In seven years of having my cool and unusual job of being a freelance automotive journalist, I’ve noticed one nearly universal misconception: people think I get cars from local dealerships to test drive. I like to think they imagine me wandering about the lot, one hand on my chin, as I decide which car is worthy of my week-long attentions. Then I point with an imperious finger. “This one!” I say. “This Honda Fit shalt be my chariot for the next half-fortnight.” Probably they imagine that I just call up the Nissan place, or the Ferrari place, or the Ford place and ask for a car. Neither of these is true.
There are three ways I get cars to test drive and review, and none of them involve me being imperious. One of them involves me being really lazy.
- They bring me a car. There are agencies all around the country, usually located near major airports for convenience’s sake, that manage what’s called the press fleet. These are the cars that the manufacturers release to journalists for a few months, and they make the rounds of being ridden hard and put away wet. We wreck brakes and clutches, we push all the buttons, we cram things in the trunk, we put our dogs in the passenger seats. We use them for a week the way we think the target buyer would use it. And then some.
- We go to association events. There are professional associations for automotive journalists all over the country. Some are huge, like the Motor Press Guild, and some are small, like the Northwest Automotive Press Association. But they all put on events where lots of cars from many manufacturers are in the same place and driven by all the journalists over a couple of days. NWAPA’s Drive Revolution event in July was one of these. Often, these events have a winner or three.
- We get flown somewhere. Manufacturers will have launches for cars that are brand-new models or significantly changed models. They’ll take maybe a half-dozen cars or more to one place and invite journalists to fly in — on the manufacturer’s dime — and drive the car for a day. There are presentations on the new car and delicious meals and very nice hotel rooms, followed by a day on the streets or at the track. My recent trip to drive the Aston Martin Rapide S was a press launch.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these. Launches are swanky, but fast fly-in-fly-out affairs, meaning the jet lag is fierce. Getting a car from the fleet is convenient, but the cars all blend together after awhile if you’re not careful. That blending together is doubly true at association events, where I sometimes have to look at the emblem on the steering wheel to remind myself what car I just climbed into after a long day of driving, but being able to meet up with other journalists is priceless.
You’ve probably figured out that this isn’t any kind of sexy expose. If you ask any automotive journalist at a party how they get their cars, they’ll tell you the same thing. And the big car magazines just have press cars in the garage all the damn time for employees to try out and review. So it’s not a secret, but now that you know, the next time you see me at a party, you can jump right to the next most popular question: “What’s your favorite car?”