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Car reviews: Can you trust them?

Car reviews: Can you trust them?

24 January 2019 Concept Car

Can there be too much of a good thing? When it comes to car reviews, maybe there can.

Back in the days of newspapers and printed car magazines, it was remarkably hard to find helpful information. Today, we find ourselves faced with the exactly opposite situation: With myriads of articles and news items published on even the most niche models, how are you ever going to get to what matters?

Precisely because of this confusion, meanwhile, expert opinion is as relevant as it’s ever been. In this special, we’ll guide to the best car reviews on the web and explain what they can and can not tell you. After reading, you’ll see a lot clearer – and ideally arrive at a better decision.

Car reviews: Can you trust them?

First of all, though, let’s quickly talk about why you should look at car reviews at all. There have been claims that car reviews are anything but objective for years. As someone on the pistonheads forum put it:

“The only way people can form an opinion is to drive the car themselves. Far too many people have an agenda, and will stick to it when doing reviews etc. They are probably scared that if they say something negative, they won’t get the next car to take a look at.”

But isn’t that just your typical run of the mill conspiracy talk? It appears it isn’t. In a shocking and shockingly frank editorial, Australian car review guru John Cadogan opened up about the dirty media environment that has mushroomed around the car industry.

Cadogan was especially critical of the practise of luxury car makers flying in journalists from around the world to exclusive launch events:

“Attending a launch is like having the best holiday imaginable, only with – at best – barely competent fools you generally can’t stand. And you can do it forever – as long as you don’t criticise the cars.”

Badly written?

As if this wasn’t enough, most car reviews don’t make for particularly enticing reading. Car enthusiast website jalopnik nails it:

“Technology has fundamentally changed [..] and the modern review needs to reflect that. Think of all the car reviews you’ve read in your life. Take away the photography, the masthead, and the byline. Can you really discern between something you’d read on The Car Blog from something in the pages of Motor And Track or in the auto section of The Small Town Examiner?”

This is something we discovered, too, as we browsed the web in search of the best car review sites: Almost all of them feel and look the same, with nigh-identical composition and structure, occasionally even with identical wording.

And yet, we also feel as though some of the criticism is a bit harsh.

You can’t reinvent the wheel all the time. And for all their good intentions, not every jalopnik review is a masterpiece of contemporary literature either. Also, the main point of a car review is not so much to entertain but to provide hands-on information.

And in that regard, most car reviews do deliver.

The trust problems of car reviews, as indicated by John Cadogan, are harder to dispel. They do seem to apply mostly to the luxury car segment, however, which many of you won’t be that interested in anyway.

There have also been positive developments of lately. The main problem of car reviews has been that manufacturers can dictate access to their latest models. Both in the UK and USA, various organisations have changed this. Being financially strong in their own right, they can organise review models by themselves and publish negative reviews without fear of retribution.

This has led to more critical opinions being voiced. In some cases, even leading models by prestigious brands have been put into their place.

How the Internet changed the entire second hand car market


Whatever your opinion of car reviews, there’s one indisputable fact: The Internet has changed the entire second hand car market forever. In doing so, it has also affected the relevance of car reviews.

This is because, as we already hinted at the beginning of this article, there is now more information freely available on cars than ever before. In fact, the amount of information is positively mindblowing.

You can find exact data on the strengths and weaknesses of just about every generation of every single model ever released on the UK market. This makes it possible to very precisely select the car that’s right for you and to avoid those that have hidden problems.

You can also benefit from a wealth of user opinions. Although these do not technically qualify as car reviews, reading through these subjective reports can reveal a lot of long term issues that a regular car review could not spot.

These are undeniably positive developments. At the same time, you should be aware of one vital fact:

Car reviews can’t replace test drives and physical checks

As great as the web is, it can never fully replace the physical world. In the end, after you’ve clicked on buy and paypaled the seller, you will be driving a real car, with very real problems, repairs and costs.

This is why you can never base your decision solely on a car review – especially if you intend to buy used. Reviews have their limits. Let’s discuss these for a second.

What a car review is

A review is an overview of the advantages and disadvantages of a car. As such, it can not ignore the facts. But since numbers alone are meaningless, a review urgently needs opinions, assessments and recommendations. It is not supposed to be objective.

Rather, it presents you with the opinion of an expert. In itself, this may not seem enough. But you can develop a strategy to improve its value:

  • By comparing multiple reviews of the same model, you can get a pretty good picture which of the points they agree on and where there’s disagreement.
  • Adding opinions by actual drivers to the equation provides you with more hands-on assessments.
  • Watching youtube videos adds more life to the words.

In the end, however, none of this is particularly meaningful if you’re ‘not feeling it’. Sometimes, you really need to sit down behind the wheel to see if all the controls are within comfortable reach for your size. Sometimes, you need to take the car for a ride yourself to see if you’re truly enjoying its behaviour on the road.

