Consumer Reports: Never To Be Truted?
Consumer Reports, the publication of Consumer’s Union, has long been accused of a bias toward imported cars, particularly those made by Japanese brand manufacturers, and against anything built by a Detroit automaker.
The bias hasn’t changed. Apparently, it’s intentional and institutional.
The current issue of Consumer Reports purports to offer a comparison test of the new Toyota Tundra pick-up truck and the Chevy Silverado, as well as the Dodge Ram and Ford F-150.
So, you’d expect them to get comparable vehicles, wouldn’t you?
Apparently not if you’re the people at Consumer Reports.
They pitted the Tundra with the optional 5.7 liter V-8 against the Chevy with the standard 5.3 liter engine, producing 66 hp less than the Tundra. They could have used the 6.0 liter optional Vortec V-9 MAX which is more closely comparable to the optional Toyota engine, but they chose not to.
They also pitted a Tundra with a 4.30 axle ratio against the Silverado with a 3.73 ratio, then gave the Tundra praise for having better acceleration. But the Silverado offers a 4.10 axle ratio as a no charge customer selection.
Not only that, but they predicted that Toyota’s Tundra would have an above average frequency of repair rating. The Silverado? Too new to classify.
The Toyota won the test.
Surprise. It’s sorta like a boxing match were one of the competitors has his hands tied.
In response to criticism of the “comparison” test, Consumer Reports has posted an explanation on its blog. It’s complete doublespeak, but you can judge for yourself: click here.
Consumer Reports explanation boils down to saying that they selected trucks that used the powertrains most frequently purchased by consumers.
Then, why do they call it a comparison test?
As John Neff, who broke this story at Autoblog, notes, “Comparison tests, at least to us, are not about comparing what people buy, they’re about advising what people should buy based on an equal comparison.”
An equal comparison is not what Consumer Reports has done. Moreover, instead of admitting they used a flawed design for their testing, they’ve elected to defend their choices on the basis of a criterion utterly irrelevant to the purpose of the test.
The test wasn’t biased merely in the vehicles selected.
Giving the Tundra a predicted above average reliability rating while saying that the Silverado is to new to rate is plan ludicrous.
The Tundra, as Neff points out, is an all new vehicle produced at a brand new plant. The engine Consumer Reports selected for its test is the one that breaks camshafts, seemingly at random. The Silverado is a new chassis and body, but the drivetrain in the truck is one that has been on the market for some time. And it is the Silverado that’s too new to rate? It’s the truck with the 20 engines, so far, that have had to be replaced because their camshafts broke shortly after delivery that gets the “above average” rating for reliability?
Yup. That’s the way Consumer Reports did it.
For decades, consumers have looked to independent, unbiased third-party evaluations when selecting products. The first to make a big name for itself was Underwriter’s Laboratories, a creation of the insurance industry which tested products for safety. If the product passed, it got the “UL” certification label. Being UL certified became critically important in the marketplace because consumers trusted the testing and didn’t buy products that didn’t have proof they’d passed that testing.
At one time, Consumer’s Union seemed to be the next stage in unbiased testing. While UL pretty much restricted itself to home appliances, CU went further, testing the big stuff. And nothing was more important to its bottom line than the car tests. They grew their magazine, Consumer Reports, in much the same way that Peterson grew Motor Trend: testing cars. They just pitched to a different audience. Consumer Reports always hated performance cars, always loved economy cars.
The place has always had a semi-socialist streak about it – a belief that they knew what you ought to buy because they knew how you ought to live. Testing a GTO against an SS396 and a Roadrunner was not their style. They didn’t test to figure out which was the best factory hot rod you could buy. No, they tested economy cars, and anything that might seem like fun was automatically at a disadvantage. You weren’t supposed to have fun in a car. That was irresponsible.
Today, however, Consumer Reports is largely irrelevant to much of the auto buying public, thanks to J. D. Powers and Associates.
Powers has turned its firm into an empire largely on the basis of its survey of satisfaction among owners with automobiles. Car makers trumpet their Powers ratings in full page ads in all the major newspapers. The rankings make headlines when the come out. Sometime, the meaning of the rankings can be a bit oblique – there’s the 6 month owner satisfaction study and the 3 year reliability study, and it is a safe bet that few in the consuming public understand the difference between them – but they do count.
