How David Champion learned the ropes
Auto career gave Consumer Reports' top tester a sharp focus on quality
EAST HADDAM, Conn. -- The $108,000 Fisker Karma had barely clocked 200 miles when it died suddenly on Consumer Reports' giant test track here in early March.
The magazine's review of the car won't be published until September, but when a test engineer blogged about the breakdown, word sped around the Internet. A few days later Fisker CEO Tom LaSorda called David Champion, Consumer Reports' technical director, to find out what happened.
"He told me they would do whatever it takes to fix the car," says Champion, a 57-year-old Brit who has run the magazine's influential vehicle tests for 15 years.
That kind of dialogue with car executives wasn't always the case at Consumer Reports. But it has become routine under Champion -- only the third person to head the Consumers Union testing program since it was launched in 1936.
Champion points to a grassy patch where Bob Lutz landed his helicopter on a visit to the remote 327-acre test site three hours north of New York City. Other industry leaders and their entourages have made the long trek by car. They include Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche, Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Toyota product development boss Takeshi Uchiyamada, as well as several National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrators.
The big bosses come to tour the test facility on the Connecticut River -- where about 80 cars, a $600,000 stash of tires and dozens of child safety seats are tested annually -- and to meet the man the man who runs it.
What they find is a fast-driving, white-haired engineer with a wry sense of humor and unique experience, given his current job and his auto industry background. Champion started out working for a British supplier with a reputation of making unreliable parts. He later tested vehicles for Land Rover, where he says quality was an afterthought, and then was an engineer at Nissan, where he says quality was an obsession.
"No one comes here to convince me," Champion says. "They know that's a waste of time. We still keep at arm's length in terms of bias and being able say what we think about a car."
He says they come because Consumer Reports, which has 8 million readers, including Web subscribers, often will point out weaknesses and performance problems in vehicles that other automotive publications don't.
The facility is surrounded by barbed wire fences and includes a 1.2-mile road course, a grueling rock and hill circuit, two skid pads, and a 1.5-mile ride evaluation course. Several buildings house state-of-the art test equipment, as well as a massive service bay and electric-car charging stations.
"There are no men in white coats testing toasters here," said Champion, fresh off the track after demonstrating how the Porsche Panamera effortlessly took the punishment of high speed and twisty turns.
Breaking the taboo
Consumers Union, a nonprofit group formed during the Depression to warn shoppers about shoddy products, has scrutinized new cars since 1936. It launched its annual auto review magazine in 1953. Since Champion joined in 1997, the test track has been expanded and the number of vehicles tested each year has more than doubled. Also, he says, test procedures have been standardized.
And Champion has broken a Consumer Reports taboo: He talks to car manufacturers,
"I could not understand why Consumers Union was so adverse to doing that," he says. "They were very insular and were keeping manufacturers at arm's length."
Of course, Champion once worked for carmakers and suppliers. He grew up in Wolverhampton, England, 50 miles outside of Birmingham, the country's auto manufacturing center. His father, Ronald, worked as an engineer at Guy Trucks and then at Goodyear, so young David spent his childhood going to test tracks.
After becoming an engineer himself, he took a job with Lucas Electrical, the once powerful automotive United Kingdom supplier of electrical components, dubbed Prince of Darkness, as its quality declined. He eventually was assigned to the fuel injection laboratory to work on a system for Russian ZiL trucks, and also worked on the V-12 engine in the Jaguar XJS and XJ12.
Wanting to work for a vehicle manufacturer, Champion took a pay cut in 1980 to join Land Rover. He stayed 14 years.
Initially, Champion was a development engineer on the Defender 110, Land Rover's rugged, do-anything four-wheel-drive SUV. He later became the principal engineer for the revamped 1983 Range Rover.
"At Land Rover, one week you were doing brakes, the next week you were doing tires, and then you were working on seats -- you didn't get pigeon-holed into one thing," he said.
In 1985, Champion was asked to move to the United States and set up a Land Rover climate test facility in Phoenix.
"They gave me a one-way ticket and $8,000," he said. "I was single, which was probably another reason -- it was cheaper to send me."
By1990 he was also testing Rover cars after Land Rover and Rover were turned into private companies by the British government and sold to British Aerospace. He tested vehicles at Chrysler's proving grounds in Arizona, did high-altitude tests at Mount Evans in Colorado and cold weather tests in northern Canada and Alaska.
"Spending your summers in Death Valley and winters in Alaska was not exactly the best for your health, but it was a lot of fun," he said.
Lots of issues
But Champion found Land Rover didn't always listen to what he and his crew discovered and recommended.
"I was always amazed at the lack of understanding that our colleagues in England had about the American market," he says.
Back then, the flagship Range Rover had "all sorts of odd electric and power equipment issues like window regulators and door locks going into a spasm if they got dust," said Champion.
He says Range Rover still has its issues. Consumer Reports did not recommend the new Range Rover Evoque SUV because of handling and other problems.
"I still do not think they fully appreciate the need for high-reliability vehicles," he said.
After BMW took over Land Rover and Rover Cars in 1994, he was ordered to return to England. But by then Champion had married an American and had two children. So he joined Nissan as an engineer and worked on the Sentra compact and Infiniti QX4 luxury SUV.
He was startled by the contrast between Nissan and Land Rover.
"At Nissan, when a car hit the marketplace you jumped on every problem to find the root cause so you could put everything right in the shortest time possible," he says. "When I joined they had just designed an all-new V-6 engine even though to me the current VG V-6 was light-years more advanced that the Rover V-8."
That, he says, "showed the gulf in expectations. Land Rover would always be minimum change, as cheap as possible. The attention to detail expected at Nissan was far beyond what I was used to. We would go to the port to inspect cars for a [quality] issue and we would be asked to inspect 100 cars. After 15 to 20 cars you had identified the problem and had a resolution."
But Nissan still demanded that 100 vehicles be inspected.
"After 50, your solution had changed for a better one," he said. "By 75, a slightly different root cause had been found. And by 100, your solution was so much improved over the first one and was probably cheaper and easier to assemble."
In 1997, a headhunter approached Champion about the Consumer Reports job, and he went for it. Today he has a staff of 23 people, including seven engineers from the auto and tire industries. Champion says he has been approached about returning to the auto industry, but says that with two children in nearby colleges, the timing isn't right.
"Besides," he says, "I get to drive a different car every day."
You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at email@example.com. -- Follow Diana on