East Haddam, Ct — A visitor, driving the back roads, needs detailed directions to find Consumer Reports' auto test track in a remote spot near this New England town.
The 327-acre (132-ha) facility, once the home of the Connecticut International Dragway, almost looks like a secret testing site, fenced-in and secluded amid thick stands of trees.
Indeed, there once was a sense of secrecy about what exactly went on here and how the automotive testers collected data that form the basis of vehicle-buying recommendations to Consumer's 7 million subscribers.
“It wasn't a reality, but there was a perception around the auto industry that we were very closed-door and secretive,” says Russell Datz, the buying-guide's spokesman. “That was before ‘Champ’ became the facility director in 1997.”
He is referring to David Champion, an affable Brit who is Consumer's first test-track director to come from the auto industry. He previously worked for Land Rover North America and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
That automotive background has made a difference in how the industry views Consumer Reports, a fiercely independent buying guide.
“Auto people still complain if one of their vehicles gets a bad review,” says Champion. “But now we tell them, ‘Come out and look at our data and talk to us about it.’”
Many of them do. About once a week, the facility hosts industry visitors ranging from engineers to executives.
The latter has included General Motors Corp. Chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, Daimler AG Chairman Dieter Zetsche and Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally.
Mulally's visit was particularly memorable because it led to a quick correction on the Ford Edge cross/utility vehicle shortly after its 2006 debut.
Champion recalls: “We were showing Alan aspects of the Edge we didn't like, particularly the location of the liftgate's original release button. It was right above the license plate and hard to reach and made it tough to lift the gate.
“We noted that ironically the Edge's Lincoln counterpart, the MKX, was just the opposite: it had a easy-to-reach button and the gate went up effortlessly.”
Mulally turned to a Ford staffer with him and said, “What about this?”
It was an awkward moment. So, too, was when a piece of plastic in the Edge interior came off in Champion's hand in Mulally's presence. “I said, ‘Alan, that wasn't staged,’” says Champion.
Half-way through the '07 model year, the Edge got a new liftgate design. It was one of the quickest corrections in automotive history.
Most auto-industry visitors to Consumer's test facility are engineers. Although outsiders sometimes perceive engineers as terse conversationalists, they can be downright gabby among each other. Of the test facility's 20 employees, eight are engineers, including Champion.
“By their nature, engineers want to fix things that are broken,” he says. “In general, engineers know how things stack up and whether a shortcoming on a vehicle is the result of an engineering proposal being overruled by a cost-cutter.
“Engineers appreciate us because we often confirm what they knew in the first place,” he says.
He cites a personal example. “When I was at Nissan in the mid 1990s, we were getting wind-noise complaints about the Sentra. I was trying to get it fixed, but getting nowhere.
“Then Consumer Reports tested the Sentra and criticized the wind noise,” he says. “Suddenly the attitude at Nissan was: ‘Fix it, now!’”
A thawing of icy relations occurred this year when a Suzuki Motor Corp. group visited the test facility for the first time.
In 1997, Suzuki sued Consumer Reports for branding the defunct Samurai SUV with a “not-acceptable” rating, citing a tendency to tip over during extreme-maneuver tests.
The buying guide has been sued a dozen times for knocking products. It has never lost a case nor paid an out-of-court settlement.
The Suzuki visit went well. “A lot of friends I had at Nissan when I worked there now work at Suzuki.” Champion says.
“We've worked with Consumer Reports, trying to understand what they look at and what metrics they use,” says auto engineer Craig Tomai, a vehicle integration supervisor for Ford Motor Co. “It gives us an idea of where we are in terms of the competition.”
In developing vehicles, attention is paid to what the testers and reviewers will be looking at, he says.
Some critics question whether vehicles should be developed with an eye towards getting good marks from an influential buying guide.
But Champion says, “If they build a vehicle to what our tests show, the consumer wins.”
On this day, brake specialists from the Society of Automotive Engineers are visiting the facility.
They watch as a test driver in a car without an antilock-brake system does a fast stop on a watered-down stretch. The car spins out of control.
“That's what can happen to a car without ABS,” says Champion, watching from behind the wheel of a Subaru Impreza Sti. “Now watch what happens to a car with ABS.”
He executes the same maneuver. Despite the hard stop, the Impreza comes to a straight halt.
Safety advocacy is part of the mission of Consumer Reports and its parent company Consumers Union, an independent nonprofit testing and information organization founded in 1936.
Safety features — or lack of them — can affect ratings. In overall testing, the Nissan Altima outscored the Honda Accord, yet the Accord won Consumer's “Top Pick of the Year” award.
That's because the Accord is equipped with electronic stability control and the Altima is not. The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. has mandated that all cars have the technology by 2012.
Some auto-industry efforts in the name of safety can unwittingly create more problems, Champion says. “Be careful what you wish for.”
For instance, in response to rollover-accident reports, some auto makers began equipping SUVs with tires that helped prevent rollovers but offered less grip.
“It became a question of a rollover accident vs. an accident in which the SUV remains upright but skids into trees by the side of the road,” he says.
