What car to buy

David Bullard says listen to motoring journos at your own peril


Back in the early 2000’s I suddenly decided that it might be quite fun to have a mid-life career change and become a motoring journalist. After all, motoring journos get lent cars they couldn’t possibly afford on their meagre salaries, they get flown all over the world for car launches, they get to go to motor shows and other motoring events and some of them even get lent what are known as ‘long term test vehicles’; which is effectively a motor industry bribe to save them the cost of buying their own vehicles.

Why a test over six months or a year should be any more effective than a test drive over two days or even a week I could never work out but it’s apparently essential for some motor journos to evaluate a brand new car over a period of months just to see if anything goes wrong with it. Besides, it’s always nice to have a donated Range Rover Sport in the garage for the odd weekend away with friends. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Becoming a motor journo isn’t usually that easy because there are normally long queues of spotty faced, petrol head youths outside the lifestyle editor’s office begging for the job. Traditionally the job never paid that well because newspaper management knew that the number of applicants would always exceed the number of jobs available and that they could get away with paying very low wages in lieu of the job perks.

At the Sunday Times though it was dead easy to become the bestselling English newspaper’s motoring correspondent because a former editor, the late Ken Owen, thought motor journalists were a bunch of scrounging ne'er do wells (he may have had a point) and so the newspaper didn’t carry any car reviews for several years. Ken was rather a grumpy fellow and didn’t see why anybody else should benefit from generous freebies if he wasn’t also on the receiving end.

Being of a slightly more commercial disposition and always having the financial health of my former employer in mind I arranged a meeting with my editor and suggested that what we needed in the paper was a regular motoring column which could potentially attract advertising and that I was the man for the job. At the time car sales were buoyant and the amount of advertising the Sunday Times was missing was significant. My argument appeared to make sense to them and so I was given a three month’s trial to see how things went.

The first thing you need as an aspiring motoring journalist is access to vehicles and for that you needed to be a member of the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists. I wasn’t very keen on that idea because I suspected it might affect my freedom to write what I wanted about a car so I decided not to join. This left me in a bit of a difficult position because the Guild was not only sponsored by the motor industry but also wielded a certain amount of power when it came to judging the car of the year. Fortunately, I had a very good relationship with the House of Sports Cars in Randburg and they very kindly lent me some extremely expensive vehicles to help kick the column off. In one or two cases these were cars that hadn’t even reached the dealer’s showrooms. The first couple of columns went down well with readers so things were looking promising.

This caused great consternation within the Guild and a special meeting was called by John Metcalfe, the chairman, to discuss me muscling onto their turf and to call for an industry ban on lending The Sunday Times, and in particular me, any test cars. While this went down well with many of the Guild members it didn’t go down as well with the manufacturers and Toyota were quick to point out that, while they may be part sponsors of the Guild, that didn’t mean they had to do what the Guild told them to do.

They also pointed out that The Sunday Times sold many more copies than most of the publications the other journos wrote for so it would be sheer stupidity to ignore commercial reality. After a few weeks other motor manufacturers also came around and it wasn’t too long before I was being offered test cars to drive and getting invited to car launches, much to the evident annoyance of many Guild members who refused to talk to me at the launches.

Within a couple of months The Sunday Times began to see some pretty decent motor industry advertising come in which pleased management, particularly when a new BMW launch wrap-around for the Lifestyle section was priced at a very healthy premium above the normal cost of advertising.

I suddenly found myself being lent top of the range Mercedes, BMW’s and even a Maserati Quattroporte on one occasion which I would park ostentatiously next to the parking basement lifts most used by the company management. I was also getting invited to overseas launches because I had a British passport and didn’t have to apply for a Shengen visa.

So I drove a new Porsche Turbo in the South of Spain, visited the Rolls Royce factory in Goodwood, Sussex, drove on the Toyota test track near Mt Fuji in Japan, went to the F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne, drove a Jaguar in the Algarve and drove the new Porsche Panamera in Austria. All the foreign car trips involved travelling down the sharp end of the aircraft and staying in five star hotels plus enjoying an open account at the bar. No wonder motor journalism is so popular.

Back home things were just as much fun. I flew to Cape Town, stayed in a suite at the Mount Nelson and the next day raced a Bentley Continental against the Rovos Rail train to Pretoria in a tribute to Barney Barnato. Those who weren’t driving at the time were enjoying all the hospitality that Rovos Rail offered until it was their turn to drive. I was also the first SA motoring journo to drive the Rolls Royce Phantom in 2004 which raised a few hackles. I’ve driven Aston Martins, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and I even took a Bentley Flying Spur around Zwartkops raceway at an insane speed.

After a few months writing about cars for The Sunday Times I got a regular Saturday morning motoring spot on SABC radio and in 2004 a new TV show called ‘Car Torque’ was commissioned for SABC 1 with me as one of the four presenters which led to even more overseas launch invitations. That, and other lifestyle magazine writing gigs had me well established as a motoring journalist and I still hadn’t bothered to join the Guild.

As much fun as it all was and as honestly as I attempted to write about a new car I have to admit to massive cynicism whenever I hear a car review on radio or read one online or in a magazine.

The first problem is that most motoring journos are pretty poorly paid which suggests that they probably can’t afford the cars they are reviewing. So when I hear them gush that the new whatever it is comes in the basic model at R1.2 mln and that, in their opinion, is a pretty good price I generally tune out. I heard a review of a car the other day which is priced at R2.5mln. What on earth does it do that a car costing a fifth of that doesn’t do? So it has a luxurious cabin, lots of electronic gizmos and sumptuous leather seats. Well so does my living room and if I’m travelling all of 30kms to Cape Town once a month I certainly don’t need to be enveloped in such luxury at that sort of price. Apart from the fact that my R2.5 mln car will draw unwanted attention to myself and make me a potential target for crime.

The second problem is that a motoring journo will almost certainly want to be invited to the next launch which is, I’m afraid to say, why so many motor reviews can be safely ignored because the worst thing you are likely to read in a new car review is that rear seat leg space is a bit limited or there aren’t enough cup holders.

Most cars are superbly put together these days and, apart from a few design quibbles, it would be difficult to fault them. You can always compare specifications on competing models which makes sense. In not such bygone days everything was an optional extra on German cars and I remember having to order a radio/tape deck and speakers to be fitted to my new

BMW323i back in 1986. These days most models come fitted with a decent audio system and all sorts of other paraphernalia such as 360 degree cameras, park distance control, anti-lock braking system and electronic stability control plus a flat screen in the middle of the dashboard that can talk to your Smart phone, play your downloaded music, allow you to make hands free phone calls and display road maps for satellite navigation.

Having just bought a car for R310 000 with all the above-mentioned specifications I find it odd that anybody would think it a smart idea in these financially stretched times to pay more than twice that for a car that does precisely the same. For example, a VW Golf GTi will cost you around R900 000 and a BMW 118i R685 000 so all you're paying for it seems is the brag factor. It’s rather like paying an absurd price for a locally made artisanal gin when for half the price you can buy an imported bottle of Tanqueray which will have much the same effect on your driving ability after three double measures mixed with a sickly sweet tonic water.

If you take into account depreciation and the cost of insurance it’s hardly surprising that an increasing number of car buyers are deserting the over-priced Germans in favour of Japanese, Chinese, Indian and South Korean marques, most of which offer exactly the same features as their more expensive competitors at a fraction of the price. Just once though it would be nice to hear an honest motor journo read out the price of an expensive new model with the comment ‘they have to be joking’.