There is a widely held belief that journalism is (and should be) totally objective and detached. This, of course, is utter rubbish. Don’t let reporters fool you with their talk of journalistic integrity and unbiased fact-finding. It is perhaps possible to remain fairly objective when simply reporting the events of the day – though even this is doubtful – but the vast majority of journalism is incredibly subjective.
This is especially true of a field such as motoring journalism. Like a film or restaurant reviewer, a motoring journalist can try to be fair and honest when testing a vehicle, but being objective is impossible.
How so? Well, when testing a vehicle, you can only ever base your opinions on your own subjective experiences. When saying that a car felt powerful or comfortable, for example, you are actually saying that it felt powerful and comfortable to you. It isn’t an objective truth, it is merely a subjective opinion.
Does that mean, however, that the opinion is useless? Not at all. Some (fairly) objective information can be gleaned from opinions. After all, seeing a blue sky or tasting the sweetness in ice cream are technically subjective experiences, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t shared by everyone on the planet. If a vehicle feels powerful and comfortable to you (and you are reasonably experienced in the field), it is safe to assume that it would feel powerful and comfortable to others as well.
But there is a potential issue: our subjective opinions are always informed by our previous experiences. On the one hand, this is a good thing. Your opinion that a car seems fast and powerful doesn’t carry much weight if you’ve never been in any other car. Opinions are created by comparing one thing to another. We judge the Ford Ranger to be a good bakkie by comparing it to other good bakkies, such as the Toyota Hilux, Mitsubishi Triton, VW Amarok, etc. We judge the new Chevrolet Trailblazer by comparing it to the popular Toyota Fortuner.
The potential problem, however, is that our previous experiences can distort our new experiences, especially if they follow each other quickly. Confused? Allow me to explain.
Motoring journalists rarely drive their own cars. They drive a new car when it is launched – typically for about a week – and then move directly onto the next one. So what happens when a journalist gets out of a Bentley Continental GT and immediately climbs into an entry-level Toyota Etios? My guess is that the ridiculously plush Bentley would make the Etios seem depressingly austere – an unfair but understandable opinion.
Most journalists I know take this into consideration and try to be fair, but it can be tough.
So, what is the solution? Arguably the best way to deal with this issue is by basing vehicle reports on the opinions of several people. Most magazine’s road tests are done in this way (including Leisure Wheels’). It’s also why we make use of panels of judges when conducting shoot-outs. But the fact remains, a lot of vehicle reports are written by individual journalists. So how does one ensure that you always compare apples with apples?
The solution, I think, is to never drive new cars back to back. They should always be separated by a lengthy drive in an older vehicle. But not just any older vehicle. It should be between five and ten years old. It should have quite a lot of kilos on the odometer, but still run smoothly. It should be ever so slightly underpowered. It should be basic, but comfortable.
In other words, it should be unremarkable in every conceivable way. It should be the most bland, inoffensive and uninspiring vehicle imaginable. But it shouldn’t be a bad car. It should just be, well, boring.
The aim would be to find the vehicular equivalent of those sorbet palate cleansers they serve between courses at fancy restaurants. It should be so numbing and innocuous that it resets the senses completely, allowing you to approach each new vehicle on its own terms.
What vehicles would perform well as palate cleansers? A couple of names come to mind, but I don’t think I’ll stick my head into that hornets’ nest.