The truth about automotive journalism

Back in 2008 we posted an ad on this site looking for people interested in writing for CarAdvice. In less than 24 hours we had more than 1500 applicants. And at least two-dozen of them were actually well qualified for the job! (Well, at least on paper.)
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Since then hundreds of other applications have been sent to us (and no doubt plenty of other motoring publications). It’s true, then, that flying all over the world and test-driving cars for a living is one of those jobs many only dream about.

The life of an automotive journalist in Australia can be incredibly exciting, there’s no doubt about it. The industry we work in is largely thriving (despite the collapse of the local manufacturers) and given the massive number of brands that operate here (more than 50, and nearly double the number of car brands in the USA), the release schedule for new product is consistent and always evolving.

A vehicle’s model life cycle is somewhere between four to eight years (or 12 and counting if you’re a Mitsubishi Pajero or Volvo XC90), and this sequence regularly involves an initial international ‘launch’ followed by a local first drive.


The models are then usually updated at least once throughout their life with a facelift that might also involve updates to their drivetrain or interior. The Germans in particular also love to add additional variants along the way, which further increases the number of launch events per model.

On average, there is at least one international launch and two local car launches a week. Basically it would be impossible for a single motoring writer to attend all events, which is why there is more than one of us employed in each publication.

Nonetheless, the busy automotive launch schedule means we do a lot of flying.

In 2013 I boarded 268 flights, of which included 16 overseas trips and plenty of domestic travel. Having done the math, it was at least 53 full days of my life that I spent onboard a moving aircraft in one single year. 2014 is shaping up to be no better.


While this has the added bonus of more frequent flyer points than any sane man can spend (and an unhealthy obsession that sees me log into more often than my internet banking account), it does mean a constant state of motion that is not exactly ideal, or healthy (having kidney stones before my 30th birthday is a highlight). But the payoff is the cars, and if you’re an enthusiast it can be heaven on earth.

In the eight years since CarAdvice started, I have driven more than a thousand different vehicles and have been exceptionally fortunate to experience some of the world’s fastest and most exotic cars, including notable examples such as the Bugatti Veyron and Koenigsegg CCX-R.


So who are we, these car journalists that fill the pages of websites, newspapers and magazines?

Competitive, that’s for certain. Australian motoring writers have gained a worldwide reputation as a tenacious – and perhaps even ferocious – bunch in our questioning of automotive executives.

Motoring journalists also know each other rather well, and in an industry as small as ours the internal politics are astounding.

The seriousness by which we take our job leads to a level of politicking and backstabbing that would make Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd proud, a curse so rampant in the big media world that you might think we are saving newborns from imminent death. But alas, we are simply reviewing cars.

You can be assured there are plenty of over-inflated egos and misplaced senses of self-importance in our world.


From an outside perspective it’s hard to imagine how we can complain when flying in style around the world and staying at fancy hotels, but we do. To be fair, our worldwide travels are short and usually without a minute spare. They are time spent away from friends and family and by all accounts, this job has claimed plenty of marriages.

Short trips to Europe, where the time it takes to fly there (around 30 hours each way including stop-over) is more than the time we spend on the ground, are far too common.

Nonetheless, whatever our excuse is for not being eternally grateful for what we do, human nature dictates we evolve to suit our conditions, and when your conditions include the definition of first-world problems, you consider getting a middle-seat at the pointy end of a plane a world-ending situation (and believe me, worlds have indeed ended as a result).

But the biggest disconnect from reality is very obvious when you consider that many motoring journalists rarely buy new cars, because we don’t need to with all the press cars we continually drive.


Of course, few motoring journalists are wealthy enough to own a large number of the cars available in showrooms (cue small violins), so we can only try and imagine what’s involved emotionally and rationally in the purchase of supercars or high-end luxury vehicles – because, after all, we are entrusted with words, photos and video to tell you, the consumer with the hard-earned cash, what we think you should buy.

