When I got hired on at TTAC, I checked with our news team about what we were expected to disclose when it came to considerations from automakers. Steph told me that unlike with some other outlets, there was no need to disclose how the press-car system works, since y’all knew the deal.
Three years and change later, I just wanted to serve up a refresher.
Why am I writing this now, you might ask? Well, in addition to being a refresher, it’s also a Friday, a slow news day (at least for autos), and we’ve probably picked up new readers over the years who could stand to learn how this works.
A peek behind the curtain, if you will.
That way, you’ll be more informed as you read car reviews.
Here’s how it generally works: Just about every major city in this country, with a few exceptions, has a one, two, or even three companies that serve as the press fleets for those cities and the surrounding region. So, for example, Chicago has two companies that serve the metro area as well as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and probably parts of Michigan and Indiana, and Missouri.
These fleets make money by being paid per loan, and they also run events for consumers — say, an OEM brings cars to an event open to the public for test drives. They also help with auto-show setups when necessary. If you go to a sporting event and see that, say, Ford is running a promo and a few cars are out front for display, the local press fleet may have had a hand in that.
Automotive journalists just can’t knock on the door or call in and say “me journalist” like that dumb Cookie Monster meme and get press cars — you need to get approval, and from each OEM. I don’t know what alchemy is used to determine who gets cars and not, but I suspect it’s a mix of audience circulation/traffic/ratings, how often you actually produce reviews (OEMs seem to expect that 75 to 80 percent of loans you receive will result in a review), how fair you are as a reviewer, how reliable you are in terms of factual accuracy, personal relationships, where you live in relation to the fleets’ offices, and if you’re considered a “legit” professional automotive journalist and not just someone out for free cars. Plus other factors.
You also have to sign a loan agreement each time, promising you won’t drive drunk, you’ll pay any tickets, and so on and so forth.
One get note — just because OEMs expect journalists to write reviews, there is no pressure to write POSITIVE reviews. OEMs understand we’re in the business of truth-telling, and if any OEM pulls cars from a journalist who has been harsh but fair on a car, well, that OEM is thin-skinned and only hurting itself by losing coverage.
Once you have approval, that tends to stick for your career, though moving to a new city with a new fleet would likely start the process over. You might gain or lose individual OEM approval as you change jobs (or outlets, if you’re freelance). Obviously, if you’re on a large staff, you may not interact with the fleet — one person might handle scheduling for the entire office.
Since all of us at TTAC are remote and draw from different fleets, I actually don’t schedule for the entire staff. I schedule just for myself. Every person who gets cars and reviews them here handles their own scheduling, though I help if needed.
As far as scheduling goes, I typically do it a month or so out, and since two companies represent my area, I switch back and forth every few weeks. Loans are typically a week long, and where I live, the fleets will come to you. In other areas, journalists are expected to travel to and from the fleet offices.
I pick cars to review based on what we’ve driven on junkets, what is new and important to the market, what I haven’t driven in a while, and what I think serves our readers best based on what’s available. I work with the fleets and OEMs to check on what’s available and what isn’t. Cars do cycle in and out of the fleets fairly quickly — after a certain mileage they are removed from service, typically set for sale at auction. I’ve heard of a few journalists buying used press cars.
Because cars cycle in and out, there are certainly times I request a loan and don’t get it. It sucks for us and you, the reader, but it happens. There’s only one or two examples of a certain car in circulation, there’s a mileage limit, and a certain amount of journalists. Sometimes a vehicle is gone before you can get it. And I suspect some OEMs aren’t big on giving TTAC loans for whatever reason (possibly including this site’s history).
In Canada, journalists are required to return the cars full of fuel. In America, it depends on the outlet, and when it comes to freelancers, their sense of responsibility. Our rule at TTAC is “don’t screw the fleets”, so I try not to send a car back without enough fuel to get them back to base or to the next journalist. Sometimes I measure mpgs from fill to refill, which in that case obviously requires me to refill the car before return.
We have other internal rules regarding test cars — best summed up as return the cars in one piece, abide by the loan contracts, clean up messes, don’t drive drunk, don’t abuse the car, pay any speeding/parking fines, et cetera.
During the loan, we use the cars mostly like we’d use our own cars, to run errands or commute. Sportier cars get put through their paces on a back road when time and weather permits, and if we get OEM approval we may take a sports car to a track or a four-wheeler off-road.
I don’t require our guys to wash cars before return (unless they’re unusually dirty) but we do try to wash them before photo sessions. Still, returning a clean car is nicer than returning a dirty one.
That should about cover it. If you already knew all this, thanks for reading. If you didn’t, well: “If you don’t know, now you know”.
[Image © 2020 Tim Healey/TTAC]