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Safe at Any Speed

Safe at Any Speed

We have seen worse driving before, but not very often. Heading into a long looping “S” curve, the man at  the wheel of the Audi A7 accelerates toward the apex of the turn then, yanking the wheel hard into the turn, lifts off the gas and brakes. The result is predictable; with the tires squealing and the driver and passenger lurching hard to the left, the big sedan’s tail slides around and fishtails through the bend.

Consumer Reports Test Track

This, it seems, is precisely the effect the car’s driver, David Champion, Senior Director of Consumer Reports Auto Testing, has in mind. “With some cars the tail will swing all the way around and you’ll go off the road or hit something coming the oth er way,” he says.

Champion is accustomed to this kind of driving; his father was a tire engineer for Goodyear and he recalls going to test tracks in England as a boy and seeing the orange pylons flying everywhere.

He would have no such issues today; the Audi’s brakes and suspension enable Champion to keep the car moving in the intended direction and we continue motoring down the track looking for the next  predicaments – skids, panic braking, and side to side careening – before turning back to the man’s garage. Anywhere else in the country — say, a highway or a back country road – this kind of driving would be discouraged if not illegal. But not here; for automotive designers, engineers, executives, and car buffs around the world this is hallowed ground, the 327-acre Consumer Reports Test Track in Colchester, Connecticut.

At first glance the track looks much like any other but unlike garden variety ovals this one isn’t intended to coax drivers to pulse-pounding levels of speed and high performance. Au contraire, it’s all about safety, reliability, convenience, economy, and comfort. “When we’re driving the track we don’t look for the best line through a curve,” said Champion. “We’re trying to drive the way the average driver might.”

In the process the British-born Champion and his colleagues — some twenty automotive engineers, technicians, and support staff — subject some four score cars and trucks each year to the kind of rigors most drivers would be well advised to avoid. By the time the evaluation process testing is over a vehicle will be subjected to at least 50 individual tests as well as thousands of miles of on-road driving.

Some of these criteria employ sophisticated electronic gear to measure economy, pre-crash systems, and power trains. Others are more subjective, reflecting an awareness of the real world you don’t get from digital instruments. Some cars, for instance, are ‘ten minute’ cars, said Champion, walking over to a Honda Civic in the garage. “After ten minutes the kids in the back seat will start squabbling because the side window sill is too high. All the kids can see is the interior, and they get bored.”

Far more desirable, from the kids’ perspective, at least, is the roomy Chrysler Town & Country. “The sill is much lower; the kids have far better visibility and they enjoy the ride more.”  

Headlight testing showed that while Xenon lights were whiter than conventional headlights, they weren’t really an improvement. “They didn’t really light up farther down the road. And how you see down the road with low beams is more important than with high beams.”

Then there’s the seemingly simple feature he especially likes on the humongous Ford F-250 diesel parked in the middle of the garage; it’s a step that folds down from above the license plate. “Some truck drivers disparage it. They call it the ‘Granny step,’” he says as he climbs up to grab a box set in the middle of the cargo bed by way of demonstration. “But when you need it, it’s really nice.”

Cars aren’t Consumer Reports’ only focus; a typical issue may review digital cameras, chocolate bars, deodorants, paper towels, hot dogs, and exercise treadmills, to name a few popular consumer items. 

For that matter, there are countless ‘buff books’ — magazine and newspaper columns, and radio and TV shows — that review cars, trucks, SUVs, assorted off road vehicles, and luxury cars. Some of these — Car and Driver and Road & Track come to mind — are highly regarded and authoritative in their own right. But unlike virtually all, the aforesaid Consumer Reports doesn’t accept paid advertising. Nor, by the same token, does it accept test vehicles supplied gratis by manufacturers or participate in all-expense-paid “fact-finding” junkets to lavish resorts set amid exotic climes. It does, however, encourage feedback from its readers. As a result, like the parent organization, the non-profit Consumers Union, the monthly magazine has become synonymous with ethicality, accuracy, and professionalism while its annual questionnaire, which draws 1.3 million responses, is considered the most credible and representative poll of its sort.

It wasn’t always this way. In its infancy, with this country hungry for consumer goods, some mainstays of the American Establishment circa WWII viewed Consumer Reports with suspicion. In 1939, Readers Digest accused the then three-year-old consumer advocacy organization of being a fraud out to destroy the capitalist system. That same year, Good Housekeeping accused Consumer Reports of prolonging the Great Depression. 

Today, given the vagaries of our global economy, Consumer Reports is arguably more useful to the motoring consumer than ever before. “Every year there’s a new technology which means there’s that much more to test,” Champion says. “And cars change so much from year to year.”

But this doesn’t necessarily mean they improve, he says. “Take the latest Honda Civic,” says Champion, leading the way back to his office where he picks up a file folder of past reviews. “Now, the Civic is one of our all-time favorites; we first tested it in June 1974 and Honda has always produced great cars. But a car maker cannot ride on reputation. A few years ago the Civic was a top pick and now it’s not recommended.”

Likewise, says Champion, the Toyota 4Runner was once a nice vehicle, but now the Grand Cherokee is a nicer car. “Cars are cyclical. You look at Honda and Toyota and you can see they’ve peaked.” 

One marque which has earned high ratings from Champion and his colleagues is Hyundai. This comes as no surprise to the Miles Johnson, the Korean car maker’s product public relations manager.  “We earned a Best Buy in class in 2009 for the Elantra SE model, a CR top pick in 2009 and also in 2011, after we added electronic stability control.” 

This hardly surprised Consumer Reports, who had told Hyundai it would be a good idea to do so. “Every car maker listens to Consumer Reports,” says Johnson. “We just listen to them more closely than others. Also our product development is set so we can make changes late in the cycle. If they say ‘Add a rear window wiper,’ we’ll do it.”

d Ford, too, has occasionally taken Consumer Reports’ suggestions to heart. When, in the magazine’s review of the 2011 Edge, Consumer Reports stated that the transmission had "noticeable and aggressive grade logic intrusion on down hills" Ford engineers recalibrated the transmission to provide more seamless deceleration rates for this type of terrain.  “The updated software was in production vehicles a couple of months after the results of the Edge test were published,” says Bill Collins, Ford Director of Public and Business Affairs.

Carmakers don’t heed every suggestion from Consumer Reports. “In January 2011 we hammered Lincoln for its controls. You had to go through a touch screen that made them tedious and hard to use. We met with Ford engineers to discuss their controls but to no avail.”

Nonetheless, says Champion, his job is immensely rewarding. “People say, “Testing cars sounds like a great job, and it is. Sometimes it gets a bit boring, when you have to do test after test after test on six cars. But then you think, “Say, this really is a great job.”

Still, we wonder; what kind of car does Champion drive?  “Last night I drove a new Volkswagen Jetta,” he said. “It hasn’t improved with age though the older sport version is one we recommend.” Tonight it will be something different. “I drive a different car every day.”