Monday, November 19, 2012

Are You What You Drive?

2013 Land Rover Range Rover

The old Detroit adage was "you are what you drive." Actually much of the automotive industry, not just American automakers, have drummed this into people's heads for decades. I have heard people use this phrase with glee (when they have a car they just love) as well as with disdain (when they have a car they would love to drive off a cliff). Is it really true?

There are many stereotypes revolving around people who drive different types of vehicles. I have owned a variety of vehicles, and always notice with a little twist of humor that people treat me differently depending on the car I drive. For example, when I had my little Volvo S40 (which for those of you who don't know is a compact Swedish sedan) I would regularly get cut off by the "big truck crowd" or guys driving full-size pickups. I even had one cut me off on the freeway, slam on his breaks and then gun it so a cloud of diesel exhaust spewed all over my car as he waved a finger out his window. After my car was in a little fender bender and then had to take a trip to the body shop, I was given a rental full-size pickup truck to drive around. I immediately noticed the other full-size pickups on the road treated me like royalty, but a new group started to target me: middle-aged women in economy cars! I kid you not, I would have women in Civics, Mazda Proteges, Corollas, etc ride up so close behind the truck I could barely see the roof of the car in my rearview mirror, meanwhile in my side mirror I could see them yelling and making faces at the back of the truck. What I couldn't believe was that if I had slammed on the breaks, these women would have been pulverized by a vehicle that weighed at least twice as much as theirs.

When I drove a Japanese SUV I had people in American SUVs try to show off all the time, and while driving my Saab I would have BMWs try to race me and Lexus drivers cut me off constantly. Driving a minivan now, I have the lovely joy of women (yes, pretty much just women and not men) treating me like I am the scourge of the earth and shouldn't be allowed on the roads. I could go on, but I think you get the point.I think it's pretty safe to say quite a few people have bought into the belief that the vehicle makes the person.

Does owning a Ford Raptor make you a more active person?

I would argue that a vehicle doesn't transform who you are. To an extent the vehicle does affect how you drive: I don't go nearly as fast in my current vehicle as I did in my Saab, and when I had an SUV I wouldn't hesitate to plow through deep water on the road. I would argue, though, that the person chooses the vehicle, and that different people gravitate to specific vehicles for a number of reasons. It's not always cut-and-dry like some try to pretend, but I do think that the type of vehicle you drive says a lot about you and the stage of life you're in.

Automotive industry marketers would agree with me. I often see automakers' profiles for buyers of different vehicle models. For example, once I saw Honda's for Accord drivers. I don't remember everything about the profile, but I do remember that they found the average Accord driver vacuums out his garage rather than sweeping it. While you can't say that everyone who drives X vehicle is exactly the same, you can say that most people who drive the same vehicle share some key traits. I do believe the list of similarities between drivers with the same vehicle grows tighter the more "niche" the vehicle is in the marketplace. For this reason, I think this is why there is such a strong Subaru culture or a similar group of people who drive Mazda Miatas. Meanwhile, you will find a less homogenous group of Camry drivers, although most Camry drivers do share some key traits (just not as many as Subaru Forrester drivers). 

I could also launch into a big, deep discussion about vehicle customization and what it says about people. I wrote up a 60+ page paper (complete with photos) for a college class on this very subject, and trust me I could write a 500+ page book on it. But we'll leave it for another day, and maybe even for a future book. 

Perhaps we should modify what we say about a car being an extension of a person. I guess we could always say "what you drive reflects who you are" but that just wouldn't be very catchy.