Motor Trend Warms to Electric Cars, To a Degree

By · January 31, 2013

Ed Loh with Elon Musk

Elon Musk celebrates his Motor Trend win as editor Ed Loh looks on. (Jim Motavalli photo)

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.”

Selling Dreams

Frank Markus

MT technical director Frank Markus: His jaw famously dropped over the Tesla Model S. (Motor Trend photo)

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:

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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?

Comments

· · 1 year ago

Oil is the past and thinking that electric will not displace ICE soon is short sighted. Electrical Technology moves much faster than mechanical tech and batteries that will allow electric cars will arrive within the next few years. Get on board or get out of the way!

· · 1 year ago

"By 2040, or maybe 2060"

LOL. They really have no idea what is going to happen, do they? Even the oil companies think that oil will be in decline (or at least plateau) by then.

· · 1 year ago

Jim, I have to ask... is it a degree Celsius or a degree Fahrenheit?

· · 1 year ago

2040!

By 2025 all these oil companies and the ones that bet on gas cars will start scratching
their heads as to what really hit them. The oil companies will probably get by another
10-15 years exporting their obsolete products to third world countries. But the writing is
on the wall - just wait and watch the fun.

· · 1 year ago

For a long time I was Motor Trend's target audience. I've had cars with V-8s, overhead cam V-6s, more than a couple slant sixes and a few four bangers, (one of them turbocharged) That was then.

This is now. Today I'm driving a 2012 Nissan Leaf and it's powered by the wind. My second car is a 43 MPG 2011 Honda Insight. We only drive it when we have no other choice. It's our gas guzzler.

· · 1 year ago

When I was 13, Car Life was my favorite magazine, with Motor Trend Second. Haven't kept up over the decades, but I sense there isn't quite the innate wisdom I sensed as a 13 year old. No particular emphasis on 13, but if a person has to be any age, 13 is a good age to be.

· · 1 year ago

Methinks what with the bugaboos appearing in the model S at this relatively late date, (see GreenCarReports.com for some of them), and some Tesla S new owners amazingly regretting the purchase (!), Mr. Musk would do well to stick to his knitting. Some of the problems mentioned there with the "S", I have with my 2011 Roadster 2.5. Its high time they get addressed. Maybe he thinks things aren’t noticed. Well, Some of us notice. I was going to reserve a Model S, but due to ‘sensed inflexibility’, even moreso than with the Roadster, I declined. Its looking like a wiser decision every day.

· · 1 year ago

People who think that any possible chemical battery known to science is going to inevitably emerge from some lab in any predictable future clearly don't understand the limitations in the weak nuclear force. Yes, incremental improvements in batteries are possible, and we've been seeing them. What is needed is improvement in storage capacity (KwH per pound / kilo) of an order of magnitude to give us electric cars with a practical range (ca. 400 - 500 mi.). Otherwise, as fossil fuel becomes less and less viable, personal transport will be reduced to strictly metro / commuter units (probably something like a Leaf), and the U.S. will have to start making massive investments in modern public transportation. And I've been in Europe and Japan, and that's not a bad thing, in fact, it's rather good.

· · 1 year ago

Actually there is no need in increase in storage capacity. Current capacity of 250Wh/Kg is enough to create a car with 60 KWh battery that has a range of 300 miles. The Mpge needs to increase from current 95 at 70 mph to about 135. This can be achieved by using
a carbon fiber body like BMW I3 and reducing drag. That battery will charge to 240 miles in 20 mins using current fast charging technology with some incremental improvements - no rocket science necessary. After driving for 3.5 hrs on the freeway people can wait for 20 mins to charge - not a problem. Only thing needed is $150/KwH from current $450/KwH. This will happen with economies of scale. If you don't believe me look at the price trends of solar panels. Solar panels had a 15 year head start over Li-ion.

· · 1 year ago

@rici567 - I think the US also needs better public transportation. But the issue in the US is scale. Japan in smaller in area than Montana. So making something that could get you from the west coast to east as well as covering the large cities in the Midwest would be massive.

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