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Testosterone Driven - Boys and Their Cars
by Catherine Heins

When 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. 

As 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.

This 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. 

"Slam 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."

Never 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.

Even 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.

And 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!

During 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.

"More 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.

Now, 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. 

In 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. 

Ford 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. 

The 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. 

Honda took it one step further, proudly announcing that it had spent three years designing its new Model X just for college-age, sports-loving dudes. 

"It's 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."

On 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.

"Excuse 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 "