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At Consumer Reports magazine's 327-acre automotive test track in East Haddam, Mike Quincy has fulfilled a lifelong dream by writing about cars for a living.
And Quincy, who will be speaking about his experiences Monday at Waterford Public Library, has seen a huge transformation in the automotive marketplace since he started covering the industry two decades ago.
"Over the last 20 years, cars have gotten a lot better," Quincy said during a tour of the magazine's only automotive test track in the country. "Consumer Reports has put pressure on all companies to make better, safer, more fuel-efficient products."
Judy Liskov, assistant director at the Waterford library, said she invited the Marlborough resident to speak after seeing a television report that mentioned Consumer Reports car testing was done only a few miles away, at the former Connecticut Dragway, which closed in the 1980s. Since library patrons are always eager to read the annual April issue of Consumer Reports that focuses exclusively on the latest cars, trucks and SUVs, she invited Quincy to come in and give a personal view of trends in the industry.
"I'm sure people have tons of questions," she said.
Quincy said he often gets questions about what he considers the best car on the market. His answer is always the same: "The best car is the car that fits your needs."
Quincy drives a different car virtually every day, like all of the test track's 22 employees, who are asked to grab a new key on the way out at the end of each shift and to use the vehicle as they go about their daily lives. Drivers are asked to fill out a log book, giving impressions of the cars.
But while impressions are important and can sometimes turn into blogs written on the website ConsumerReports.org, the magazine stakes its reputation on the quality of such quantifiable measurements as braking distance, acceleration and tire wear. A weather-monitoring system onsite helps ensure that all of the 50 instrumented and on-road tests performed by Consumer Reports are done in similar conditions to ensure fair comparisons, Quincy said.
The attention to detail is so intense that Consumer Reports does its winter tire testing on Jay Peak in Vermont between 2 and 5 a.m., when the wind and temperatures are the most stable. The magazine used to do its bumpy-road testing on Colchester's narrow streets, but when the town moved to upgrade its roadways, Consumer Reports had engineers build an on-site stretch of bumpy pavement.
Two of the main tests done in Colchester involve tire performance and child-safety seats. The facility also performs fuel-economy tests on automobiles.
"Everything we do is defensible," Quincy said.
No crash tests are done at the Consumer Reports facility. Instead, the magazine analyzes in its pages testing done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
No 'freebies' accepted
Consumer Reports buys all of its cars directly from dealerships but never identifies the company by name until the day of delivery, to avoid the possibility that automakers will try to enhance their vehicles to get better reviews. Quincy said cars delivered to major newspaper and magazine outlets for review often include enhancements that the average buyer does not receive.
Consumer Reports' attention to such details has made it "the bible" for car buyers, according to Waterford librarian Liskov. It's a magazine that with associated publications and websites boasts about 8 million subscribers paying for content, including reviews of many other consumer products, from dishwashers to refrigerators.
Consumer Reports, operated by the nonprofit Consumers Union, has been sued by car manufacturers angry about test results. But Quincy said the rigorous standards that the magazine uses to conduct tests has so far allowed it to win every case.
"We don't take any freebies, we have no advertising, we get no government money," Quincy said. "We maintain our independence. If a product is really good, we can say it. If a product is terrible, we can say it."
Consumer Reports, which has more than 400 employees at company headquarters in Yonkers, N.Y., has been tough on vehicles coming out of Detroit over the years. But Quincy noted that vast improvements in the past decade have helped American cars earn new respect.
The two companies he rates as doing the best job these days, however, are the Korean companies Hyundai and Kia, while he feels Japanese automaker Honda has lost its way a bit. "They're producing good products still, but not quite as daring and fun as they used to be," he said.
No matter how harshly the people at Consumer Reports may judge a new car, however, Quincy gives assurances that the engineers and experts at the test track are hardcore industry followers who are genuinely excited about all the new advances, whether it be the latest all-electric Tesla Motors vehicle or a new approach to avoid accidents or enhance parking.
Quincy said one of the exciting new advances in automobiles in the near future could be hydrogen fuel cells. Unfortunately, the move to more efficient cars has been stymied by the lack of hydrogen fueling stations - a situation he believes must be resolved.
Quincy said higher fuel economies are going to be necessary in the future, which could mean more 4-cylinder direct fuel-injection engines.
"What car companies have to do is put all their cars on a diet," he said.
CONSUMER REPORTS TOP AUTOMOBILES FOR 2013
Fuel efficient: Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE, $29,052
Small: Subaru Impreza Premium, $21,345
Large: Hyundai Genesis, $39,850
Luxury: Audi A6 3.0T, $56,295
Fuel efficient: Toyota Highlander Hybrid V6 CVT, $47,255
Small: Subaru Forester 2.5 x Premium, $25,720
Large: Chevrolet Traverse LT V6, $39,920
Luxury: Acura MDX V6, $46,715
Fuel efficient: Volkwagen Golf TDI, $24,764
Budget: Honda Fit Base, $16,020
Sporty: Subaru ImprezaWRX, $26,088
All wheel drive: Subaru Impreza Premium, $21,345
IF YOU GO
What: A talk by Mike Quincy of Consumer Reports
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Waterford Public Library