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CITIZEN JOURNALISM :
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE SUBJECTIVE
OF ONLINE CAR REVIEWS

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As is my wont, I am always wishing that I could afford a new car - and so constantly trawl the web looking at cars that I might buy if I suddenly find the money. It is on this pass-time that this 'research' is based.

It is an argument of many [probably me included] that the biggest impact of the Internet on society is that it is a medium of communication that is available - as both receiver and sender - to everyone.

The impact of this is on business is that no longer is the organization the only provider of information on its products. More and more we - the consumers - look to the web for other consumers' opinions of the products and services available in the market.

Whilst this does bring massive advantages to our decision-making process, it has its flaws.

Let's start with the 'professional' review - something that pre-web was available only on TV and in the print media. Obviously, the standing of the writer or the publication adds to - or detracts from - the validity of the review.

My subject car in this case was the Ford Focus C-Max. I started by putting "focus c-max review" into Google.

The top return was from carpages.co.uk, and the text said: 'Ford Focus C-MAX Review - An in-depth Ford Focus C-MAX 2.0 TDCi Ghia Review and Road Test, written by an authoritative UK motoring journalist plus a detailed Ford Buyer's Guide'.

It enthused about the car, giving 4 out of 5 stars for performance, ride/handling, ease of use, safety and security, comfort and refinement, how it looks and in car entertainment. The reviewer commenting that they liked: ease of access, driving position, performance / economy, ride and handling, exterior and interior styling, comfort, family friendly and disliked only the wood trim on the Ghia model.

Good start for the car then

Second in the SERP was www.parkers.co.uk. It too was upbeat about the C-Max, giving an overall rating of 3.5 out of 5 and summing it up as: 'an excellent mid-size people carrier. It's based on the award-winning Ford Focus and this shows on the road, where it benefits from excellent steering and tidy cornering. Inside, it's tastefully finished with high-quality materials and an up-market look.'

Hmm, I was now thinking, it could be worth taking a look at this car.

After the ford.co.uk entry, the next in the SERP listing was new-car-reviews.co.uk with another enthusiastic review, saying that 'the interior of the new Focus C-Max uses high quality materials and feels very solid - so should live up to the trials and tribulations of family use', and that 'it is in the new cars ride and handling that it outshines the competition.'

Next up was the online reproduction of the Sunday Times' review - which said that 'the Ford C-Max is the car that took the small MPV out of the realm of the family minibus and plunged it into the arena of decent-driving, spacious cars. It is safe to say that parents will enjoy this pioneering MPV just as thoroughly as the kids are sure to.'

Cor blimey - why isn't everyone driving one of these?

The next listing was from whatcar.co.uk. Their review gave an overall 3/5 - but they noted the biggest failing was that 'with only five seats, it's not as versatile as some rivals' - they obviously thought this was a massive failing because in their review the car scored 4 out of 5 in 7 of the 9 categories - 3 out of 5 in the other 2 - but I'm not here to quibble about scoring systems. What interested me about the WhatCar site was that it included a 'Reader Review Rating' which also gave a 3/5 star result - but when I followed the link to read the owner's reviews ... oh dear.

Most agreed with the 'experts' opinion about the car - good to drive etc etc - but then came the comments on reliability. Review after review listed problems with the car and dealer after-sales service that varied between very poor and outrageous.

The thing with customer reviews is that they are subjective. Spending time on the WhatCar website looking at the reviews of other cars highlights this issue. Owners constantly compare cars to previous cars they have owned. Or they pick up on a particular niggle that they have - but that 'fault' might not bother someone else [eg awkward entry to the rear seats to someone who rarely carries passengers].

Opinions are, by definition, personal - and so not always of any value to the reader. Take the WhatCar owner reviews of the Honda Civic. It has - in equal numbers - criticisms of the lack of lumber support in the front seats and plaudits of how comfortable the seats are. This has to be a case of trying the seats for yourself by physically sitting in them. The customer reviews, therefore, are not conclusive - and rarely enough on which to confirm or reject a car.

In the C-Max case, however, the complaints were about actual faults - not subjective opinions. They chronicled various failing of the car. They certainly put me off. I'm glad I read down the SERP as far as the WhatCar site.

Footnote: Ford PR dept - if you read this, I'll gladly drive a complimentary C-Max for a while to prove the reviewers wrong.

signature - Alan Charlesworth

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