Taking on Consumer Reports
A GM exec's hotheaded e-mail puts CEO Wagoner in the hot seat.
By Alex Taylor III, FORTUNE senior editor

NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. One General Motors executive is learning that the hard way.

Lori Queen, GM's vehicle line executive for small cars, found herself in a dispute with Consumer Reports magazine over the rating of GM vehicles.

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Consumer Reports is the most powerful third-party source of automotive information in the country. Some 4.2 million people subscribe to the magazine and another 2.1 million pay to access its Web site.

Consumer Reports publishes four or five car tests every month and a special all-auto issue in April. It maintains an elaborate auto evaluation facility at an old drag strip in central Connecticut and even goes to the trouble of buying its test cars incognito from local dealers.

Auto executives from Ford and Chrysler as well as GM have quietly consulted with magazine editors to see how they can improve their ratings.

In addition to being rigorous -- it performs 50 different tests and evaluations -- Consumer Reports is also renowned for its even -handedness. It has moved on from only recommending the kinds of inexpensive, fuel-efficient cars that might appeal to the magazine's subscribers and given high marks to BMWs and Lexuses as well.

For the first time in its history, all of the magazine's ten top picks of the year, released in its auto issue in March, bore Japanese nameplates. Five were from Honda, two from Toyota and Subaru, and one from Nissan.

The magazine did not consider country of origin in its ratings, says David Champion, director of vehicle testing. "We just look at the data and see what come to the top of the chart.

GM's Queen apparently didn't agree. In an e-mail exchange with a staffer at Automotive News, a trade weekly, she blasted Consumer Report's staff as "the most unprofessional group of people I have ever worked with."

She went on: "They are totally nonobjective and go to great extremes to paint a picture for their paid subscription readers, who primarily buy Japanese cars. They don't consider price or price differences, they don't consider model mix or consumer preferences, they buy the cheapest car they can find (generally) and then base their opinions on a limited sample."

Consumer Reports' Champion says the magazine buys "the most popular model in a particular car."

Quotes from her e-mail were published in Automotive News, prompting Wagoner to placed a call to Champion to try to convince him that GM's senior management still respects Consumer Reports and that Queen's statement would not have been approved by the company. An official letter of apology is due to be published in Automotive News on Monday, March 20.

Exactly what provoked Queen is unknown, but some signs pointed to a review Consumer Reports published a year ago on the Chevy Cobalt, one of the cars that Queen has brought to market with great fanfare.

Consumer's bottom line: "It isn't very agile, the seats lack support, the car feels cramped, its engine was noisy and it had paltry fuel economy." Needless to say, the Cobalt didn't land on the magazine's recommended list (although the high-end version of the Cobalt, the Cobalt SS, topped Consumer Reports' small coupe list).

And Champion says Wagoner's phone call isn't going to move the rating of any GM car one bit. Every one of them, he adds, will be judged on its merits. Top of page

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