General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz warns magazine publishers that unfavorable reviews of GM products might result in a loss of advertising.
Some journalists are worrying — given that GM wields hundreds of millions of dollars worth of advertising clout — that this could have a chilling effect on the way GM is covered in the media.
Auto makers have been yanking advertising over negative car reviews since they were chiseled out on stone tablets.
Perhaps the most infamous incident occurred around 1983 between the former Daimler-Benz and The Wall Street Journal.
Mercedes-Benz was introducing its most important new product of the day, the 190E. The so-called “Baby Benz” was barely bigger than a subcompact in the U.S., designed to allow Mercedes to move down market and compete with BMW's small sporty sedans. Conceived in an era of soaring gas prices, the cars were long on fuel economy but short on sportiness.
In the Journal's front-page vehicle review, words like “dud” and “dog” were featured prominently.
Mercedes was furious and immediately cancelled a huge ad schedule.
Even so, reviewers continued to heap criticism on the 190 for being underpowered, cramped, and just too small to be a “real” Mercedes.
Despite all the trashing, the 190 went on to become one of the auto maker's most successful models ever. Residual values were — and remain — astonishingly strong, even though it went out of production in 1993.
What critics chose to ignore was that the 190 was superbly engineered. The stiffness and strength of its body structure was among the best in the world in any price range. An innovative (for its day) independent rear suspension provided a roomy trunk and marvelous stability. What it lacked in head-snapping acceleration, it made up for with an incredibly solid driving feel, unmatched in its class.
Current owners — and there still are many highly satisfied ones — shake their heads over the criticism.
Despite a tough start, history will smile on the original Baby Benz.
Is this an example of the kind of “biased” journalism Lutz is complaining about? Maybe. Most writers simply couldn't stomach the idea of a small Mercedes, just like they can't stand the idea of a Porsche SUV now.
But cheap shots never hurt a car that was fundamentally a good value. Conversely, trumped-up praise never saved a dog. The Renault Alliance was a “Car of the Year” when it debuted 20 years ago. It didn't help that bow wow.
As always, the best defense against a bad review — even an undeserved one — is building a really good car or truck.