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Putting Cars to the Test for Consumer Reports


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Chadwick. With this confession, I admire conservationists and still like fast cars. I subscribe to Consumer Reports, but wonder sometimes if the car writers there enjoy wagging fingers about fun cars and might be happier driving something safe and slow. Turns out, I'm wrong.

Reporter Mike Pesca went to a Consumer Reports auto testing center and found out for a lot of these guys, the faster the better.

(Soundbite of car engine)

Mr. MIKE PESCA reporting:

At 75 miles per hour, the Porsche 911 Carrera hugs a curve tighter than a sailors wife on the day her husband ships out. Normally at this speed, one would experience a rush that was partly based on fear. But there's less death defiance than usual with David Champion behind the wheel.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Director, Consumer Reports Auto Testing Center): You turn the car sideways, you know what's going on with the car - you got a nice little bit of drift there, no lift off over still(ph).

(Soundbite of car engine)

Mr. CHAMPION: And we're cornering somewhere around about 70 miles an hour.

PESCA: When Champion - the director of Consumer Reports auto testing center -pilots a Porsche…

(Soundbite of car engine)

PESCA: …or guns the engine of a Dodge Viper, it's all in the name of science, safety, and shopping. This is Consumer Reports.

Here you can rest assure that after these high performance vehicles are put through their paces, they'll be measured for trunk space and evaluated on the ease of child seat installation. The test center is in East Haddam, Connecticut, which is over 100 miles from New York City and about 30 miles South of Hartford - in other words, in the middle of nowhere. Cars are tested for every aspect of performance, from engine noise to headlight luminosity, and not just on the track. As Dave Champion notes, the employees tend to take their work home with them.

Mr. CHAMPION: All these test cars that you see outside, everybody is taking home backwards and forwards and writing in the log book how they found that car to work. At times when we have a lot of the small cars like the Kia Rios and the Hynduai Accents, there's not a lot of people lining up to take those in the evening - whereas something like the Corvette, the 911 Porsche and the Viper, there was a fair line of people wanting to take those home.

PESCA: The cars were all purchased anonymously by Consumer Reports employees from real dealers, tested and then resold - usually losing 20 to 30 percent of their value. Lately, Consumer Reports has been focusing attention on the SUV. We got inside one - the Toyota FJ Cruiser - and put it to the test.

Mr. CHAMPION: And then this is our rock hill. It's actually about 300 tons of boulders concreted into the hillside.

(Soundbite of car climbing hillside)

PESCA: In the passenger seat, I clang around like loose change in a dryer. But you know what? The Toyota makes it up the hill.

Mr. CHAMPION: This car did extremely well. It basically walked up - some of the cars that we've tested on there, you'd sort of eject yourself from one hole into the next hole. You'd lift off because you didn't want to do any damage, traction control would go away, and you'd get stuck in the next hole.

PESCA: Next, we venture off the main drag - literally, the test sight is built on a former drag strip - and we hit a winding road with potholes that turned out to have been put there on purpose.

Mr. CHAMPION: This is our ride evaluation course through the woods here, and it's a especially prepared asphalt surface that has got various crests and bumps and potholes and things like that all the way through.

PESCA: So that grade goes to nowhere.

Mr. CHAMPION: All these catch basins are just concreted over. The company that came into build the road, they find it more difficult to build a bad road then they did to build a normal road.

PESCA: See that's when you need to hire mocked up contractors who do a shoddy job.

Mr. CHAMPION: Well, they were pretty close to that, anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: After navigating the course, we execute some avoidance maneuvers, then pop from the Cruiser to the Porsche and back to the Viper. Even to me, a guy who can't drive a stick shift, it's beginning to look like Champion might have the coolest job in America - or at least Connecticut. Then I notice that this whole time, there's been a family sedan slowly making its way around the test track. It's a fuel economy run, simulating city driving conditions. Accelerate to 40, decelerate to 20.

Through these tests, Consumer Reports has found that the official miles per gallon figure is usually off, something which the EPA itself now acknowledges. Champion says it's one of the most important tests Consumer Reports does. But for the driver?

Mr. CHAMPION: That's probably relatively close to torture, plus the fact that it's a pretty warm day today - I think it's 83 degrees - and you have to do it without the air conditioning running.

PESCA: Six miles around the mile-and-a-quarter long track, no A/C, and even playing the radio is discouraged. A driver in that position may just long for a ride in the smart car - a tiny, fuel-efficient bumblebee of a vehicle currently unavailable in the U.S. As we hit the drag strip, the smart car struggles to exceed 60 miles and hour.

(Soundbite of car engine)

PESCA: I mean, this is basically the world's greatest go-cart.

Mr. CHAMPION: Yes, but I think even some go-carts are quicker than this.

PESCA: Champion's gentle put-down of the smart car and his enthusiasm for the Porsche should stand as a symbol for the real mood of the organization. They're autophiles who want to make driving better for everyone, from drivers of Corvettes and huge SUVs to motorists who opt for Volvos with side-impact airbags, electronic stability control, and Nerf padding. By keeping auto companies accountable and consumers informed, the Consumer Reports testers reason they'll make driving safer and more efficient, even for people who have never read the magazine. Plus they get paid to drive Vipers on a drag strip.

(Soundbite of car engine)

PESCA: Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.