When a consumer reads a road test—from any source—they want to know that the reviewer isn’t playing games with the results, such as holding back data to make one product gain an unfair advantage. Equally, consumers want to know that the product delivers as advertised: that the smart phone battery does last the 8 hours between charges .that the music player does hold 16 gigs of data that the toaster does accommodate Texas Toast.
But manufacturers try and game the product review process. There have been plenty of press vehicles that the Consumer Reports Autos engineers and editors have driven that felt just a teensy bit better than the version we bought at the dealership to test. Call it our calibrated seat-of-the-pants-meter (the butt-ometer, if you will), but every once in a while a car seems to be just a bit quicker, steers more crisply or is quieter and more refined as a press car than as the anonymous off-the-assembly-line version. Heck, even Ferrari goes to lengths to game the system, according to the website Jalopnik.
Which brings me to the 2012 Volkswagen Passat. When VW dropped off an early media car this summer, I remember looking at the trunk and saying to myself “well, at least both of the cheap hinges are dressed up with plastic covers, unlike the Jetta, which just has plastic on the side with the wiring.” As you can see in these two photos from Car & Driver and Edmunds it appears that the Passats in VW’s press fleet have covers on the hinges.
But not that Passat you just bought. No, your new Passat isn’t as nicely finished as the press version.
Like all the vehicles we put through testing, Consumer Reports buys retail samples at a car dealership. I personally purchased the Passat TDI we’re testing. (We also bought a 2.5 SE and a 3.6 SEL Premium.) As you can see in our images, none of the Passats have the two plastic covers found on the press cars. Consumers apparently only get a cover for the wiring loom hinge; the other one goes bare.
Is this a big deal? One, rather than two, plastic covers? Well, if a manufacturer will go to great lengths to put an extra plastic cover on the press version to prevent criticism, what other lengths will they go to game the system and perform better in evaluations? Tweak the suspension, flash a computer, blueprint an engine, add extra sound deadening? Based on our past experiences, all these things and more have occurred. Shame on VW and the manufacturers who deceive the public through this practice.
Garnering initial buzz based on false expectations is a short-sighted way to build a brand and foster sales. The reputation always catches up in the long run. Rest assured, Consumer Reports will remain vigilant and impartial. After all, the products Consumer Reports tests—from $20 appliances to $90,000 cars—are the same ones you buy.