And with a second hand vehicle, you obviously need to inspect the car in person to assess its condition.

This may get harder and harder to do: The automobile industry, after some initial scepticism, is now fully committed to online transactions. More and more customers are buying cars without ever setting foot in a retail store. Whether or not that’s a good thing is open to debate.

Either way, don’t allow this to keep you from paying the car a personal visit.

Where to find car reviews

Another thing the Internet has done is to diversify car reviews. Formerly, you would find car reviews in a few select newspapers, dedicated car magazines and on television. Today, they’re posted on online car magazines, car valuation sites, the webspace of consumer organisations as well as youtube.

Certainly, video reviews have established themselves as the format of the future. They’re much closer to the sensation of actually taking a test drive than any of the traditional reviews. And yet, all of these formats have their merit.

Let’s take a look at them in turn to see where to find the best car reviews.

Car magazines

Just like the traditional album review in the music industry, car reviews in the best car magazines feel so natural that we take them for granted. As we’ll show you, when discussing the reviews created by ‘independent’ consumer organisations and video reviews, this is no longer self-explanatory. The classic car review may be on its way out, albeit slowly.

For the moment, however, written car reviews by car magazines still have a few benefits:

  • They provide information in a quick and easy to digest way. You can peruse them much faster, for example, than a video review, which you usually have to sit through in its entirety.
  • They can give you a wealth of information, which would be harder to present in a more visual format.
  • Although many car magazines have been snapped up by major news corporations, most reporters are still enthusiastic about their trade and feel a real urge to share their insights with you.
  • The classic UK car magazines have vast archives of past reviews, which make for entertaining and insightful reading and allow for useful comparisons.

So, what are some of the magazines that are worth looking at?

The big two: Autocar / Auto Express

A lot of the criticism aimed at the traditional car magazines is justified. And yet, we often forget that, in the UK, we have a long tradition of excellent automobile publications.

In fact, the UK is the birthplace of the car magazine, with the earliest and most long-lived publications originating here.

Certainly, you can get a lot valuable information visiting the websites of magazines like Autocar and Auto Express, two of its biggest examples.

Between the two, the Auto Express reviews stand out as being just a little clearer. We compared their reviews of the Dacia Duster and found the Auto Express article easier to browse for facts and easier to read. There are plenty of summaries generously spread across the text, which allows you to get the most important information without having to read everything.

Alternatives: Top Gear / Car Magazine

Even car reviews by Auto Express are, however, still pretty dry to work through. Which is why we instead recommend two different publications.

Car reviews by Top Gear are a lot shorter in comparison. This is actually nothing to scoff at. In a time when you want to get to the meat quickly, these no nonsense, super compressed features are incredibly useful.

The currently best reviews in our opinion can however be found at Car Magazine. Modestly referring to themselves as “the world’s most authoritative car mag”, the mag excels in features which are truly different and stand out for their journalistic quality. Their reviews have a distinct personality and real opinion, written in a recognisable style – entertaining yet still serious.

Car Magazine also has an excellent Youtube channel – combined, the two add up to possibly the best all around car review site.

Motortrend

Motortrend is one of the USA’s most important car review publishers. Its network spans the globe, from dedicated Spanish. Canadian and American sites to India. It includes specialised websites from Super Chevy and Mustang 360 to Fourwheeler and Lowrider.

Motortrend is a good example for how traditional print media style content can be combined with newer formats like video. Most of their car reviews comprise of a few concise paragraphs as well as a complementary visual segment, which doesn’t just rehash the written information, but sensibly adds to it.

Reviews are written in a slightly more emotional style and, although still very much informative, make for entertaining reading. The only downside: This is very much a website geared towards the US market.

Consumer websites / Car valuation websites


Over the past decade, journalism has changed significantly. Some of the best content has shifted away from traditional magazines and towards other sources. In the music business, labels may now be one of the best sources to get insightful music interviews, and sponsors like Red Bull are producing high quality video features which most magazines simply couldn’t afford.

Something similar has happened in the car industry. Manufacturers like Porsche are running their own Media Newsroom, which offers interviews and articles. Honda’s channel, meanwhile, offers how tos and even music videos.

As nice as these offers are. you obviously won’t find any unbiased information there. And as we’ve already discussed, car magazines may feel the pressure of manufacturers to keep things positive. So, where to turn to instead?

The websites of consumer organisations and car valuation companies have provided a viable alternative. These are companies which have plenty of experience and knowledge when it comes to cars. Yet, they don’t have the big corporations breathing down their neck. Let’s take a look at what they have to offer you.

The RAC

The RAC make for an obvious candidate for offering car reviews. After all, they’re perfectly placed for assessing the true value of a vehicle thanks to their roadside assistance service.

