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The future of Car Reviewing — Something to wine about?

Chris Haining November 21, 2018 All Things Hoon 9 Comments

Ever read a wine review? They’re just fantastic. The annals of television history are littered with memorable comedy sketches that lampoon the pomp of a wine reviewer in full flow. They’re mocked for speaking of  ‘woody notes’, ‘twang of heather’ or ‘hints of the chill easterly breeze as it filters through the vines’ and that kind of thing. They’re an easy target for mocking, because a lot of people don’t grasp that wine isn’t just wine-flavoured, and see their gushingly poetic analysis of flavour as rather pretentious and, well, funny.

In fact, what they do is barely any different to what a good car reviewer does. Picking apart the flavours, the mouthfeel, the finish of a sip of wine is little different to breaking down the responses, the feelings and the sounds that greet you when you take a car by the scruff of the neck. There’s near infinite variety of wines out there. and the range of flavours will increase with every fresh grape harvest. For as long as the Earth can bear fruit, there will always be wine. For as long as we’re allowed them, there will always be cars.

It’s just that the content of a car review could end up rather different to what we’re used to.

Every time I drive an electric car, I come away feeling that I’ve been exposed to a taste of the future. And, in the doses administered thus far, an enjoyable taste at that. Chances are that my enjoyment is buoyed by the novelty of it all. I drive a lot of petrol and diesel cars, a healthy smattering of hybrid ones, but so far my EV exposure has been sporadic. Every single time, though — and to varying extremes — there’s always a ‘whoosh’ involved.

‘Whoosh’ is definitely the best description, both for its onomatopoeia and as a verb. Put your foot down in an electric car, and a ‘whoosh’ is the result. Thanks to how electric motors work, and the fact that there’s no flywheel, no reciprocating mass, none of the ‘revving up’ that comes with an internal combustion engine, an electric motor delivers the full extent of its grunt from zero rpm. It’s full throttle all the way. Essentially, pulling away in an electric car with your foot to the floor is like dumping the clutch at peak torque in something with an ICE engine.

Crucially, though, that whoosh doesn’t really vary much between electric cars. The magnitude of it does, of course — a Tesla Model S P100D will kick you in the chest far more than a Nissan Leaf, but the actual sensation is the same. In my experience, electric motors all behave the same way, leaving me with only the throttle sensitivity and pedal feel to differentiate between them. This leaves something of a blank section in a review where all the minutiae of engine behaviour; the turbo lag, the fuel injection mapping, the willingness to rev, the linearity of power delivery — all that good stuff that polarises opinion between those who prefer a lazy V8 to a high revving four of the same power rating — would ordinarily go.

It’s fine at the moment, because there’s plenty of other stuff to write about. It’s commonplace for an electric car review to devote a lot of column inches to how different it is to an ICE car. One day, though, when the novelty has fully worn off, that comparison will cease to be necessary. What’s more, if electric cars become dominant, it could easily pass that several marques use the exact same electric motors. Right now, while some brands assemble their electric motors in house, others come from outside suppliers who might never previously have had a footing in the automotive industry. Rather than being developed specifically to suit a given application — like when an ICE engine is designed to be of a a certain size, weight, power and responsiveness to suit the car it’s intended to go in — an electric motor might be chosen on spec, like when you might have bought a 7.2v brushless DC motor from Radio Shack for an R/C car project.

You’ll probably choose whichever spins to the RPM you’re after, and you might steer clear of a brand name you’re unfamiliar with, and that’s pretty much what the electric car manufacturers will do. And even if they do choose to build their own, it’s unlikely that anybody would be able to tell the difference between something from Siemens, GEC or Mercedes in a blind taste test. Right now, there aren’t really any two electric cars that can be compared directly against each other. There are pretty wild disparities between price, performance and category, particularly at the lower end of the market where the Renault ZOE, Nissan Leaf, Hyundai Ioniq electric and Volkswagen e-Up!, for example, all appeal to very different customer bases. However, inevitably, that’ll change pretty quickly.

The Audi A4, BMW 3 series and Mercedes C-Class were direct rivals in the petrol age, and this’ll continue when electricity is flowing under the bonnet in place of gasoline. Right now, the three have engines with very different characteristics of feel, sound, response and thrust, and differing engines bring differences in weight distribution and consequently balance and cornering attitude. Now imagine the three German middleweights all had the same engine.

All of a sudden, you essentially eliminate one of the major components or a comparative review. Back to back, with nothing to discuss when it comes to engines, you’re forced to expand more upon other aspects of the package. A 1,000-word review might suddenly lurch more towards the subject of handling and roadholding. Hooray! My favourite topic. Perhaps there is some good news on the horizon. But then again, perhaps not.