The challenge of jumping out of a Porsche 911 one week and into a Hyundai ix35 the next and fairly assessing both for the right target group is a tricky one.

Of course, car journalists should be well off, because according to some we’re all in the pockets of manufacturers paying to get a good rating, and gagged by advertising dollars to be commercially sensitive to manufacturers that apparently indirectly pay our wages.

I have heard stories that in the ’70s a manufacturer would leave an awfully large amount of money in the glovebox of test cars and label it “fuel money”. But that was 40 years ago, and it sure as hell doesn’t happen anymore – or if it does, I am definitely missing out!


More humorous tales have seen one writer bring his laundry from home and put it through the hotel’s dry cleaning service at the unsuspecting manufacturer’s expense. Another borrowed a ute to take garbage to the tip only to return it with the garbage still in tow, and one of our own once decided on whether he would attend a launch based on the lunch menu!

Perhaps the best, though, is having an unbelievably long list of different adult movies rack up on the hotel bill after a single night stay – and leaving the car company to foot the bill.

Personally, I’ve ended up in a hospital in Monaco after an adventurous night of partying with rally folk. At least the hospital bill was free (take note, Tony Abbott).

Nonetheless, nothing in the world irritates me more than a comment on CarAdvice that insinuates a car has received a high rating because of advertising dollars. It simply doesn’t happen.

You might of course think that having our flights and hotel rooms paid for is a form of bribery. Again, this is a huge misconception – one that even Media Watch fell for not too long ago. One, because every manufacturer does it, and two, if they didn’t we would be unable to cover their car launches.


For example, if we had to pay our own way to each car launch (which a big and, ahem, fair media company once decided to do, for an exceptionally short period of time) we would have to pick and choose which cars we would cover, leaving some manufacturers out and our readers not wholly informed. It’s not a viable decision.

Since 2006 when CarAdvice started, there has never been one cent paid for a positive review and that’s something we hold very dear.

If you ever see advertising of the same brand wrapped around its own review, it’s simply because manufacturers want to make sure their own ads appear next to their own cars so another brand can’t take it up seeking conquest sales.

But do manufacturers get pissed off when we give one of their cars a poor rating or position in a comparison? Yes, absolutely. Do they call and complain? Absolutely. Do they threaten to pull advertising? It has certainly happened in the past and that’s the world we live in.

But here’s the thing. If for one moment we allowed a car company’s complaint or threat to pull advertising affect our editorial integrity, we would become meaningless and our advice would be worth nothing.

So why should you listen to what any of us have to say?


A financial advisor has actual qualifications and a strict code of conduct to adhere to when you seek advice (well, so they tell us), what about us? The CarAdvice folk … why should you listen to us? What qualifications do we have to advise you on your second-largest financial purchase?

You can pretty much sum it up in one word: experience. Each of us drive hundreds of cars a year, comparing similar cars back to back, and have been doing so for years and years. And this saves you having to do the same on your Saturdays and, more importantly, by reading what we write, it should give you a much deeper understanding of what a car actually offers, often because we know far more than the ever rotating roster of dealer salespeople actually selling the car.

It’s that experience of having visited the factories where cars come from and experiencing all the performance and safety technology in a controlled environment that allows us to give informed advice. Most people buy four to five new cars in their lifetime, so it’s vital that you research your car and choices thoroughly.

All in all though, being a motoring journalist is no doubt one of the best jobs in the world.

What we do may not save newborn babies, but if you take our advice it might help save you or your loved one’s life having picked a car with more advanced active safety technologies. Our advice might also save you thousands of dollars in fuel, servicing or resale value, which can mean more cash for a holiday or two.

But, please, there’s no need to thank us. Our egos couldn’t possibly handle any more stroking.

So while we may write a complaint letter to Qantas about their wine selection in first class, we do actually have a valid reason for existing (at least more than bankers and parking inspectors) and that’s to help you find the right car.