Driven - Boys and Their Cars
the Jeep came charging through the cliff wall, boulders tumbling
all around, I started to suspect that auto shows weren't just
about cars. It was the first day of the North American International
Auto Show in Detroit, but I felt like I'd stumbled onto the
set of World Wide Wrestling. Strobe lights flashed, music
pulsed, and the crowd exploded into applause.
the new Jeep Liberty came to a halt, I expected a giant body-builder
to leap out and begin pumping his well-oiled biceps. Instead,
a pleasant-looking, middle-aged product manager hopped out,
dressed office casual in khakis and a light denim shirt. And
the crowd really went wild.
scene only makes sense when you understand that almost all
of the hundreds of reporters, analysts, and industry professionals
present at the kick-off event of the auto show were men. You
have to be a wrestler yourself to beat up other wrestlers,
but it's product managers who give average guys the equipment
to really put it over on some rutted back road. Or any Hyundai
hatchback with the nerve to be driving in the left lane.
the door on this and then go slam the door on some of those
other SUVs," scoffed one Chrysler executive. "You'll
hear the difference between metal and tin."
mind that many Liberty owners aren't going to take their new
vehicle any farther off-road than to roll over a curb as they
cut through the mall parking lot, or that "tin"
cars get more miles per gallon. This wasn't about reality,
but image. And the image in Detroit was as all-male as the
auto show participants.
though women influence four out of every five vehicle purchases
made in America, the making and selling of cars is still serious
boys' stuff. For the men who love them, a car is not just
a car, it is the wisp of smoke from a chrome tailpipe, the
roar of the engine, the wind in your hair, the surround-sound
stereo system blasting, the beautiful blonde next to you bouncing
in her halter top - well, if money can't buy everything, I
guess you take what you can.
the car makers are happy to dish it out. Despite high fuel
prices, gloomy economic projections, and the rise of the 2-hour
commute, the Big 3 devoted their energy in Detroit to promoting
power-mongering machines packed with enough features to equal
the Space Shuttle and enough testosterone to compensate for
any lack thereof on the part of the owner. Bigger! Brawnier!
Beer is in the back!
the five days that I covered the show, a gospel choir heralded
the coming of the new Ford Forty-Nine, plastic snakes cascaded
down from the ceiling to introduce the new Dodge Viper convertible
and two Ford executives played a giant video game to launch
- literally, it came flying through the paper screen onto
the stage - a concept car that looked like a four-wheeler
on some serious steroids.
horsepower than any other car on the road today," bellowed
the Viper announcer - enough, one hopes, to out-race any police
officers bent on enforcing such legal niceties as speed limits.
It was as though no one drove but men, and they only drove on
weekends. Got shopping? Got to go to work? Get a life, man.
obviously a lot of women like sturdy SUVs and speedy convertibles
too. But as foreign competitors continue to gain market share
with practical best sellers like the Toyota Camry, I wondered
why the Big 3 didn't make any effort to appeal to women buyers.
Or, for that matter, anyone for whom a car is
a way to get from point A to point B, not to make
an exhibition of their ego.
fact, of course, they do. They just don't talk about it. The
compact Ford Focus is the best-selling car in the world, following
up on the success of its larger cousin, the Taurus, but Ford
was too busy touting its new luxury Thunderbirds to talk about
such mundane models.
insists that the Thunderbird will appeal equally to men and
women - though they expect more men to buy them - yet modern
women may view the stay-at-home 1950s with a little less nostalgia
than their male peers.
Japanese, as they invade the lucrative light-truck and SUV
market, are catching up to this game. In an interview with
the trade magazine Automotive News, a Toyota executive
explained that the company's futuristic new Matrix car is
expected to appeal to young, active men, presumably because
you can put a pair of mountain bikes in the back. Funny, I
could've sworn I've seen a woman or two hurtling downhill
on mountain bikes in America, but maybe Toyota had trouble
seeing under the helmet.
took it one step further, proudly announcing that it had spent
three years designing its new Model X just for college-age,
a dorm room on wheels, complete with a place to hide their
dirty socks," Honda said, as though American co-eds do
their laundry on a daily basis. Interestingly, Honda has a
slightly more accommodating message on its website. On its
Model X promotional page for the public, the car is described
as ideal for young, active "persons."
its corporate news page, read by investors and journalists,
it's still a man's dream machine. I thought the Model X was
pretty ugly myself, but I'm tempted to check one out anyway
at my local dealer just to see if the company is really following
through on its commitment to guys.
me, lady, that one's really more of a man's model," the
salesman will say apologetically, as though I'd strayed into
the menswear department at Macy's. "But we've got a cute
little Civic over here if you're interested "