If the next generation of cars is designed around what is essentially a common electric motor and battery pack, there seems no reason for anything but optimal positioning of prime mover and their ancillaries. Mount the big, dense, heavy batteries as low as possible, perhaps choosing to focus the centre of mass closer towards the front or rear of the car depending on how you want the car to throw its weight around in corners. Without having to surrender to the limitations of bulky old-fashioned oil-burning mechanical apparatus, you can expect a big leap forwards in vehicle handling when electricity takes over. But it also means that the reportable difference between how three rival cars behave can be expected to narrow somewhat.

Potentially, with cars hitting new peaks of efficiency and fitness for purpose, comparing a fully-electric trio of similar cars may end up a bit like comparing a Boeing 737, an Airbus A319 and a Embraer E170 from the perspective of the passenger. You’re left only to compare noise, interior design, smoothness and standard equipment. How it actually flies — or drives — ceases to be a relevant factor for comparison. As long as all three work, and work well, all is good.

For a wine reviewer, it amounts to the concept of every wine coming from the same grape, at the same time of year, from the same vineyard, with an identical taste and mouth feel as a result. Wine reviewers could end up out of a job, but they needn’t worry. They’ll probably turn their attention to reviewing the bottle instead  — the vessel in which the wine is delivered.

And with no driving experience to wax lyrical about, car reviewers could end up having to do the same.

(Images scoured from the corners of the internet and modified for my purposes, apart from the top one, which is all my fault. And although I stand by the fear expressed in the words above, I’m sure I’ll remain excited by the prospect of reviewing literally anything)

  • Rover 1

    What a great article!

    I think that reviews will always focus on the differences. Put all cars in a comparison test on the same tyres and then see the differences in chassis tuning. But then shouldn’t they be tested as bought? Increasingly, though, dynamic differences aren’t what people are noticing.

    For example, as someone with a fleet(?) of older cars I read about the speed of connectivity with ‘devices’ somewhat bemusedly, but a short trip in a friend’s new Discovery brought home to me what a hugely important point it is for many. His daughter’s phone wouldn’t connect so we could hear her latest K-pop hit and it was a major issue. The Disco had been purchased over one of ‘the Germans’ partially as a result of it’s ‘design-ness’, (her word), and to find it ‘wouldn’t work’ was finding a major fault.
    But then 8 year olds view the world differently from the rest of us don’t they?

    She likes my old cars and had never seen a cassette player before, and was very impressed that my old car could play her K-pop so clearly. Because cassette players can use these.

    • Sjalabais

      You just very accurately described “buzz”. There is always a way around, a solution to be found, and if it is as simple as listening to music…1-30$ aftermarket items from adapters to stereos can fix that. People are willing to pay exhorbitant prices for the slightest convenience – a trend that just baffles me. I have colleagues who have bought new door locks with codes instead of keys (I have a lot of issues with that, too), who buy WiFi bulbs, heaters, fridges and toasters. IoT is making me go…”Huh? Why?”. And all those sensors and access points being online make me roll up in a fetal position.

  • The association of tastes with words can be trained, and the language for describing tastes can be learned (if you want to use the same words for a taste note like the professionals and/or douches do).

    This out of the way, I don’t see a benefit when “the journalists” concentrate on road holding. The last time they pretended to do so we ended up with 19″ rims on Golfs ex works, because “stiffer is better.”

    • crank_case

      Handlings important, well to me anyway. Sounds like those journalist just didn’t know their stuff when it came to suspension, everyone knows “less unsprung weight is better” 😉

      • Gnomical

        … and there is still a lot of room for technological development to enhance handling using variable frequency drives connected to motors at each drive wheel in a way that improves dynamic stability and desired performance.

    • Rover 1

      Only on a smooth racetrack, not in the real world with bumps and camber changes. I prefer the English Autocar and Car magazines for this approach to the real world.

  • Gnomical

    Actually electric motors do not all behave the same way; what we have seen so far is only a small slice of what is available out there and I expect the variety and customization of electric motors for particular tasks to increase as the technology develops. In industry we were able to modify the controls of variable frequency drives to enhance certain desired characteristics. There is hope for cross-technology as costs come down. Then the ink will flow…

  • Monkey10is

    I fear that — even more than already — there my be some pseudo-scientific Maguffin introduced into car reviews in order to suggest that the journalist is relying on their superior & objective technological knowledge rather than just subjectivity and gut feel.
    So we will read of how Aston Martin chooses electric motors with a winding pattern to replicate the feel of a strung-out V12; whilst Bentley optimise the resistivity of their stators to give the same effortless push of acceleration their cars have always been famed for…

    • Yeah, we’ll definitely have to keep an eye out for that kind of thing happening.