Motor Trend

11-10slide1Of ALL THE ENTHUSIAST MAGS OUT THERE, few can claim the cult-like following of Motor Trend (MT). It's a publication that hearkens back to the nonfragmented media days of yore, when information-craving readers gazed out bay windows as they awaited the arrival of the mailman. Given the mag's glut of tie-ins (a Speed Channel TV show, a syndicated radio show, a line of CDs with titles like "Rockin' Down the Highway"), it wouldn't be surprising if the MT brand was more recognizable than those of many of the automobiles it test-drives.

Alas, now that anybody with working knowledge of the '72 Nova, the ability to string together two coherent sentences, and high-speed Internet access can be an "expert" on all things auto, it's inevitable that there will be further shakeout among enthusiast titles. The March issue of Motor Trend, however, proves once again that the magazine isn't ready to let any of the whippersnappers invade its turf.

Motor Trend's secret weapon, I think, is its deceptive intelligence. While media types assume that auto mags offer little beyond shiny photos and unisyllabic descriptions ("fast car vroom-vroom good!!!!!"), MT sneaks hints of pop-culture literacy into its headlines ("The Three Faces of Evo") and rarely dumbs down its prose.

It also boasts a consistent rhythm - words, stats, recommendation - and an expansive point of view. For an example of the latter, check out Angus MacKenzie's March editorial, a decidedly non-jingoistic take on the ongoing domestic/import car debate ("the reality is that the auto industry is a business, not a national monument"). Does this jibe with the opinions of his readers? Who knows, but he articulates his case with surprising elegance.

The March issue is headlined by a look at "43 hot drives worth waiting for," which gives equal consideration to a $21,000 Saturn Aura Concept and a $150,000 Lexus LF-A. It poses the questions that car aficionados are likely to ask, "Does that particular Lexus fit in with the company's brand image?" "Will the Cadillac STS-v be too mellow?" and offers smartly reasoned answers.

Another winner is the improbably titled feature, "In Search of the P.C. SUV" (it's improbable because, to hear our Birkenstock-wearing friends tell it, such an entity doesn't exist). One part investigative report and one part review of three aspirants to the title, the piece underscores the difficulty of simultaneously satisfying road warriors and environmentalists.

Motor Trend also scores points by resisting the temptation to worship at the altar of celebrity. Even the mag's Page Six-ish "We Hear..." sidebars traffic in a different breed of bold-faced name, like Peter Schwarzenbauer (hint: he's not a recurring player on "Boston Legal"). The mag's idea of a feud? Apparently the Ford Fusion is "taking on Accord. Again." Hilary Duff versus Lindsey Lohan it ain't.

To be sure, Motor Trend has its share of drawbacks. Despite the astonishing photography, the magazine is surprisingly flat from a design perspective; it could use more in the way of quick-hit info boxes, such as the listing in the March issue of test spots preferred by Aston Martin engineers. It also goes without saying that if, like me, your idea of hot-rodding involves a gently worn 2002 Passat, much of MT 's content will go straight over your head.

On the other hand, after 55-plus years, why screw with a formula that works for millions of readers Motor Trend excels at, uh, discerning motor trends, and is savvy enough not to stray from that singular strength. Half the publishing world could learn from its example.

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