn't have. Hot Chilli Pepper was basically a standard 1997 EL Ford XR8, X-Treme Machine a stretched Ford LTD with a good sound system, and the Herrod Hot Up Falcon ute deserved coverage only in Performance News, not as a feature car. That these are all Fords is no coincidence: finding good Ford feature cars is just so hard!
But, then again, if these are the worst stories that I can find, that's pretty good going in more than 680 stories...
Certainly, of all the aspects of AutoSpeed that provide staff with the most joy, the Forums are not one of them. While the idea of a discussion group is fine - it's great to be able to let car enthusiasts bounce ideas off each other and generally socially chat - the reality is that sometimes arguments can get very personal, that misinformation can be actively spread, and that those using the Forums often seem to feel that the service is of a similar nature to public newsgroups (ie anything goes!).
These aspects result occasionally in hidden agendas being followed. For example, one Forum poster has attempted to use a fraudulent credit card number to gain access to AutoSpeed membership. We discovered this illegal act, and he was made aware of that. As you can imagine, his posts on the Forums now occasionally reflect that history - he doesn't love AutoSpeed and doesn't hesitate to make criticisms of us! Other Forum posters know nothing of this background, and assume that any grievances that he is expressing are based on a genuine belief. Multiply variations of that scenario by ten or twenty - eg staff of competing magazines posting under non de plumes - and you have a situation where things can get difficult very fast.
However, it's easy to focus on the negatives of having a tiny minority of forum users abusing the system. The fact that it is only a tiny minority is a major reason why we instituted a system of voluntary moderators, rather than just removing the Forum facility entirely. Still, we do now know why open discussion forums are so rarely instigated at the web sites of paper magazines!
So - there're some of the downers, the low points, the stuff that sometimes we'd rather forget.
And forgetting them is usually pretty easy - cos right now there's a photo shoot needing to be done on the fastest WRX in the world, or it's time to head out to an appointment with a man who makes his own stroker crankshafts, or an on-road test and development session on a new turbo boost control needs to be completed.
The last one sounds good - I'm outa here!