''If you write about cars, it is reportage,'' said John Simon, theater critic of New York magazine. ''It is not criticism, even though it postures as criticism. Cars are utilitarian things. You might as well be a critic of kitchen utensils.'' By winning the top prize for newspaper critics, Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times -- who once found himself out of a newspaper job after writing a column about nonmarital relations in the back of a Ford truck -- earned $10,000 and the envy of all those who array discernment over theater, books, opera, films and a host of other fine arts. In serving as a vehicle for Mr. Neil's award, cars have extended their dominion over yet one more component of the cultural dialogue. The Pulitzer arbiters of critical excellence, normally preoccupied with those who define the merits of Off Broadway theater or building design, had suddenly legitimized the critical annotation of sheet metal on four wheels. In announcing the selection, the Pulitzer board lauded Mr. Neil's ''one-of-a-kind reviews of automobiles, blending technical expertise with offbeat humor and astute cultural criticism.'' The award was for a weekly column, ''Rumble Seat,'' that Mr. Neil began writing for The Los Angeles Times only last September, although he has been writing about cars for years. Donald H. Forst, editor in chief of The Village Voice and a member of the Pulitzer jury that reviewed the criticism submissions, found Mr. Neil's work not only outstanding, but also irresistible. ''Once his stuff is put in front of you, you couldn't help but laugh,'' he said. ''He made very good points about the cars, but the culture as well.'' Mr. Neil, 44, said he did not have an opinion on whether his award represented a moment of arrival for the automobile or an inflection point in the history of criticism. From where he sits, which is usually behind the windshield of whatever car he happens to be road testing, cars are a persistent and worthy obsession. ''Los Angeles is a society that has a lover's death grip with the car, and it becomes a thing that literally suffocates you,'' he said, referring to the smog that sometimes blankets the city. ''It really isn't even a good city to drive in, but people are willing to buy into cars as an object of prestige, a status symbol in the mechanical caste system. For them and others, cars are an object d'art. ''Criticism is about expectation and the fulfillment of expectation,'' he added. ''I write about what kind of expectations are created and whether something meets those expectations. That's the job of a critic.'' Mr. Neil writes, for example, of the banalities of an Acura sedan. ''The 2004 Acura TL will raise no one's blood lust, nor will it send anyone into an eye-lolling frenzy. The TL is Botox for the brain box.'' And he sighs at the glories of a 552-horsepower Bentley. ''At the drag strip, this regal and elegant, expressive and exclusive grand touring coupe eats Porsches like Emeril eats shrimp.'' With his gorgeous language and hilarious asides, Mr. Neil is a literary embodiment of Benjamin Franklin's maxim about moderation in all things, including moderation. ''I see myself primarily as an entertainer,'' Mr. Neil said. ''You can't tell anybody anything unless you get them to read. People have noted my rhetorical excesses, and I just see it as a way to keep people involved long enough to tell them what I want to tell them.'' Some critics, including some who have fought the battle to establish the seriousness of their own disciplines, greeted Mr. Neil's ascension into the front ranks of American critical writing as logical, if a little surprising. ''I have as little interest in cars as one can have and still live in this society,'' said Robert Christgau, who helped muscle rock writing into critical legitimacy four decades ago, mostly writing for The Village Voice. ''In principle, criticism is about cultural objects or phenomena, and I think cars qualify on both counts. There is a lot of great writing about architecture, and how different, really, are cars from buildings?'' Kim France, the editor in chief of Lucky -- a magazine that obsesses over many things, though not cars -- also found the Pulitzer board's choice refreshing. ''Cars are literally what connects the city of Los Angeles,'' said Ms. France, who spent significant parts of her career writing seriously about rock music and other cultural topics. ''I'm sure some people will clench their fists and decry the award as the end of our culture, but it seems like a completely reasonable choice to me.'' Speaking not for attribution -- one would not want to antagonize the arbiters of journalism's brass ring -- several critics noted that the Pulitzer board has demonstrated a historic bias toward the more physical expression of the arts. The very first Pulitzer in criticism went, in 1970, to Ada Louise Huxtable, the architecture critic of The New York Times. The runners-up in this year's competition wrote about architecture as well. The only previous criticism winner who did not write about the arts, television or architecture was David Shaw, the media critic of The Los Angeles Times. Adam Gopnik, a staff writer at The New Yorker, suggested that a critic's subject was less important than having a mastery of it. ''The worst thing in the world is to confuse values and categories,'' he said. ''If someone who is writing about cars embodies all of the values of good criticism, then it doesn't matter what category it falls into. We often find literary value in the strangest places, which is what makes reading interesting and exciting to begin with.'' As carmakers have used idiosyncratic design to drill into various niches -- think of everything from the Mini Cooper to the Hummer -- the task of teasing apart the intention and functionality of those efforts has taken on gravitas. ''Because people in New York don't drive, they have no idea that cars are a huge cultural phenomena,'' said Steve Spence, managing editor of Car and Driver. ''A car is the second-biggest purchase next to a house, and I think it's surprising that the Pulitzer's never looked before at critics of things automotive.'' Photos: Dan Neil, winner of a Pulitzer this week. (pg. E1); Dan Neil, left, celebrating his Pulitzer award at The Los Angeles Times with, among others, the paper's editor, John S. Carroll, right. (Photo by Associated Press)(pg. E6)
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