Motor Trend Warms to Electric Cars, To a Degree
America’s major car magazines—Motor Trend, Car and Driver, Automobile, Road & Track—have traditionally been somewhat hostile to environmental regulation and green cars, seeing them as “nanny state” obstacles to the enjoyment of unfettered horsepower.
In one of the milder rebukes, veteran auto journalist Brock Yates, the former editor of Car and Driver, decried “the lefties and environmentalist nutcases who hate cars and the domestic auto industry and don’t mind if Detroit falls down—just as long as they force everyone to drive electric-powered cars.” Ill-informed screeds about climate change are common, as are attacks on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules. In February, C/D identified light rail as one of five entities (a well-known safety advocate was another) that “threaten the C/D way of life.”
Is that changing? You’re still most likely to see a fire-breathing 500-horsepower Ferrari on the cover of those magazines, because even though the average reader can’t hope to ever own one it’s nice to dream. And dreaming sells far more car magazines than practicality. These folks don’t want to know what Consumer Reports said about the rear legroom.
But Motor Trend not only put the Tesla Model S on the cover, it made the fiery electric sedan Car of the Year for 2013. “Shocking Winner: Proof Positive that America Can Still Make (Great) Things,” the magazine said.
I talked to Frank Markus, Motor Trend’s technical director, and Ed Loh, its editor, about car magazines in transition. It’s a tough time for magazines in general, but how should publications that worship zero to 60 times cover the green tech that’s suddenly everywhere?
“We’re forever going to have the green message, even though the wonks in the industry aren’t yet tuned into it,” said Loh, who points approvingly to the introduction of the Cadillac ELR (an upscale version of the Volt) and the updated Acura NSX (a complex three-motor hybrid) at the just-concluded Detroit Auto Show.
It's Motor Trend
Loh notes that the magazine is called Motor Trend, which means it’s fascinated by the power technology, whatever it is, and less likely than the competition to worship speed for its own sake. He says that car magazines can either test all the 40 mpg cars and tell readers how they can save money (the Consumer Reports model) or—far more popular—they can appeal to those dreamers.
“People are faced with bills, mortgage payments—we can provide them with a fantasy that takes them away from all that. We’ve noticed that when we put a Corvette on the cover, it doubles sales. Reading about cars like that can take you someplace. Our mission is to both inform and entertain.”
So supercar “showdowns” on the cover, not bread-and-butter electric cars. But Loh also notes that it’s the electric car stories on the website (where most of them reside) that tend to get the longer and more thoughtful comments. “On Tesla forums, we see people who are huge fans, with the same passion of guys who talk about Mustangs and Camaros,” he said.
An Electric World? No, Not Yet
Loh doesn’t think the electric car will take over from internal combustion “in my lifetime,” in fact he’s not sure we’ll ever be reading its epitaph. He thinks we have plenty of oil left in the ground. But he clearly loves the Tesla Model S, in part because it can show taillights to many of the magazine’s favorite performance cars. “It has an aura around it,” he said. “It’s other-worldly.” Here's Motor Trend on why the Model S won:
Frank Markus calls the Model S “a stunning piece of work,” and he points out that Tesla Motors is vertically integrated in a way almost unheard-of in the industry. “It suddenly made sense for them to manufacture nearly 90 percent of the car’s parts in the building,” he said. “It’s innovative, but the company faces hurdles with dealer franchise laws in nearly every state. It’s hard to see the whole operation becoming cash-positive in the near-term horizon. The Model S drives incredibly well, and I hope the company survives, but it’s impossible to know how deep Tesla’s pockets are.”
Like Loh, Markus denies that Motor Trend is only about performance. “I’m not sure that’s our base editorial policy, and I don’t think it could be going forward,” he said. “We try to cover the whole industry. If there are super-duper small cars, we will write about them. If the Toyota Camry is the best family car, we’ll say that. And electric cars can be high-performing, too. Even the Mitsubishi I-MiEV can get off a dime.”
And Markus agrees that an electrified transportation fleet is probably the end game, but “the time horizon seems pretty far out. Batteries still have a long way to go, and right now the government has to subsidize the cars to get people to buy them. By 2040, or maybe 2060, it should have taken off by then.”
That’s a long way off, of course. And it means there will still be many issues of Motor Trend with V-8-powered Corvettes on the cover. But did you hear that the new Stingray will get 26 mpg on the highway, thanks to cylinder deactivation and a lightweight structure?
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