EAST HADDAM, Conn. – At Consumer Reports magazine’s 327-acre automotive test track in East Haddam, Mike Quincy has fulfilled a lifelong dream by writing about cars for a living.
And Quincy has seen a huge transformation in the automotive marketplace since he started covering the industry two decades ago.
“Over the last 20 years, cars have gotten a lot better,” Quincy said during a tour of the magazine’s only automotive test track in the country. “Consumer Reports has put pressure on all companies to make better, safer, more fuel-efficient products.”
Quincy said he often gets questions about what he considers the best car on the market. His answer is always the same: “The best car is the car that fits your needs.”
Quincy drives a different car virtually every day, like all of the test track’s 22 employees, who are asked to grab a new key on the way out at the end of each shift and to use the vehicle as they go about their daily lives. Drivers are asked to fill out a log book, giving impressions of the cars.
But while impressions are important and can sometimes turn into blogs written on the website ConsumerReports.org, the magazine stakes its reputation on the quality of such quantifiable measurements as braking distance, acceleration and tire wear. A weather-monitoring system on-site helps ensure that all of the 50 instrumented and on-road tests performed by Consumer Reports are done in similar conditions to ensure fair comparisons, Quincy said.
The attention to detail is so intense that Consumer Reports does its winter tire testing on Jay Peak in Vermont between 2 and 5 a.m., when the wind and temperatures are the most stable. The magazine used to do its bumpy-road testing on Colchester’s narrow streets, but when the town moved to upgrade its roadways, Consumer Reports had engineers build an on-site stretch of bumpy pavement.
Two of the main tests done in East Haddam involve tire performance and child-safety seats. The facility also performs fuel-economy tests on automobiles.
“Everything we do is defensible,” Quincy said.
No crash tests are done at the Consumer Reports facility. Instead, the magazine analyzes in its pages testing done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Consumer Reports buys all of its cars directly from dealerships but never identifies the company by name until the day of delivery, to avoid the possibility that automakers will try to enhance their vehicles to get better reviews. Quincy said cars delivered to major newspaper and magazine outlets for review often include enhancements that the average buyer does not receive.
The magazine, with associated publications and websites, boasts about 8 million subscribers paying for content, including reviews of many other consumer products from dishwashers to refrigerators.
Consumer Reports, operated by the nonprofit Consumers Union, has been sued by car manufacturers angry about test results. But Quincy said the rigorous standards that the magazine uses to conduct tests have so far allowed it to win every case.
“We don’t take any freebies, we have no advertising, we get no government money,” Quincy said. “We maintain our independence. If a product is really good, we can say it. If a product is terrible, we can say it.”
Consumer Reports, which has more than 400 employees at company headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., has been tough on vehicles coming out of Detroit over the years. But Quincy noted that vast improvements in the past decade have helped American cars earn new respect.
The two companies he rates as doing the best job these days, however, are the Korean companies Hyundai and Kia, while he says Japanese automaker Honda has lost its way a bit.
“They’re producing good products still, but not quite as daring and fun as they used to be,” he said.
No matter how harshly the people at Consumer Reports may judge a new car, however, Quincy gives assurances that the engineers and experts at the test track are hardcore industry followers who are genuinely excited about all the new advances, whether it be the latest all-electric Tesla Motors vehicle or a new approach to avoid accidents or enhance parking.
Quincy said one of the exciting new advances in automobiles in the near future could be hydrogen fuel cells. Unfortunately, the move to more efficient cars has been stymied by the lack of hydrogen fueling stations.
Quincy said higher fuel economies are going to be necessary in the future, which could mean more four-cylinder direct fuel-injection engines.
“What car companies have to do is put all their cars on a diet,” he said.