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Pushing cars to their limit is the easy part

Times Staff Writer

Test-driving cars for Consumer Reports has its hazardous moments. Such as when someone at a party asks what you do for a living.

“It’s like you’re a doctor,” says Jake Fisher, who has been reviewing vehicles for the publication since 1999. “They ask you what kind of car to buy.”

And that question can be trickier to handle than an avoidance maneuver on a rain-slick test track.

“They’ll ask what you think of the Dodge Nitro and you say it’s a piece of garbage,” Fisher says. “And they’ll say, ‘I just bought one.’

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“So I’ve learned the hard way to ask first, ‘Why do you ask?’ ”

Fisher, 34, is one of the new breed that has helped Consumer Reports’ auto evaluators shed their fusty reputation as folks who would rather be testing toasters and vacuum cleaners. Equal parts engineer and enthusiast, he brings a sensibility to his work that appeals to car buyers beyond the CR stereotypes of minivan-driving soccer moms and mileage-obsessed import lovers.

“Jake is really a top-notch driver,” says Mitch McCullough, chief editor of the website New Car Test Drive ( www.nctd.com). “It seems like they’re working to get away from the image of guys in lab coats and clipboards and to be seen as more serious drivers who know the difference between understeer and oversteer.”

Fisher’s boss agrees. “We’re all sort of car nuts and passionate about cars, and Jake exudes that passion and dedication,” says David Champion, the head of CR’s car testing program and the guy who hired Fisher away from General Motors Corp.

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Fisher’s interest in cars dates to his childhood in New Jersey, where he watched his dad, an electrical engineer, work on a succession of Volkswagen Beetles. By the age of 14, he had his own shade-tree project: a Porsche 914 that he took apart and reassembled.

He showed an early inclination for gathering automotive performance data -- gleaned mostly from his father’s Consumer Reports stash -- and using them to make buying recommendations.

“I was always trying to tell my parents what kind of car to buy,” he recalls. “My mom would say, ‘Listen to Jake. He’s smarter than you.’ ”

Determined to pursue a career in the auto industry, Fisher earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., which bills itself as the nation’s oldest technological university. He got one B -- in something called “chemistry of materials” -- on his way to graduating summa cum laude and a job with the world’s biggest automaker, GM.

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He spent a few years designing and testing heating and cooling systems for a variety of GM vehicles but itched for a job that would allow him to take a more holistic approach to personal transportation.

Fisher had envisioned himself as a Tucker or a Ford, conceiving innovative car designs on paper and shepherding them to fruition. Making sure the AC on a Chevy Malibu functioned in Death Valley in August wasn’t what he had in mind.

“The dream I had of designing great cars started evaporating,” he says.

When the job as a vehicle tester at Consumer Reports came open, Fisher ignored Champion’s warning that it was a dead-end position with little room for advancement.

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As part of CR’s 23-member auto test team, Fisher works at an old drag strip in Connecticut that Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, bought and converted into an automotive test facility.

Each year, he and his colleagues test about 80 cars, SUVs and pickups purchased incognito from dealers all over the Northeast. (CR spends about $3 million a year on test vehicles.)

Several engineers work on each review, handling different aspects of the evaluation: fit and finish, handling, comfort, visibility, instrumentation and so on.

Fisher is known for his fondness for pushing the envelope on the test course, once launching a Lotus Elise 30 feet through the air before coming down on all fours, breaking a wheel and snapping an axle.

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“I got out and said, ‘Wow, I’m not doing that again.’ ”

After living with the vehicles for several days (a routine that includes using a constantly changing lineup of test models as personal “daily drives”), the evaluators collaborate on a written report that is then edited for publication. Although an engineer by trade, Fisher is as protective of his prose as a professional writer.

“I was doing the section on cabin amenities in a Ford Excursion, and I wrote that the center console ‘cubby’ was large enough to stow a cat comfortably,” he says. “I thought that was very informative -- but it got edited out.”

Driving a “new” car home every night helps smooth over the occasional artistic disappointment, even if it means lugging his 4-year-old son’s car seat to and from the house every day.

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“When I was a kid, I dreamed about those guys who had the big garage with a hundred cars and who got to drive a different car every day,” he says. “Well, I’ve got that.”

Fisher has helped CR fashion its online strategy, starring in several vehicle reviews on the publication’s website, www.consumerreports.org.

In one, he tests Chrysler’s boast that kids can play Jenga, the block-stacking game, in the back of a Town & Country minivan. (His verdict: It’s possible, as long as you’re driving on a smooth, level test track, keep your speed under 37 mph and don’t make any turns.)

Fisher is aware of the criticism directed at Consumer Reports, in particular that it’s biased against American-made vehicles. But he says it doesn’t sway his opinion when evaluating a vehicle.

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“We get plenty of subscribers telling us that we’re biased in favor of our ‘Japanese overlords,’ ” he says. No one is happy to hear that his car stinks, he adds, “but I don’t think we let it affect us.”

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Driving passion

Name: Jake Fisher

Age: 34

Job: Testing cars for Consumer Reports

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Daily drive: Depends on what vehicle he happens to be reviewing.

Favorite car: Varies; right now he’s digging the 2008 Infiniti G35 sedan.

Hobbies: Racing his Toyota MR2 at racetracks around the Northeast; drifting.

Personal: Degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; lives in Kensington, Conn., with his wife and 4-year-old son.

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