Driving Ambition: What It Takes to be a Road Tester

What could be more straightforward than driving a car and telling the reader if it’s any good? Like sandwich making or manning a telephone at a call centre, road testing is one of those vocations that can be reduced to a handful of words without actually losing the essence of it. Thing is, when you start looking at it in more detail, testing cars does become somewhat more involved.

That pithy job description – ‘driving a car and telling the reader if it’s any good’ – contains an enormous number of variables. In fact, it could actually describe two roles that look almost nothing alike.

DRIVING AND TELLING
Driving, to start right at the beginning, is itself is a very vague term. It might mean driving slowly in town, a little faster on country roads you know well or ones you’ve never seen before, or it might even mean driving at speed on a terrifying race track. A car could be a tiny electric hatchback that will live its life in the city, or it might be a 1,000bhp hypercar with a price tag four times that of the house you live in.

And telling? Is that via a 3,000-word print magazine article or an online piece that’s a fraction of the length? The reader could be a retiree who simply wants the most affordable car going, or it could be some youngster who came out of the womb with her hands at quarter-to-three and has never been seen without a car magazine nearby since.

As for ‘any good’? Best not to get me started…

Dan Prosser has been road testing cars since the end of 2007

THE RIGHT ROAD
I began road testing cars at the end of 2007. In the years that have followed it has been my pleasure to work alongside some of the most highly respected car journalists of the last three or four decades. Mostly I write about performance cars for an enthusiast audience, but not exclusively. If there is a single guiding principle in this line of work it is that whatever car you are reviewing, you must approach it mindful of its intended purpose. That’s almost too obvious to bother spelling out, but it’s a golden rule that is forgotten far too often. Toyota Aygo not quite throttle adjustable enough for your liking? You’ve missed the point.

The road tester’s job is made an awful lot easier if you have access to the right sort of road, and even more so if that road is a familiar one. You want one that is flowing and that has long, steady state corners. It is only in an arcing bend that you can explore a given car’s chassis balance and understand what that car is likely to do once the grip starts to bleed away. Very short corners that are more like kinks in the road than actual bends tell you next to nothing at all.

INSTINCTS COUNT
Once you’ve built up a little experience, you have to trust your instincts and have faith in your first impressions. If you find yourself driving a car for mile after mile and vacillating on whether or not it has good steering, or a sophisticated ride quality, you can be certain it has neither. If you have to search for those things, they aren’t there. Your instincts and first impressions are so important because there will be times, typically on a new car launch, when you will spend less time behind the wheel than you do at the dinner table later that evening.

Writing for an enthusiast audience is different to writing for a general audience in one very important way; very often, the enthusiast isn’t looking to buy the car in question. Being a hopeless petrolhead they simply yearn to know what it is like to drive. In that case, it is your job as the reviewer to put them in the driver’s seat. That, in fact, is probably the one thing that, in my opinion, distinguishes a great car journalist from a merely decent one.

Some day I might be able to say for certain exactly how that is done, but at this point in time, a decade and a bit into the job, I reckon it is a matter first of detail, then of conveying the sensations of driving. Generalisations such as ‘sharp steering’ and ‘lots of grip’ mean nothing at all to an enthusiast reader. You must elucidate on that steering in creative but never overused prose, and you must impart a sense of how that grip feels. I could describe to you the way the new Alpine A110 gets along a road in very dry and mechanical terms, all the while giving no real sense of what it is actually like to drive. For that car as much as any other on sale today, it is not the mechanics of driving that matter, but the sensations.

So there is more to road testing than might first meet the eye. Let’s be real, though; it’s still only driving a car and telling the reader if it’s any good.

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1 Comment

  1. Driving is a passion to me. So much informative articles this is. Learnt a lot of thing from this articles. Thank you Dan Prosser for your time.

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