The latest edition of The Car Book is in the bookstores, and, like the rest of the nation, I suppose I should be feeling a great sense of relief. After all, were it not for the efforts of its author, consumer advocate Jack Gillis, who knows how many of us might go out and purchase a car that would at the very least empty our pockets and at the very worst shred us into small bits?
This is the eighth edition of The Car Book, of which, it says on the cover, more than 2 million copies are in print. The basic premise of The Car Book seems to be that the modern automobile is a device to be feared and loathed, a machine manufactured by charlatans, sold by thieves and serviced by ingrates.
Although it is a necessity for modern life, the Devil Automobile is to be avoided whenever possible and is to be operated as if one were sitting on the back of a Bengal Tiger. Gillis says as much in his introduction to the book: "Every year, over 45,000 people are killed and 4 million more are injured in car accidents. An auto-related death occurs every 10 minutes and an injury every nine seconds. While these statistics are hard for most of us to imagine, picture this: a major airline crash with no survivors, every day of the year."
Good Lord, the terror! Never mind that the 45,000 includes people killed in tractor accidents, pedestrians, motorcyclists, truckers and drunks who often die in single-car accidents; even with all the statistical contaminants tossed in, the U.S. death rate is only about two people per hundred million miles driven. And extract the farmers, the truckers, the walkers, the motorcyclists and the drunks and deal only with normal folks driving during normal hours and weather in normal automobiles, and you'd probably find the figure decreases to about 10,000. That is more akin to a Piper crashing than to a Boeing 727 going down.
The Car Book is riddled with such paranoia. If you are not killed outright in your car, it seems to suggest, you may be driven into bankruptcy by poor fuel economy, lousy warranties, high insurance bills and expensive maintenance. Gillis, whose qualifications as a car expert include three years at the Department of Transportation preparing the first edition of The Car Book, teaching classes in marketing and public policy at George Washington University and writing for Good Housekeeping magazine, seems not to take any pleasure at all from automobiles.
The Car Book is little more than a 159-page collection of data devoid of significant interpretation or subjective analysis. There is little real value to this kind of data. We are given tables on crash-test performance, fuel mileage and tire durability, among other things. But the tire tables are skewed toward wear factors and relate only obliquely to the more critical element of road-holding ability. And the crash tests, compiled by DOT, have been roundly criticized for simplistic, sometimes specious data that has little relevance to the way cars actually collide on the highways. The EPA's annual fuel economy ratings we are offered have been assaulted as being hopelessly unrealistic and replete with variables that simply do not exist in the real world.
Gillis' approach reminds me of that taken by Robert McNamara during the Vietnam war. As secretary of defense, he sat in the Pentagon, poring over body counts, bomb tonnages, helicopter sorties and pizza deliveries to the troops and concluded from such statistics that we were winning the war.
Gillis tells us that automobiles like the Dodge Aries and its sister K-car, the Plymouth Reliant, and the new GM J-cars (Chevy Cavalier, Pontiac Sunbird, Oldsmobile Firenza) are optimum choices. Now, these assessments may be backed by solid data in Gillis' tables, but in fact they are dreary, noisy, outdated automobiles that represent some of the worst contemporary automotive technology.
Conversely, Gillis' book has very little to say about Hondas, which by every possible measurement, including an irrefutable one -- overwhelming acceptance in the marketplace -- are among the best cars in the world. Also getting short shrift are most Toyotas, which in terms of overall value have received widespread, and highly deserved, accolades. And what about Mercedes-Benz? For one as obsessed with safety as Gillis, the Mercedes-Benz would seem an obvious choice. Its manufacturer has dedicated itself to safe design, making, for example, air bags and anti-lock brakes available on every model it sells. Mercedes-Benz is the only manufacturer to make air bags standard equipment on every model it sells in the United States. (Gillis goes on and on about air bags in his largest chapter, on safety, yet has nothing at all to say about anti-lock brakes and which cars have them.) If I were given a choice of which car to drive into one of DOT's beloved barriers, I would choose a Mercedes- Benz. Perhaps Gillis gives them little recognition because they are expensive to repair after the crash, but which is more important, the preservation of life and limb or the price of sheet metal?
I wonder about the so-called "consumer advocates" like Gillis, Clarence Ditlow III at the Center for Auto Safety and Ralph Nader. What is it about a perfectly reasonable 20th-century device that has brought millions of people unprecedented mobility, prosperity and outright satisfaction that causes consumer advocates to quiver with revulsion? Why do they shrink in fear from the automobile when the general public clearly carries on a love affair with the same machine?
Are these latter-day Savonarolas revulsed at the notion of pleasure among the masses? Or are they elitist nannies who, like their Victorian counterparts, profess to know best and are prepared to rap our knuckles should we yield to temptations? Jack Gillis is no doubt a decent, talented fellow, but I doubt he's the best authority on which car to buy. ::