A Peek Behind the Curtain: When Reviewing Goes Pear-Shaped, Fall Back on Teaching

A test drive and technical review is only a fraction of the marketing activities auto manufacturers conduct to convince you to buy their product. Yes, auto reviews are part of marketing, though many reviewers would hate hearing that.

Trust me. I’m a part-time marketing professor, advertising writer and auto reviewer. Sometimes, these occasionally incompatible gigs can be utterly complementary (especially if you’re among those who believe that auto reviews are a big part of a manufacturer’s marketing efforts). For instance, I’ve long admired Subaru’s company tagline/slogan, Confidence in Motion, and have used it in lessons for college students.

But sometimes, scheduling these occasionally incompatible gigs can be like building a house of cards in a wind tunnel.

Take last Monday. I picked up an Ascent Limited, Subaru’s largest and most expensive SUV, for a week’s testing. I got it home around 1 pm, after a business meeting downtown.

Then, pick your analogy or metaphor. The wrench hit the card house; things went pear-shaped; winter came for Jon Snow. Whatever. The following is a peek behind the curtain at the, sometimes conflicting, schedules of reviewers and reviewed.

What was the issue?

An editor of another publication had arranged a full day’s comparison driving of entry-level luxury SUVs later that week. And I had tentatively accepted an invitation to participate (though figured it’d been called off).

The beginner luxury comparison drives are not quite in the same category as the Subaru Ascent but are close. Finding a story angle wouldn’t be a problem.

Instead, the problem became the story

Anyway, the editor wondered, could I pick up the BMW X2? OK. But I have only one available parking pad.

So last Tuesday, I drove the Ascent to BMW, a busy place, where I left it in the spot the X2 was occupying. I could pick it up again next night after the comparison event or in a couple of days.

Last Wednesday was the comparison day, wherein three drivers, an editor and a photographer tested, rated, photographed, and traded thoughts about that X2, plus the recently introduced Cadillac XT4 and the Volvo XC40.

Last Wednesday was also the day of Toronto’s biggest snowstorm to date this year.

There would be no bringing the X2 back that night. In fact, the storm threw a bigger wrench into the house of cards that is an auto writer-cum-college prof’s schedule. We’d need to return last Thursday to complete the video and photography.

Trouble is, I teach on Thursdays and Fridays at a local college. So, the return would have to follow the day’s classes, starting around 3 pm.

Moreover, the comparison would demand two stories with some depth: the X2 was the first; the Volvo XC40 was the second. So, instead of taking the X2 back to BMW’s corporate campus to re-switch for the Ascent on Wednesday night, I’d be taking the XC40 home for more seat time before returning late the next day.

On Thursday, after teaching, then shooting video and photos for several hours in bracing -20-degree weather, I had the X2 again, ready for return. However, I’d be teaching again, the next morning at 8 am in the suburbs. I took it home. I’d get the Ascent back Friday after classes.

Nonetheless, there was a story here.  And a college lesson.

Three days, three different vehicles, all of which have historically powerful corporate taglines, which a marketing instructor can plumb for teaching moments: again, Subaru’s Confidence in Motion; Volvo’s classic (yet less celebrated lately) Drive Safely; and BMW’s The Ultimate Driving Machine.

Then, on Friday afternoon, I got sick. Third time since New Year. So, the X2 returned to my parking pad rather than its own home, and I went to bed.

The Subaru Ascent went back this morning with, unfortunately, few miles logged. However, some comparisons and a decent college lesson aren’t out of the question.

Start with the 4 Ps of marketing, a mnemonic device for understanding selling.

Marketing’s first P is price. The Ascent Limited trim is $48,674 before taxes. The base X2 is $49.200 but this tester was $56,650, plus destination charge and taxes. So, they’re not far off price-wise. Especially if you consider the difference in their turbo-charged four-cylinder engines.

The engine is chief among considerations in the product, the second of the 4 Ps. The BMW’s achieves 302HP and 332ib-ft of torque, while the Subaru’s gets 260 and 277.

The third P is promotion, which really means all the advertising, on-site sales materials, and PR like this article. So, you’re looking at P3.

But remember BMW’s slogan: The Ultimate Driving Machine. Ultimate means final or last, though many Anglophone stoners think it means awesome. Today the X2 was the penultimate (second last) driving machine because I had to switch it for the Subaru Ascent, the final ride of the week. It had been frigidly buried in a snowbank for five days. It started and moved away easily: hence, Confidence in Motion.

The final of the 4 Ps? Place! It really means distribution. That is, getting the product in front of you, Johnny Consumer, right when you’re ready to purchase. But today it was just their parking places.

I look forward to a boring week with my next review not getting wrenched or going pear-shaped.

This is a test