Consumer Reports’ rating of the souped-up version of Tesla Motors Inc.’s Model S sedan looked too good to be true: How could a car earn a perfect score of 100 points, the first ever bestowed? The magazine, which rates cars continuously as they reach the market, decided to let non-subscribers know about this extraordinary vehicle, prompting an indignant Wall Street Journal column and setting off a firestorm.
Interestingly, the controversy over Consumer Report’s rating of the battery-powered luxury car wasn’t about whether Tesla builds a car as good as the magazine says. The Journal column argued that the magazine “prostituted” itself to “shill” for a $120,000 vehicle favored by government policy makers. Columnists from left and right debated the politics underlying the Tesla Model S — namely that the government subsidizes and promotes battery-powered cars, as Tesla and others advocate.
The uproar served as a reminder of how the Internet is crowding out the traditional experts, like Consumer Reports — at least when it comes to car-buying advice. Not long ago, a Consumer Reports rating often created a different kind of stir: a ding from CR meant that many shoppers automatically dropped the offending vehicle (or toaster or vitamin) from their shopping list. Conversely, a strong rating often accompanied additional sales and higher transaction prices. Cars built by Japanese carmakers gained popularity starting in the 1980s, lifted by CR’s endorsement of their superior quality and durability.
Auto executives, sometimes the chief executive himself, were known to pay Consumer Reports editors and test engineers a visit to learn more about the magazine’s testing and methodology in order to tweak designs, address problems in future models and – just maybe – improve ratings. (Consumer Reports buys cars, rather than borrow them, as do most reviewers – and tests them at its track and laboratories.)
The landscape certainly has changed. With the advent of digital message boards, on-line forums, Internet access to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration and commercial enterprises like Edmunds.com and Kbb.com, a wealth of competing automotive information, comparative statistics and third-party reviews is available to shoppers.
Digital platforms help anyone with an opinion publish Top Ten lists of best and worst cars — and many do.
“Consumer Reports certainly still matters,” said a top executive from a Detroit-based automaker on condition of anonymity. “But there’s much more info out there. One medium just doesn’t matter that much anymore. Things are dramatically different than what they were. Information is simpler. The shopping process has changed profoundly.”
Holman Jenkins, a Wall Street Journal columnist and member of the newspaper’s editorial board, ignited the argument with his column. He criticized Consumer Reports for making an exception for Tesla for its usual policy of sharing reviews with paid subscribers only. Instead, it bestowed a gushing, positive review of the Model S to all who would read it, free of charge. That’s not all. Jenkins and some of his readers were offended by the magazine’s explicit endorsement of “green” subsidies by government. The magazine ought to examine such subsidies and whether they’re actually good policy, he told me.
Jenkins has been a frequent critic of government subsidies paid to Tesla and buyers of its battery-powered cars as a way to discourage the use of fossil fuel and promote electricity.
The wisdom of battery subsidies is debatable. Proponents say carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is frying the planet. Opponents argue that the cost of switching to batteries is too high, battery technology is too crude and carbon dioxide’s role is questionable. Still, when Jenkins wrote that the magazine had whored itself out to endorse government policy, the charge stung. Consumer Reports says it has eight million subscribers to the magazine and its website.
Mark Rechtin of Consumer Reports explained why the Tesla story was free: “We saw exciting technology in this car that is expected to cascade to more affordable vehicles in the next few years. That’s a moment worth calling attention to. We made the P85D (the most powerful Model S) rating free for people who are interested both in this vehicle and in the future of automotive transportation.”
And to underscore how much Consumer Reports still does matter, Rechtin sent along a story from the October 31, 2014 edition of the Detroit Free Press. In it, Sergio Marchionne announced that he had fired Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V.’s vice president of quality and credited the magazine for highlighting the company’s low ratings.
As for Tesla, Ricardo Reyes said the following: “The first perfect score from Consumer Reports attests to our commitment to continually offer Model S owners enhancements in range, performance and value, and ultimately the best possible driving and ownership experience.”