Similarly, in response to calls for stricter standards to prevent vehicle roofs from crushing in a flip-over accident, some auto makers are reinforcing car tops by making pillars thicker and windows smaller.
“But that can affect visibility,” Champion says. “It can cause more accidents if people pull out and don't see another car coming. That can occur more than a car flipping over on its roof.”
Wearing a crash helmet, Champion puts the Impreza through the rigors of the track that includes tests on skid pads, a 4,100-ft. (1,249-m) straightaway, curvy sections, regular and rough surfaces and a 1.5-mi. (2.4-km) course rigged with road irregularities from bumps to loose pavement.
For testing SUVs, there is an off-roading “rock hill” with 300 tons (272 t) of boulders set in concrete.
Fifty individual tests range from accident-avoidance maneuvers to noise-level measurements, to braking, acceleration and fuel economy.
“We don't abuse vehicles, but we push them,” says Champion, proceeding to prove it in the Impreza as he screeches around a corner while giving a running commentary of his driving impressions.
“It's not bad, but a bit more docile than the previous Impreza,” he says shifting gears and taking a hard turn. “The steering isn't quite as good and the grip feels less taut.”
Champion raced go-carts as a boy in England and fell in love with cars when he was two, “according to my mother; I can't remember that far back.”
His father was a tire engineer for Goodyear. “My boyhood summer vacations were spent at test tracks in England, seeing orange cones flying everywhere.”
He earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Aston in Birmingham, England. In 1977, he became a graduate apprentice at Lucas Electric Ltd., an auto supplier that earned the dubious moniker “The Prince of Darkness” because its components, including headlights, were prone to fail. (The unofficial Lucas motto: “Get home before dark.”)
“I saw the light and it was dim,” Champion says of his decision to leave Lucas and join Land Rover as a development engineer.
In 1985, he was sent to Arizona to set up and run Land Rover's former hot-weather testing facility in the desert outside Phoenix. He balked when the auto maker wanted him to return to the U.K. “By then, I had a wife and two kids and had been living in the U.S. for nine years.”
So he took a job at Nissan, first as a line engineer, then as head of a task force that looked into problems rising from warranty claims and customer complaints.
For a car lover, heading Consumer Reports' testing operation is a dream job.
“It's great fun driving new cars all the time,” Champion says. “Over the weekend, I drove a Tahoe 2-mode hybrid to Cape Cod with my son and got 21 mpg (11.2L/100 km). Then I just drove a BMW 135 down to New York City; it's a beautiful car to drive.”
Consumer Reports anonymously buys the test vehicles. This year it will spend about $3 million for nearly 80 vehicles.
The testers also drive the vehicles for everyday use, keeping a log of likes and dislikes. That subjective information, along with harder data garnered from the track, goes into final technology reports.
The engineers put 2,000 miles (3,218 km) on test vehicles to break them in. Then individual tests are done on the track during a month of daily testing.
Statisticians compile the test data and calculate numerical ratings for each vehicle once all the tests are done.
The information goes to the Consumer Reports editorial department in Yonkers, NY. There, staffers transform the testers' ratings and driving impressions into stories. Hard data runs as sidebars.
The monthly magazine regularly publishes car features. There also are periodic special editions on best and worst cars. The current one features reviews on 268 cars.
“There is a huge variation of people among our subscribers,” Champion says. “Some have the attitude of ‘just tell me what car to buy.’ Some want the top three picks. And then there are others who want detailed information, right down to the depth of tire tread.”
Consumer Reports relies on readers for what is billed as the most comprehensive reliability report. Cars aren't tested long enough at the track to form any conclusions on long-term reliability.
So the buyer's guide asks readers to fill out reliability reports on their vehicles, including whether they have had serious problems during the last year. Sixteen trouble spots are cited.
About 1.3 million readers filled out the forms last year. The crunched data is published as a satisfaction index.
Some detractors say the results can be skewed because people who buy a brand that has a strong reputation for quality, say Toyota, might give higher marks due to that brand's strength. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Champion disputes that.
“That is not the case, because we have such a huge sampling,” he says. “Last year, the Toyota Camry V-6 actually fell below the reliability average. People were citing transmission issues, and Toyota ultimately admitted it had a problem.
“Most auto makers say our reliability data tracks with their warranty-claims data,” he says.
Other critics accuse Consumer Reports of being anti-Detroit and pro-Japanese products, based on the ratings.
Champion responds that each vehicle is judged on its merits and demerits, and tested at the same time as its same-segment “peers.”
“No one complains about us when they get a good rating,” he says.
Japanese auto makers have raised the standards for quality car-building, he says. “Now American manufacturers are producing better cars.”
Consumer Reports also can draw the ire of dealers by running stories on how to negotiate at a dealership, how to obtain the dealer-invoice cost of a car and whether extended warranties are good buys.
But Champion says the upside for dealers is that readers of the buying guide go to dealerships as serious shoppers.
“They are likely someone who is going to buy, so they are not wasting the dealer's time,” he says.
“And they tend to have good credit ratings so they are very much a strong potential sale — if the dealership meets their expectations.”