In the United States, the art of reviewing automobiles has become a balancing act of stiflingly polite opinions.
Very rarely will critics straightforwardly say that a new car actually sucks (unless it's imported from China). Instead, they are able to discern at least a few virtues in every automobile that may please particular consumers; and while magazines may rate cars 1-2-3 in order of preference, number 3 is never really all that much worse than numbers 2 or 1. Although build quality and engineering prowess are certainly more consistent these days, resulting in much better cars than in the horrific '80s, that doesn't account for some missed pitches right up the middle—did any mainstream car reviewer declare the Pontiac Aztek a total disaster before it flopped in the marketplace?
In England, however, professionally assessing cars for consumers is an entirely different affair. Opinions are much less guarded, and none are more brazenly delivered than on BBC Two's TopGear. On this show, there is little reverence for any sports car that fails to deliver great engineering or styling—and there's downright mockery (and destruction, sometimes) of lesser vehicles. The hosts say what they really think, making for a wildly popular program with an estimated global audience of 350 million viewers. It's been imported here on BBC America, and a domestic version is in the works at NBC.
While the original show is a delight, the Americanized version is doomed to failure. There's simply no way a major U.S. broadcast network will ever allow one of its shows to say something negative about a massive advertiser. Even in newspapers or magazines or commercial websites, most car reviews today rely on performance data, humorous writing, and cool photos to attract their readers rather than the naked truth. Every critique is carefully crafted to not overtly offend automobile companies and their marketing departments. Because if a review does upset them—as in the case of Pulitzer Prize-winner Dan Neil's column in the Los Angeles Times—then advertising dollars are abruptly yanked away (which GM did when Neil suggested that top car exec Bob Lutz should be axed after releasing the mediocre Pontiac G6).
British reviewers, on the other hand, are far less afraid to sound off than their American peers, or maybe they just relish a chance to be rude, if only to an emotionless machine. TopGear offers opinions so blunt they're almost shocking to Yankee ears, providing an illicit thrill. It's like listening to your parents trash-talk the neighbors. This bold verbiage is primarily delivered by co-host Jeremy Clarkson, whose cutting wit knows no mercy as he gleefully takes down some of the most hallowed marques in the automobile industry—even in the irrevocable pages of The Times:
The Mini Cooper Clubman: "The Clubman is one of the worst cars in the world. About as desirable as a packet of dung or a can of worms."
The BMW 645Ci: "If you were to buy a 6-series, I recommend you select reverse when leaving friends' houses so they don't see its backside."
The Cadillac SRX: "This is a very ugly car. So ugly in fact that you'll want to get inside it and shut the door as quickly as possible. But sadly when you are inside it's even worse."
But Clarkson isn't simply a bully who panders to his audience by crushing new cars; he's a genuine auto enthusiast who clearly loves great automobiles and the pleasures they offer. Along with his co-hosts Richard Hammond, James May, and mysterious race track tester The Stig, Clarkson revels in everything you can do with a vehicle. TopGear's hosts don't just review cars, they do things to them in weekly "challenges," and inevitably race against each other to a bitter finish. What can you say upon witnessing a decrepit VW camper modified into a not-so-amphibious vehicle—racing in a reservoir against a similarly unwaterproofed Triumph Herald and a Toyota pickup truck? Bravo.
TopGear also answers the questions that vex deep-thinking car fans, making automotive imponderables reality. Can two people spend 24 hours in the micro-sized Smart Forfour—and live? How easy would it be to play a game of football driving Toyota hatchbacks? Could a Ford with satellite navigation beat racing pigeons in a point-to-point competition? Can a Corvette Z06 out race a lit trail of gasoline? Now we know.
The show's spirit is epitomized by the "Cool Wall," in which the hosts decide which cars are cool and which are not, with categories ranging from Sub-Zero Cool to Seriously Uncool. Could an American network show get away with declaring any of its advertisers as being "Seriously Uncool"—let alone a BMW M3? I doubt it; but through the magic of upper-tier cable and BBC America, that's not a road hazard we need to worry about. m