Screeching around the track

Marketplace Staff Mar 9, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: Consumer Reports is out with its 2007 Best and Worst automotive issue. Seven out of the top 10 picks were Toyotas and Hondas. Though Toyota also had a model in the “Most Disappointing” category. The issue evaluates more than 250 cars, all of which were personally tested by engineers at Consumer Reports’s facility in East Haddam, Connecticut. It’s like a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of test driving, and the gates opened to a bunch of golden-ticket holders — also known as reporters. Including our own little Charlie Bucket, Sean Cole.

SEAN COLE:
The facility looks like an airfield with a couple of buildings and a main straightaway — in fact, one time a twin-engine plane emergency landed on the main straight. That’s where we’re standing: me and half a dozen other reporters, and the director of auto-testing, David Champion. What we’re about to witness, he says, is the accident avoidance test. An Audi A-3 going 50 miles an hour will try to swerve around two cones. One represents a kid on a bike.

DAVID CHAMPION: The left cone in the exit lane is the mack truck coming the other way. Would you like to go behind the barrier? Unless you’d like to be a cone.

The A-3 is outfitted with something called Electronic Stability Control. It basically helps straighten you out if you start to spin. The driver runs the course with the function on, and then again with it off.

CHAMPION: He’s an extremely good driver. Much better than me.

Yeah, the cones didn’t do too well. Champion says this is one of 50 tests that consumer reports puts its cars through.

CHAMPION: Breaking tests. Emergency handling. Fuel economy. Seat comfort. Interior noise. Cargo volume. Trunk space.

They even take note of where the latch on a trunk is. The one on the Ford Edge was a little high.

CHAMPION: You push up on the button and that leverage is absolutely incredible. Now you’d think that the engineers would put a handle down here or something that would make it easier.

And they’re not testing optimized freebies from the manufacturerer either, Champion says. Consumer Reports goes out and buys these cars, anonymously, at local dealers. So Champion says there’s really no difference between this Suburu Forrester and the one you take to work every day.

Not only that, but Consumer Report’s engineers take these cars to work every day, and back home to soccer practice, fixating on every detail 24/7. Champion says it drives his kids nuts.
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CHAMPION: Cause I’m asking them in the back, “Is it comfortable out there? Do you have enough leg room? Can you see out well? How’s the seat belt, is the seat belt in the right place?” They say, “Dad, I’m just comin’ home from school. I don’t wanna talk about the car.”

It’s funny to think of these cars toting children to school and thenc oming here to scale a hill of boulders embedded in concrete and coated with ice.

It’s like they have a secret identity. Like they change clothes in a phone booth on the way to work.

CHAMPION: We push it to the limit to be able to report back to the consumer what happens at the limit. So that consumer can make a wise decision.

To give us a better sense of what happens at the limit, Champion offered each of the reporters a helmet and rode us through the Accident Avoidance Test I told you about earlier. The one that sounds like this.

[SFX: CAR SLAMS ON BREAKS AND SPINS, HITTING CONES.]

I will now play you what it sounded like inside the car. The driver was a mild-mannered, total maniac named Jake Fisher. We did the course with stability control on and my helmet smacked the inside of the car. But Jake said that was nothing.

JAKE FISHER: The only time you really see what the car would have done is right now, because I’m going to turn the stability control off.

COLE: Oh gosh.

FISHER: So I’m doing the same maneuver same speed.

COLE: OK.

FISHER: Hold on.

COLE: OK.

[CAR REVS UP SLOWS AND THEN SKIDS.]

COLE: Augh. Oh! Augh!

FISHER: Hahahaha!

COLE: Wow!

It was a stomach-changing experience. And even with the stability thing turned on I personally would have killed myself driving this course. And if I did it in my 1994 Geo Prism, I would have really killed myself.

Grateful to the inventor of helmets, I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

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