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Monday 23 August 2004

More Lazy SUV Journalism

I really do promise not to do this too often. But it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

I don’t mean to pick on Warren Brown of the Washington Post again, because overall he seems like a pretty reasonable person. However, he doesn’t seem like much of a journalist, even when you take into account the fact that he’s writing car reviews, which are supposed to be about his opinions.

Mr. Brown reviewed the 2004 Volkwagen Passat GLS 4Motion wagon recently, and the headline the Post stuck on the article was ‘A Smooth Alternative to the SUV’.

Mr. Brown likes the Volkswagen Passat GLS 4Motion station wagon; he recently used it to drive from Washingtonia to New York to catch a plane for his Alaskan vacation. All of his luggage fit in the back of the car, without even folding down the rear seats: he could have fit three more people in there!

Not if those people had any luggage of their own, of course, but that’s another matter. He was pleased with the capacity of the wagon.

That made me nosey. At rest stops along the New Jersey Turnpike, I peeked inside of various minivans and sport-utility vehicles on apparent holiday treks. They were easy to spot — with bicycles hanging from their rear hatches and kayaks and water skis attached to their roofs, that sort of thing.

Empirical observation showed that those larger vehicles, many of them substantially bigger, had no more cargo space, carried no more stuff, or were capable of carrying no more people than the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon. Many of the behemoths were equipped with four-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive, as noted by exterior labeling. As its name implies, the Passat GLS 4Motion wagon comes with all-wheel drive, too.

[…] But although we didn’t take up as much space on the highway as the gargantuan runners, we seemed to use almost as much gasoline — especially considering that the GLS 4Motion is equipped with a relatively small, in-line four-cylinder, 1.8-liter, 170-horsepower, turbocharged engine.

Where to even begin with this? This is the guy who concluded that people in Alaska are less ‘vain’ and subject to ‘whims’ based on a few observations — observations that are contradicted by statistics — while on vacation.

Now he’s using ‘empirical observation’ — a tautology, that — to conclude that ‘substantially larger’ SUVs and minivans are actually not capable of carrying any more cargo than what must be the ‘substantially smaller’ VW Passat Wagon.

I’m not going to bother with a table of measurements — they’re hard to format nicely — but rest assured that he’s wrong on nearly all counts.

passat-in-a-boxThe Passat Wagon is 184.3 inches long, 68.7 inches wide, and 58.6 inches tall. Excluding ground clearance (which is one place where the Passat Wagon is significantly different from SUVs), the Passat Wagon, if it were a rectilinear block, occupies 387 cubic feet.

Okay, maybe I will do a table. The Washington Post asks you to trust empirical observation, and gets it wrong. Here at Tinotopia, we prove things:

Total volume (cuft.)Cargo volume (cuft.)Volume vs. Passat% Cargo volume

There are two SUVs here that are ‘substantially larger’ than the Passat Wagon, and two that aren’t. The Land Rover Discovery and the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen are each about an inch longer than the Passat; the Discovery is five inches wider than the Passat, and the G-Wagen two inches wider. Both are about a foot taller than the Passat, which, I suppose, is what makes them ‘behemoths’. They only ‘take up more space on the highway’, these ‘gargantuan’ vehicles, in the sense that they cast longer shadows. And yet they do offer more cargo volume. The smallest SUV, the Mercedes, offers over twice as much cargo space as the Passat, and it does it more efficiently, too, with about 15% of the total volume of the ‘vehicle block’ being available for cargo, as opposed to only about 9% of the Passat. The ‘substantially larger’ SUVs, the only things you might be able to legitimately call ‘gargantuan’ ‘behemoths’, offer up to four times as much cargo volume as the Passat. This is only to be expected, but what’s interesting is that they, too, are substantially more efficient in their cargo-volume-to-total-volume ratio.

I have only used SUVs here, but the Passat Wagon would compare even less favorably on these strange terms with minivans.

When I was a young man, back there in journalism school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you should never make assume anything in journalism, because when you assume you ‘make an ass out of u and me’. Ha ha ha ha ha. Get it? Assume = ass/u/me. Ass.

It’s impossible to argue with reviews exactly, because they’re supposed to be expressions of opinion. With time, the readers come to understand the critic’s biases and they learn to apply the critic’s opinions to their own world. For instance, Tom Shales, the Washington Post’s head TV and movie critic, hates movies and TV. Some of his movie reviews even get character names and major plot points wrong, raising questions of whether or not he actually saw the movies in question. Once you know this about Shales, though, you can better assess just what his opinion is worth.

What Brown is doing is worse, though, because he’s spreading out-and-out, verifiable falsehoods. It’s as if Tom Shales said you should go see Alien vs. Predator because all the other movies out his week were silent and in black-and-white. With subtitles. In Polish.

The truth is, of course, that there are a wide range of awful movies showing, every one of them in full color and with bum-rattling audio effects, all the better to distract the viewer from the ‘plot’. Even Tom Shales wouldn’t try to tell you otherwise.

But Mr. Brown’s ‘empirical observations’ are accepted as journalism. This car is a ‘smooth’ alternative to SUVs, according to the Post’s headline people, even though it gets lousy gas mileage and doesn’t hold as much. Go figure.

Build a station wagon, make it look beefy, and call it an ‘SUV’, and it’s somehow offensive. Build a very similar vehicle, call it a ‘station wagon’, and it’s delightful. Brown spends half of his review talking about how comparable are the Passat Wagon and the broad class of vehicles known as ‘SUV’s. Why is it, then, that one of those comes in for constant, mindless attack?

Specifically: why are so many people so minutely concerned with what others choose to consume? An all-wheel-drive station wagon is okay, but there’s something wrong with an all-wheel drive ‘SUV’ that differs from the station wagon most significantly in that it’s a few inches taller and sits a bit further off the ground. One is just a practical vehicle, while the other is evidence of ‘vanity’ and ‘arrogance’ and all sorts of other things. I don’t get it.

Posted by tino at 14:24 23.08.04
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Speaking of SUV vs. Station Wagon, I just love the irony that the favorite 4WD Wagon of the greenie set, the Suburu Outback, is actually classified as a light truck to get around the CAFE standards.

Posted by: Nicole at August 23, 2004 03:26 PM

I will say something for the Passat vs a Discovery. I have a table that fit (wiith no legs) easily into my Passat sedan. It needed to be tilted and put diagonally to fit into the Discovery.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at August 24, 2004 11:49 AM