HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR.
Aug. 28, 2015 7:04 p.m. ET
If, with their own money, Tesla and its customers want to revel in electric cars, that’s wonderful. Nobody should object. But why should taxpayers subsidize their hobby as if some vital public purpose is being served? And why should Consumer Reports prostitute itself in its latest review of the Tesla Model S P85D, calling it basically the best car ever, with a higher-than-possible rating of 103?
Prostitute is not too strong a word. Consumer Reports does not give away its content for free. It makes money not from advertising but from its reputation for systematic, unbiased product reviews, which it expects customers to pay for (and Tesla shoppers can certainly afford to pay).
Not this time: “The Ratings of this ground-breaking vehicle are too good to keep to ourselves so we’re sharing them with all our visitors,” says the online version.
And, at least until Thursday night when the website went down for “maintenance,” the reason became instantly apparent to any visitor who found himself waylaid on almost every page by a full-screen pop-up invitation: “Tesla’s innovation shows we don’t have to compromise. Stand with Consumer Reports as we fight for better cars.”
CR is shilling not only for the car but the government policies that subsidize it. Or as CR’s auto testing chief Jake Fisher says in an accompanying video, “At Consumer Reports, we believe improving fuel efficiency is a vital initiative.”
Unfortunately, one product that doesn’t get CR’s withering eye is the public policy of shoveling taxpayer handouts at Tesla, which any close examination would quickly conclude is a case of costs without benefits.
Harder to remedy, even with an overnight overhaul of its website, will be the impression that CR abused its own rating process to inflate the score for the $127,000 Tesla Model S P85D. The magazine claims the pricey Model S is so good, it “broke” CR’s rating system. But it looks more like CR broke its own rating system. Hard to reconcile is a perfect score in a review where the words “glaring omission at this price” or some variation are commonplace in reference to everything from sun visors to cup holders to malfunctioning door handles. Plus the car gets only an “average” rating on reliability, which already seems generous in light of complaints from Tesla owners on enthusiast message boards.
Let’s postulate something else: A traditionally scrupulous CR review—even while praising the car’s features—might well give any Tesla vehicle an “unacceptable” rating simply because it takes at least five hours to recharge except at one of Tesla’s own supercharger stations (where it still takes 30 minutes).
But most bizarre is its reviewers’ obsession with acceleration, as if 0-to-60 times are the most important consideration in CR’s auto ratings.
Blindingly fast acceleration is useful on the street almost never; blindingly fast acceleration, in an electric car, eats up battery juice, which must be replenished at considerable inconvenience. As one of CR’s three reviewers finally admits in a lengthy ancillary video that few will watch, the Tesla’s acceleration is basically a “parlor trick,” good for “giggles.”
To which we might add: Buy a 10-year old 600cc sport bike on Craigslist for 1/50th the price. You will experience even faster acceleration and then you can put it away and still have plenty of money left over for a car (or three) that better serves the functions of a car, namely to transport people and their gear conveniently around town and around the country.
But why is CR gushing over acceleration at all? A Tesla’s battery must be recharged with either fossil fuels or renewable energy that otherwise would be displacing fossil fuels elsewhere in the economy. If the goal is saving the planet, shouldn’t CR be advising its readers to drive more slowly and efficiently, to avoid unnecessary trips, not to buy and use cars for joy-riding?
Let’s hope that at least being corrected is the reliance on manipulative wording to minimize the impact of those criticisms its reviewers were apparently prepared to insist on. Two examples:
The Model S’s standard fabric seats are actually a virtue because they “give buyers an option to skip the otherwise ubiquitous leather in this class.”
And “While the Tesla outsells most conventional luxury sedans, its spartan interior comes up short on decadence.”
It took Google 0.55 seconds to establish that Mercedes E-Class and S-Class and the BMW 5 and 7 series each sell more cars than Tesla does. But these sentences should get someone fired for another reason—basic writerly integrity. If it’s necessary to say the car’s interior is spartan, say it. Don’t intentionally muddy the statement with cretinous word choices and misleading comparisons.
Maybe heads were rolling behind the “site under maintenance” sign that blocked access to CR’s review for most of Friday. Let’s hope so. In the meantime nothing here should be construed as encouraging anyone not to buy a Tesla Model S and love the car if that’s how they feel about it.
All vehicles come with trade-offs. Some of the vehicles we love most come with quirks that would likely earn them a low rating in a traditionally scrupulous CR review. It’s the taxpayer subsidies that are unjustified, as is CR’s decision to throw away its reputation to propagandize for a public policy that it doesn’t subject to any serious analysis.