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MAGAZINE LIKES IT, BUT NISSAN CAN'T SAY IT

Nissan Motor Co. would love to advertise how its 2008 Altima upset the formidable Honda Accord for Consumer Reports' top family sedan rating.

Too bad for Nissan it will never have that chance, because Consumer Reports bans use of its name in advertising. Nissan, though frustrated, wouldn't dream of questioning the influential magazine.

"We can't even send out a press release," said Frederique Le Greves, Nissan's vice president of communications in the United States. "One out of four car buyers checks Consumers Reports. That's why it's so important."

Not to worry. Since the Altima's introduction last spring, lots of car buyers reached the same conclusion as Consumer Reports' test engineers, and perhaps faster. Sales of the sedan in 2007 climbed 19 percent to 276,362, making it one of the top sellers in the United States, where automotive unit sales fell 2.5 percent.

Until a few years ago, persuading consumers that the Altima was a sound alternative to the category-leading Accord would have been a stretch. Shoppers were hearing about significant quality problems in some Nissan models from press reports. And Nissan ads say nice things about the cars no matter what, so why not just buy No. 1 based on Consumer Reports?

Since the advent of the initial-quality survey in the 1980s by J.D. Power & Associates, the amount of independent, reliable, free data available online has exploded. If a new model can demonstrate superior fuel efficiency, quicker braking and fewer defects, the facts are there for all to see.

Web sites such as Edmunds.com, Cars.com and Carsdirect.com provide reviews, performance characteristics and even invoice pricing, which can help in negotiations with car dealers.

Consumer Reports prides itself on independence, a stand buttressed by its practice of buying cars from dealers rather than borrowing them from manufacturers. The nonprofit organization accepts no advertising and doesn't attend technical previews held by manufacturers. Some 7-million readers pay $24 annually for the magazine or its online content, which covers many household products and consumer services.

A large dues-paying readership gives Consumer Reports clout and credibility, but evokes fear and even hatred among automakers. Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca "used to grumble about them reviewing potpies and shower heads" when Chrysler got a bad review, recalled Jason Vines, a former Chrysler vice president of public affairs.

Besides conducting tests on its 320-acre track in Connecticut, Consumer Reports folds in results from safety tests by the government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It takes into consideration user surveys in developing its ratings on long-term reliability.

In other words, the magazine makes visible much of what once was hidden from car buyers, or at least difficult to find. Consumer Report's underlying pitch is that its information is best because it's untainted by commercial relationships with the industry.

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