In John Updike's "Rabbit is Rich" -- set during one of our previous gas crises, way back in 1979 -- a Toyota salesman muses on the good old days: "Gasoline...Didn't we used to burn it up? I had an Imperial once with twin carburetors and when you took off the filter and looked down through the inlet valve when the thing was idling it looked like a toilet being flushed."
Few magazine markets put the consumption in "consumer" quite like the automotive enthusiast field. So now that our long-term love of the internal-combustion engine is destroying our economy, our foreign policy, and even our planet, how does a car mag celebrate the machines that threaten to strangle us all?
Motor Trend still seems to be adjusting to such seismic shifts. On the one hand, the November issue's cover photo touts the 2010 Fiesta, "The 40-MPG Ford in Your Future." Yet many of the features still focus on Performance Über Alles. The gushing road test of the Cadillac CTS-V heralds a transmission that "tops out at a reported 193 MPH in sixth" (that is not a typo), but you need to dig down into the stats box to find a less impressive figure: 13-14 city MPG.
For those of us who grew up loving cars, MT was must reading. Since its inception in 1949, the Los Angeles-based magazine always celebrated car culture, long before Tom Wolfe was hip to kandy-kolored tangerine-flake streamline babies. And there was valuable expertise as well: Black-and-white photos always depicted guys in bow ties and lab coats jotting furiously on clipboards as Detroit behemoths fishtailed past traffic cones with fifth-wheel electric odometers strapped to rear bumpers.
Today the Motor Trend brand truly has become multimedia, as it boasts sister publications, a nationally broadcast TV program, syndicated radio show, multiple Web sites, and auto shows. The magazine is probably best known for its coveted Car of the Year Award, which has expanded to include Truck of the Year and Sport Utility of the Year as well.
However, it still seems MT remains more about MPH than MPG, and other articles underscore this trend. Take "Veni Vidi Veci," a feature highlighting the European tour of a fire-engine-red Dodge Challenger, and illustrated by a close-up of a digitalized 173 MPH glowing on the dashboard. Surely it's no coincidence the Challenger itself is an exhumed retro-vehicle literally designed to make baby boomers time-travel back to the muscle cars of their 25-cents-per-gallon youth.
Meanwhile, this article folds back to reveal... a three-page ad spread from Dodge, flaunting a fire-engine red Challenger: "Born in America. Celebrated in Europe." With MT, advertorials seem... well, seamless. It's worth noting there are a slew of magazines out there (not to mention Web sites, books, and TV shows) advising you how to buy your next car. But MT's coziness with the folks who build and sell those cars seems to raise an editorial cautionary flag.
The most interesting section of the entire issue is an extensive, detailed Buyer's Guide, in this case for SUVs, trucks, and minivans. It runs across no less than 40 pages and is stocked with statistics. Yet what's striking is this layout's resemblance to Consumer Reports -- even the fonts and colors seem to have been lifted from that publication. Full disclosure here: I'm a frequent contributor to CR, though never on automotive issues. But you don't need me to remind you that advertising-free CR -- unlike car magazines -- anonymously buys the vehicles it tests, rather than accepting hand-picked loaners from the manufacturers.
Then again, the consumer-protection movement never sat well with many automotive magazines. (It's no secret many car enthusiasts hate Ralph Nader more than they hate Al Gore.) MT's real roots are on display in the Archive section, which in this issue highlights the very first Car of the Year -- a 1949 Cadillac complete with fat whitewall tires and the new overhead-valve V-8. A sidebar pines for the January 1968 cover spread that showcased muscle cars like the Mustang and Camaro in their halcyon era.
No question, those were good old days, when American cylinders were unchallenged in tearing up the asphalt. But these days it's hard to get excited about cars that still suck gasoline like flushing toilets. About all the "enthusiasts" can say in response is... drill, baby, drill.
Publisher: Source Interlink Media Inc.
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