The biased test of the Tundra, Silverado, F-150 and Ram is, in the long run, another in a series of mistakes made by CU, mistakes which have allowed them to become far less significant than they were even a decade ago. They no longer care about being fair. They care simply giving the decreasing number of readers that continue to subscribe to their magazine that which the reader wishes to hear.
But that number appears to be decreasing. Consumer Reports claims a paid subscription number of 4 million per monthly issue. That appears to be down from a figure of 5 million claimed some years ago.
Beyond that, the magazine has been nailed for falsifying information in several instances over the past decade.
Magazines that tell the truth do not lose lawsuits brought against them for false statements.
But the Consumer’s Union lost a lawsuit in 1981 brought by Bose, the audio equipment maker. The federal court found that Consumer Reports had published a negative statement about Bose products which was “false and with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.” The district court’s finding was reversed on the technical ground that CU had lacked “actual malice,” which is the legal equivalent of saying that CU knew what it said was false, or didn’t care, but that the First Amendment won’t allow punishing speak unless the speaker has evil intent.
CU got off the hook – sorta – the same way when Isuzu sued them in 1966. Consumer Reports had published a test in which they claimed that the Isuzu Trooper was prone to roll-over. CU went so far in their grandstanding as to hold a press conference in which they demanded that Isuzu stop producing the vehicle and calling for the federal government to investigate the manufacturer.
Isuzu sued. The court found that Consumer reports had made “numerous false statements.” The Trooper was put through tests not administered to other vehicles and tests which were different from those administered to competitors. A jury could not reach a verdict on punitive damages against Isuzu and because, once again, the court couldn’t find “malicious intent,” CU escaped having to pay damages.
“Malicious intent” has become the shield by which Consumer Reports believes it has the freedom to lie without even trying to hinge what they say on the truth.
At least, though, they weren’t prepared to take the heat a second time: in 1998, they decided to dip twice into the same stream and published an article claiming that the Suzuki Samurai had an unacceptable tendency to roll over. Suzuki sued, too. (What did CU expect from a company that would name a vehicle “Samurai”?). This time, CU settled. They issued a statement which, basically, denied that the plain English words they had used meant what the plain English words they used commonly are understood to mean. Suzuki, no doubt mindful of the license with “malicious intent” had previously given to CU, took what they could get and called it quits without getting money damages from CU.
But the most blatant and most recent example of Consumer Reports just outright lying is child safety seats:
In February of last year, Consumer Reports claimed that only two child safety seats on the market passed their crash tests. They claimed the tests were conducted at 38.5 miles per hour. Since every seat the tested had passed federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration testing, the press immediately descended on the NHTSA administrator, promised an immediate investigation.
And she pushed it through, in weeks.
Consumer Reports, it turned out, had lied – through their teeth.
They actually tested the seats at 70 mph. The statements they made in their magazine were complete fabrications.
CU attempted to blame this on Calspan, an independent laboratory associated with the University of California and which has a long-standing and unblemished reputation for testing in highway safety related areas. They had not, however, disclosed in their published article that the testing was not done internally, nor did they explain why they did not learn that Calspan had misunderstood their directives.
Moreover, they disclosed that they have a close tie to the Ralph Nader crowd that has been anti-auto advocates since the publication in the early ‘60’s of Ralph Nader’s book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Turns out that Joan Claybrook, a former head of NHTSA, but for more than the past decade, a prominent member of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a Nader-linked group, is a board member of Consumer’s Union.
Turns out, according to Claybrook, that CU doesn’t conduct most of its own crash testing, except for the equivalent of bumping into parked cars. That wasn’t something they bothered to mention in their articles.
The safety seat industry sued CU.
CU got off the hook, again, by claiming there was no actual malice.
Whatever the criteria may be for a successful libel suit against CU – and one has to think that sooner or later someone is going to tack the past instances of lying to another and prove a pattern of conduct that does establish “actual malice” – this much is clear.
Consumer’s Union is very fortunate that J. D. Powers and Associates doesn’t evaluate magazines for honesty.