Think All Press Cars Are Ringers? Think Again


by @autobusiness

Auto journalism is unique in the world of journalism at large. Adventure journalists travel to foreign lands in search of the quaintest cafés and sandiest beaches, political journalists go to $500-per-plate dinners in Washington, and news journalists talk loudly in front of green screens. Auto journalists do none of these things. “We” (and I use this term in quotations because it isn’t my primary occupation) review products given to us by the people who make them. In our own minds, we provide feedback that car companies will use to make subsequent generations better (i.e. more to our personal liking). In the minds of the car companies, we’re spreading the good word about their most important new vehicles to untold millions via blogs, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.

Since we’re a valuable resource for them, car companies treat us rather well. Even for those of us who’ve never known personal hardship, it’s something else. But occasionally, this preferred treatment goes too far. About a year ago, Consumer Reports accused Volkswagen of adding trim to the Volkswagen Passat press fleets cars as a means of improving them. Is this common industry practice? Some people think so, but it’s tough to monitor without side-by-side comparisons. And even if more such instances were found, and this were really common industry practice, we must also ask how much difference it makes? 5%? 10%? Any percent? All I know is that Ford Canada, incidentally one of CarEnvy’s biggest proponents, is as innocent of such immoral behaviour as they come.

Exhibit A: The 2013 Ford Flex.

The Ford Flex that my fianceée, her wonderful friend, and I drove from Edmonton to Martins Lake in northern Saskatchewan last weekend, 1000km round trip, was chosen for its palatial seating and vast cargo hold. In both of those regards, it was ideal. It also had ventilated front seats, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth audio, and adaptive cruise – all delightful road trip accoutrements that made our journey immeasurably less stressful. But there were a few niggles that jumped out at me.

First and foremost was the overly firm ride quality. Ford can’t be accused of Ferrariesque manipulations here. On the optional 20” black wheels that come as part of the $950 Titanium appearance package, the highway ride was as busy as a bee on a deadline. It never settled and it always preoccupied the driver.

Then there was MyFord Touch. I’ve already gone on at length about this system (who hasn’t?), but in the Flex it presented some new glitches that not even I’d seen before. Whenever we opened the 2nd row cooler (it’s a $650 option for a 2nd row console plus a cringe-worthy $650 for the fridge function), MFT would kick out the iPhone connected via Bluetooth and start playing from the other iPhone connected via USB. Then there would be a solid few moments of unresponsive touch screen jabbing before the desired song would continue. When it did, it would still show the title of the USB’d iPhone instead of the Bluetooth’d one. It was very strange and even more annoying. Combine this with the usual MFT unfriendliness and the three of us were left wishing for software version 3.0 (and a freaking joystick).

Another unwanted first came when I was backing up out of my fiancee’s driveway, having just dropped her and her friend off at the end of our lovely journey to the lake, when I noticed that the image on the screen was scrolling vertically like an old TV with a bad signal. I was about to take a picture of it when a car pulled up to the right of me, triggering the cross-traffic alert, and settling the image down, as if nothing had ever happened. Giggety-giggety-glitch!

And all this is before we get to the panel gaps, like the trunk hinge you see above. I know, who even pays attention to panel gaps anymore? But I couldn’t ignore the marked misalignment between the doors, trunk, roof, and quarter panels, to say nothing of the condensation trapped in the taillights (I wish I’d taken a picture of this). I was this close to calling my chiropractor for a site visit. I’ve never seen anything quite like it on a car with 7,000km on the clock.

I’ve often wondered, having grown up in a generation where seemingly every new car can run for 300,000km with only regular oil changes, what the correlation was between panel gaps and mechanical reliability. I suppose that panel gaps could be indicative of shoddy workmanship, but this isn’t a 1978 Austin Allegro or a 1981 Oldsmobile Delta 88, this is a family vehicle based on a proven platform from a 21st manufacturer on the top of its game. Why, then, did this Flex have panel alignment issues like I’ve never seen? Let’s call it the un-ringer: the car they almost sent to the scrap yard but put in the hands of unwieldy journalists instead. I mean, if you’re going to let a car get manhandled, why waste one of the good ones?

Ford has risen meteorically of late by improving its design, powertrains, and perceived quality. Under CEO Alan Mulally, the company’s turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. The Flex, at least the 2013 example they generously provided for the purposes of this article, shows that they haven’t compromised their morality in the process. Although the 2009-2012 model years were barely average in JD Power’s Quality and Dependability studies, a sample size of one doesn’t tell us much about the refreshed 2013 model. At the very least, we can firmly say that not all car companies produce ringers for their press fleets – a comforting notion.

Our culture is inundated with stories of successful people, like Andrew Carnegie, who’ve trampled millions to make billions, but Ford may be an exception. They may have achieved the rare combination of success and honour. A moral revival? Why not?

How’s that for spreading the good word?

[Photo credits: author]

Ford Canada generously provided this vehicle for the purposes of this article.