Causing Controversy

It’s a matter of opinion

Ask any magazine publisher how to get a rise out of their readers and they will tell you to “print something controversial”. And it seems that within the motoring world there is no easier place to start a riot than in the 4×4 community.

Last year I wrote a comparative article on a Land Rover Defender and a Toyota Land Cruiser 76 wagon, vehicles so similar in their target market that a direct comparison was not only apt but unavoidable. The reaction from readers was like a tsunami – hundreds of letters, almost all of which criticized me or my methods.

The same article was shot on video and placed on Youtube ( The resultant comments revealed an interesting fact: reactions to articles criticizing a vehicle are influenced almost exclusively by egos, and are not based on technical matters, even though the words suggest they are.

All negative letters to this magazine and comments on Youtube had one thing in common: Land Rover lovers assumed that I owned a Land Cruiser, and Land Cruiser lovers assumed that I owned a Land Rover. It’s impossible to be seen as fair by the majority: Unfair bias will be assumed no matter what.

Recently I gave a Pajero DI-D a thorough test in the Namib and arrived at some conclusions. Many of my conclusions were positive, and some were negative, as is the case when any vehicle is tested. But that seemed unacceptable to most Pajero owners.

It seems that there is a small group of fanatics amongst their owners who are unable to accept criticism without getting wound up. This week I encountered my first public heckler, at an evening function in Cape Town, when I announced that the Pajero saga had thankfully ended. Can you believe it? It was like I was the Prime Minister outside No.10 Downing Street, and someone was shouting for world peace.

Following the Pajero article, Leisure Wheels was inundated with letters doing exactly what had been done following the Defender/Cruiser comparison. But in this case many reactions revealed a glaring lack of technical know-how and understanding about not only their vehicles, but 4x4s in general. Their egos were encouraging them, yelling that if they left this printed opinion unchecked, they would be held accountable in heaven. Read between the lines and it is plain to see that egos are behind these letters. I know this to be true because my impressions of the Pajero were largely positive, but the letter writers are only able to see the negative ones.

Reactions to the Pajero article were often in the form of advice as to how to drive or operate the vehicle’s equipment. I see nothing wrong with that, but do have a problem with what is expected of me. These techniques are obviously learned over months or years of use. I often found the SuperSelect shift-on-the-fly system of the Pajero frustrating. The letters suggested that owners have learnt over time that under certain conditions it changes instantly.

They, like owners of any vehicle, learn to love the good points of their vehicle, adapt to the not-so-good points, and live with the bad points. Every vehicle possesses all three; there are no exceptions. In this case they have adapted their driving style and are now quite happy with the way the gearbox behaves.

I don’t have this luxury because I rarely have a vehicle long enough to get to grips with all its idiosyncrasies, and often have to judge it on first impressions. For example, I did not have to learn how to make quick changes with the Fortuner I recently took to the Richtersveld, because there was nothing new to learn: the shift was smooth, effortless and things happened when I expected them to. Not so with the Pajero.

But the Pajero owners who reacted assumed I can’t drive. If a Pajero’s transmission is so awkward that I struggle to understand how it works, then I don’t think it is very good. Owners/readers expect me to get to their position within a day or so. This can’t happen. Only by owning a vehicle can one become fully competent in its operation.

So what should I do? I see (but don’t always read) letter after letter criticizing my knowledge, or lack of it. In last month’s Leisure Wheels I read the very first published letter (I get plenty directly) that came to my defence. And I am not surprised because this proves my point. Who cares if Andrew is given a bad time? The only ego it can affect is Andrew’s. Nobody it going to spend hours defending someone else’s ego, are they? And please don’t – I don’t expect or want any readers to defend my stance.

I think that up until now most Pajero owners, like the vast majority of 4×4 owners out there, had fair respect for my comments, even though they did not agree with everything (I would be surprised if anyone did!).

But now I have become enough of an irritation for them to cancel their subscription to a really good mag that in their eyes has been not just tainted, but spoiled.

But can a single article have so much power? It can if it attacks the ego. A man spends a lot of money on a vehicle, and then an article in a reputable magazine questions the performance of that vehicle. His ego is dented.

I bet that nine out of ten people given a Discovery and a Pajero to drive on the Namib tour that I drove the Pajero on, would buy the Disco. Why? Because the Disco has got better clearance, better seating, its load bay is much easier to pack, and it has a better, more modern engine.

As good as the Pajero is, the Discovery is a better package. But you don’t know that because you don’t get to drive lots of 4x4s and you’ve already paid a lot of money for yours. Why would you buy one thing and praise another? You wouldn’t. That’s my job.

If my articles get buyers to take a more thorough look at the market before purchasing a particular model, then I am doing my job. And I have every intention of carrying on doing it.