Curiously, these play no role whatsoever in their rather sober reviews. Instead, what you’re getting is an extremely to the point and transparent overview of the respective pros and cons.

It’s not exactly revolutionary stuff. But at least you can be sure that the RAC are pretty unbiased when it comes to their verdicts.

Which?

As a consumer organisation generally considered one of the driving forces behind consumer rights in the UK, you can expect Which? to take a hard stance towards car manufacturers. Certainly, you won’t find any sweet talking here. These are reviews that focus on hard facts and care little for the reputation of a brand. This puts them in a pretty unique position when it comes to car reviews.

Although Which? obviously doesn’t only review automobiles and may not be on the same expert level as, say, the writers at Car Magazine, they do know what they’re talking about. The Which? Car Guide was essential for potential car buyers for many years.

The only disadvantage is that you’ll have to become a member to be able to peruse the car reviews online. Membership does come at a very agreeable price, however. So it’s certainly something you ought to consider.

Parkers / Carbuyer / Edmunds

Finally, you can now also find reviews at the websites of car valuation companies / car traders. This, too, is a logical step. As more and more drivers buy and sell cars online, reliable car valuation data is paramount. Companies like Parkers, which built up a solid foundation during the print age virtually soared when they put their content online.

When it comes to car reviews, do these companies, however, have something on offer that others don’t? Let’s be perfectly honest: Not really. Car reviews by Parkers are lucid and smoothly written, offering a lot of information at one glance. We do prefer them above some of those published by car magazines, but they’re essentially made from the same cloth. The same goes for carbuyer, whose reviews feel somewhat bland.

A glance across the Atlantic may be worth your while. Edmunds is the American equivalent to Parkers and their car reviews take a somewhat different approach: After a short summary of the pros and cons of a model. Edmunds provides you with hands-on buying information on which specific model to select (A Honda Accord LX or EX? A BMW 530i or 540i?). They also offer direct links to every single version of a car (the 2019 edition versus the 2016 or 2012). Plus, they’ve integrated user opinions into the reviews, which significantly adds to the picture.

All in all, by combining well-known elements from standard reviews, Edmunds has created one of the best car review spaces on the web.

Youtube

Although the web has increased the amount of information available for car buyers, most car reviews still feel like simple transfers of print reviews to the digital domain.

Youtube has changed all this, and mostly for the better. On myriads of channels with thousands of collective hours of video, mechanics and car experts around the world are sharing their wisdom and tips in a previously unimaginable way: Personal, relatable and sometimes interactive.

Here are some of the car review channels on Yotube we like and appreciate.

Auto Guide

339,718 subscribers and counting – Auto Guide is one of the biggest brands in online automobile journalism. Their clips look incredible, are produced to be both informative and entertaining and come in a lot of different formats: Individual car reviews, head to head comparisons and plenty of how to guides make for countless hours of watching.

Granted, the style of the editorial team may not be to everyone’s liking. Some of the acting comes across as forced, some of the opinions and assessments are debatable. But as we’ve said before: A good review should and has to be subjective – and in that department, Auto Guide sure knows how to score.

Edmunds

Edmunds makes a second appearance in this feature – this time, as a Youtube video channel. Although virtually every car review site out there now also operates a video channel, Edmunds is one of the few who are getting it right. Their Youtube page offers concrete shopping advice next to car reviews, comparisons and, importantly, individual brand channels.

Video car reviews by Edmunds are a bit more dry and factual than those by Auto Guide. But they’re just as well shot and professional. What’s more, they seem less forced and more insightful. Quite a few of the bigger features offer contrasting opinions from different editors and result in surprising verdicts.

If you’re serious about buying a car, this is a channel you should definitely not miss.

Autogefühl

Say what you like about the Germans. But they do know their cars. Autogefühl is an English-language channel run by Thomas, a German car enthusiast and automobile journalist. His reviews stand out for their depth – many of them comprise of Thomas taking you for a long drive through different terrains to really put the car in question to the test.

Often running close to three quarters of an hour, these are reviews for people who want to be thorough when buying a car – just like a German would.

Regular Cars

Regular Cars is the least professional car review channel, with the simplest and cheapest-looking videos and … it’s huge!  At 600,000 subscribers it even dwarfs far more glossy outfits like Auto Guide and Autogefühl.

How is this possible?

Simple: Regular Cars is not about expensive luxury cars or dream vehicles that will melt your eyes in admiration. As its name implies, it is about cars that are within the reach of everyone. Affordable, simple, but still great vehicles that will do everything you expect from a car.

Plus, the leftfield humour of this channel’s hosts more than makes up for its relatively sober presentation.

And there you have it: An overview of the best car review sites from around the world. By selecting the ones that are ideal for you, you should be able to arrive at the best possible decision – before actually heading over to our showroom and taking a look for yourself!

24 January 2019 Concept Car