Veteran motoring journalist reflects on a lifetime of reviewing cars

Moving Well | Greg Hill | Posted on 19 April 2020

Veteran motoring journalist Greg Hill reflects on 35 years in the driver’s seat.

A couple of years after I started at RACV as a vehicle inspector doing on-site used-car checks, my boss let slip that he nearly didn’t hire me. The reason? He didn’t think I’d stick around. 

Silver Porsche

The most impressive car Greg Hill has ever driven was this Porsche 911 Carrera 4S.

Now, as I prepare to put away the notepad to embrace the pleasures of post-work life, it seems fitting to reflect on just how much the cars we drive, and the regulations that cover them, have changed over the decades.
Motoring journalist Greg Hill

It’s now almost 38 years since I first put on the RACV uniform. For the past 35 of those years I’ve had the privilege of writing car reviews for RoyalAuto, testing automotive products and representing RACV members’ interests on state and national technical committees. It’s been a long but very enjoyable ride, despite the occasional bump. 

Now as I prepare to put away the notepad to embrace the pleasures of post-work life, it seems fitting to reflect on just how much the cars we drive, and the regulations that cover them, have changed over the decades. 

When I started reviewing in 1985 the “hero cars” were big Australian-built, petrol-guzzling V8s.

The top-selling model in 1985 was the XF Ford Falcon (mainly the six cylinder), closely followed by Holden’s VK Commodore, while the Toyota Corolla was enjoying sales success too – possibly an early sign of a shift to smaller cars.   

In the mid-’80s surveys showed safety was a low priority on the new-car buyer’s list of considerations and we had little information about the comparative levels of vehicle safety. There was also scepticism about upcoming tougher emissions laws and the need to use unleaded petrol.

Safety is now front of mind for most people and ANCAP safety ratings are instantly recognisable, relied on by car buyers and promoted by manufacturers when their new model scores well. This wasn’t always the case – it was a long and tough battle for safety ratings to gain acceptance.

I vividly remember a fiery meeting in the early ’90s with colleagues Michael Case, Ernest Litera and other RACV staff in which representatives from a couple of vehicle manufacturers threatened to sue us if we published the crash test results on their cars. Those same manufacturers are now among the biggest advocates for ANCAP ratings. 

The feared disasters that dominated discussions about tougher emission laws and unleaded petrol never eventuated. For a short time, turbo-diesel cars were seen as the answer to lowering fuel consumption while retaining respectable performance, and most manufacturers introduced a diesel variant into their line-up. These were (and still are) an interesting drive with different characteristics to the free-revving nature of a petrol engine. The turbo-diesel’s strong torque from low rpm gives them a responsive feel in stop/start driving but our tests show they tend to be slower than their petrol counterparts. Difficulty in meeting ever-more-stringent emission requirements has stifled the growth of diesel cars.

Tougher emission requirements, however, have also led to the development of some very impressive small-capacity turbocharged petrol engines, a massive improvement in hybrid technology and the recent rapid advancement of electric vehicles. I must say, I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I drove an electric car but I was pleasantly surprised.

I don’t have a crystal ball to gaze into the future but I believe the electric car market will get much stronger and autonomous technology will continue to advance, but it’ll still be some time before self-drive cars are a common sight on our roads. 

Best and worst

As a motoring journalist, the conversation at a party inevitably turns to, “What’s the best or worst car you’ve driven”, followed by “What car should I buy?”. 

The more cars I drive, the tougher the answers get. There is no perfect car – it’s a matter of matching the car to individual needs and tastes. Unlike some of my motoring peers, I don’t believe outright speed and racetrack handling are necessarily the credentials of an exciting car. Sure, they can be fun, but I prefer an involving, comfortable everyday car that’s easy to drive, has strong, responsive performance and surefooted handling. Low fuel consumption is handy too.

My first encounter with a Porsche was as a vehicle inspector. It was a well-worn used car that drove terribly, was uncomfortable and showed signs of extensive accident repairs. For years I couldn’t understand why people raved about Porsches. Now I have to admit I was wrong.  

Best car I've ever driven  

The most impressive car I’ve driven is the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S, which we tested recently. There was a real sense of connection with the car and the road – it felt like a beautifully fitting glove. At normal road speeds the performance, steering response and cornering were awesome, with so much in reserve I could only imagine its outright ability. But while it was the most impressive car it wasn’t necessarily the best – for me. At my age it was a struggle to get in and out of, which made my wife laugh.

Worst car I've ever driven

It would have to be the Polish-built FSM Niki, which broke down on us three times on a test drive and struggled to get up steep hills. We had to abandon some of our performance testing because the track wasn’t long enough to reach the required speeds. And that’s before we get to its awful road manners.