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Always putting pedal to mettle

Consumer Reports, known for its annual auto issue, takes testing seriously. Who else buys its own cars and builds its own roads?

April 13, 2005|Steven Cole Smith | Orlando Sentinel

EAST HADDAM, Conn. — You're probably familiar with Consumer Reports magazine and its reputation for scrupulous testing of vacuum cleaners, contraceptives, cordless drills, tuna, spray paint and, of course, automobiles. Its annual April auto issue, released in March, is "must" reading not only for car buyers but for car executives.

It would be overestimating the reach of Consumer Reports to say it can make or break a vehicle, but not by much. With a circulation of more than 4 million -- roughly triple the world's largest automotive publication -- the magazine's effect is enormous.

Says one General Motors executive: "I don't know if they can make or break a car, but they can make or break a career."

So who are these people?

An assumption might be that they are a bunch of humorless clipboard-carrying engineers, clad in white lab coats, who really don't much like cars.

That assumption might be wrong, except for the clipboard and lab coat part.

"Most of us here like cars," says one of the 19 employees who work at the southern Connecticut facility. "Love cars. That's why we do this."

"We do love cars," says David Champion, senior director of the automotive technical division. "Good cars, anyway."

Consumer Reports testing is done at a 327-acre former speedway that parent company Consumers Union bought in 1986 and opened in 1989. The magazine renovated and repaved the track. It added a road course, a "skid pad" -- a big paved circle that tests handling and tire adhesion -- and an off-road course built from enormous boulders set in cement. The company added roads surfaced with slick pavement, bumpy pavement and noisy pavement. There is a snow-making machine if tests call for snow and the weather doesn't cooperate.

The testing facility is among the best in the country. Even the largest automotive publications must rent or borrow facilities, thus making the Consumer Reports compound the envy of the automotive media.

Another central difference between what Consumer Reports and other publications do is that CU buys the vehicles it tests, rather than borrowing them from the manufacturer.

That's helpful for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the magazine does six "bumper bash" tests, three hits to the front with a hydraulic ram, three to the rear. If damage occurs, it's repaired.

Champion and his staff love to come up with new tests that no other publication can duplicate. Example: After the Ford Explorer/Firestone fiasco in 2000, in which tires were recalled after deadly problems with blowouts and rollovers, it was suggested that the tires failed because of heat generated when tires were underinflated. So Champion wondered: How much air does a tire typically lose? The magazine bought dozens of new tires, mounted them on stands in a sealed room and measured the air pressure for months. The upshot: Some tires lose a lot of air, some not so much.

Staffers noticed that during nighttime drives in their rural area, headlight quality among vehicles varied. So one of the engineers now regularly checks the lunar tables, and on select moonless nights the staff spends the evening measuring the reach and effectiveness of headlights.

But even that can be subject to circumstances beyond the control of Consumer Reports -- and if there is one thing the testers hate, it's circumstances beyond their control -- so they built what is referred to as the Headlight Building, a big, absolutely dark structure to be used primarily for headlight testing and other tests not yet dreamed up.

Once the magazine is finished with the car, usually after about 7,000 miles, it's sold. How? "We send out e-mails to all the Consumer Union employees," says Gabriel Shenhar, senior engineer. The magazine sets a price, usually about 20% or 30% less than what it paid for the car, and the buyer is selected by lottery from interested employees. It's a big undertaking: "We bought 49 cars last year," Champion says.

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