The question Autocar gets asked most often is one of the hardest to answer. ‘Should I buy one?’ It’s a simple question that appears at the end of Autocar’s first drives online, but it’s not, alas, a question to which I want to give a simple answer.
The quest for a plain answer is an inevitable demand, though, in a world that’s desperate for decisions and opinions. Yes or no; in or out; left or right; dogs or cats. Modern life loves a culture war in which everything is judged in brutal fashion and anything other than a full-hearted opinion frankly isn’t satisfactory. Which is a shame for me, because I find myself a bit less certain about all kind of things in life.
This is a problem in 2021 and when reviewing is my job. But then I don’t even like star ratings very much. Awarding something two stars out of five, say, suggests that only 40% of the product is right when that’s extremely unlikely to be true.
With the arts or music, I suppose it’s entirely possible, because although objectivity exists in arts (you wouldn’t be able to study design or music without it), creative processes are more subjective than products. It’s totally feasible that one person’s vision is totally out of whack with the rest of society. It’s so possible to make what’s widely accepted as a ‘bad’ film that people frequently still do it.
It’s very hard, though, to do that with automobiles. Or aeroplanes. Or most advanced consumer products from big businesses. The industry of developing cars is so slick that it’s genuinely difficult to get things badly wrong. The industry is too good, too sophisticated, even too thoroughly regulated to let it happen.
Even a car that’s miles better than one of its competitors isn’t likely to be twice as good, which respective two-star and four-star ratings would suggest.
To differentiate between cars, I would quite like a score out of 20 – or (and I realise this might be speaking out of turn for a reviewer) no star rating at all but a conversation instead. Remember those?
Back to ‘should I buy one?’. Well, let’s say the car in question happens to be the best car in the world. Like the world’s oldest living person, it’s a gig that gets reinvented often. And yet I still don’t think you could answer the question with resounding ‘oh heck yes’, although I confess that I’ve probably written precisely that, perhaps about the Alpine A110, Morgan 3 Wheeler or Ariel Nomad. Should you buy a Toyota GT86? Of course you should, I will shout from the rooftops, because it’s fabulous; but to be honest, you would probably prefer a Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Even if a car is a complete duffer, it’s hard to vehemently say ‘no’. If you happen to admire the cut of a car’s jib and like the person selling it, go for it. A beloved family member once asked me if they should buy a Suzuki Wagon R+. Absolutely not, I said. Yet the family-owned dealer was nearby and nice as pie, while the miniature MPV’s high rear seats meant plonking children in it was easy and said munchkins got a really good view out through the big windows. They really liked it.
Nuance is in modern life, then, under-rated. And the answer to a simple query probably isn’t quite so straightforward. Really, as I suspect it ever was, it’s: ‘Well, it depends’.
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