Truth, Lies and Marketing

Since we are generally lazy, we don't bother to go looking for the truth. Automobile marketers take full advantage.

By Ted Mitchell
Published May 31, 2005

Automobile safety is one of my major interests. Few appreciate the serious risks we take every day in getting behind the wheel or simply walking on a street. For Canadians between childhood and middle age, road fatalities are still the leading cause of death.

Where do we get our information about automobile safety, performance and reliability?


Consider one of the favorite cars of the student crowd, the Volkswagen Jetta/­Golf. Most believe this to be a very sporty European inspired car, a poor man's BMW.

Well, let us look at reliability statistics from Consumer Reports or a similar source: significantly worse than average across the board. What about performance data? Try the back pages of Road and Track or for any recent year. Fair to middling?

There are souped-up versions of these cars available, but keep the price range consistent. The bottom line: this is at best an average car, and probably a poor choice compared to the Canadian made Corolla or Civic. VW's marketing, however, is exemplary.

As Canada becomes increasingly urbanized, the appetite for trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles has also increased. Is this logical? Marketers have made you think so.

Four wheel drive is widely held to be a safety feature, to keep you on the road in our slippery winters. Well, let's examine the evidence for safety.

Interestingly, there is none.

If you actually think about things like friction, tires and braking, this is not surprising. Four-wheel drive helps you accelerate and go through deep snow with ease. Which has what exactly to do with safety?

But increased exposure to dangerous conditions (because you can) and a false sense of security ("it's ok, I have four-wheel drive") quite probably could increase the crash statistics of these vehicles if the studies were to be done.

Marketers are very careful not to claim outright that four-wheel drove is safer. Subaru tried that in the past, and their slogan "the safety of all-wheel drive" had to be modified on court order, because it could not be backed up. But the inferences are heavy, and a stable of "automotive journalists" (infomercial hosts) are ready to assert the will of industry.

All trucks, large SUVs, and vans all have a certain engineering feature in common: "body-on-frame" construction and a non-independent rear axle - just like the 1908 Model T.

The frame is usually about ten times more flexible in twisting than modern unibody designs, and has very high unsprung weight in the rear suspension (undesirable for ride and handling). They also have a higher centre of gravity and flip more easily than unibody designs with the same ground clearance.

This doesn't really matter if only farmers and contractors use the vehicles for work purposes, but that is not the case. Many expensive luxury vehicles combine fantastic engines, electronics, leather and sheet metal with this totally obsolete engineering. And it sells, like hotcakes.

Unfortunately, the joke is not only on the buyers of these vehicles. The total motor vehicle death rate owes about four percent to these obsolete designs, or so said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website before the Bush administration came to power. Since this statistic is no longer there, maybe it is no longer true.

Marketers can fool most of the people most of the time. I invite you to please disagree with this column and post a reply. But if your information comes from manufacturers, marketers, personal experience or journalists, beware of the truth of your beliefs. The real goods are mostly buried in scholarly engineering journals, or not easily read posting from organizations such as NHTSA.

Don't get me wrong, the truth is out there. But since we are generally lazy, we don't bother to go looking. And the marketers take full advantage.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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