What your car says about you and why the US auto industry is failing

The only American car I have ever owned was a hand-me-down from my mother in 1988. A brown Chrystler Laser. It was sort of fast. Handled OK. Had a plain interior. A plain exterior. Got average gas milage. To me, that sums up American cars. Plain and average.

Cars represent a lot in American history and culture. So many of our rights of passage revolve around driving; getting our license, our first car, road trips, our first boy(girl)friend with a car, other stuff people do in cars. And while dogs may look like their owners, cars are a physical manifestation of their owners’ personalities.

That’s why the US auto industry is doing so badly. Why the US auto makers are doing worse than those from other countries. Our cars have no personalities. Except for the ones that try too hard and have too much personality. The ones that look like stereotypical Americans on vacation.

Let’s test this theory and examine what different brands of cars say about their drivers.

Toyota or Honda mini-van
We’re practical. We needed more room and don’t give a shit about what we drive. We intend for there to be food stuck in the seats and carpet and expect that we will dump it as soon as the kids are a bit older. It’s a fucking mini-van for christ sake.

I have a large disposable income, see? I can afford to own not a car, but a driving machine and I am at least slightly cooler than you as a result.

I am practical and frugal, but I still want to drive a German car.

I have some money and want a comfortable, although not very stylish or showy, safe vehicle which I plan to drive for the next 15 years.

I have a 4WD and I’m not afraid to use it, with stuff in the back, cuz I have room back there. And maybe on the roof too.

I’m old.

Toyota Prius
I care about the environment. And I thought I was doing a good thing for the environment when I bought this ugly thing, but then the news about the batteries came out and now I’m just driving this ugly thing because I am still paying it off. Also, I have hit 2 people in parking lots because they didn’t hear me pull out.

Ford F150
I live on a ranch.
I want you to think I live on a ranch.
I haul shit.
I have never put anything in the back nor have I driven on so much as a gravel road, but I am a big strong man. You can tell by the size of my truck. Also, I could haul shit.

Chrysler Sebring
I rented this once and forgot to give it back.

Dodge PT Cruiser
(I don’t get this car at all. I got nothing.)

Fuck you. Fuck the environment. Fuck other people on the road. And fuck you. Did I say fuck you?

Anything old
I love cars.

VW van
I am a serial killer.

Compare American to European cars. We suck. Japanese cars aren’t much better, but they say what little they have to say with a nicer interior.  I won’t drive an American car. It has nothing to do with the economy, it has to do with personal style. It has to do with what stepping out of Suburban says about me. I am not that person. I think we look for cars that express who we are. If American’s are the cars that are made here, and I fear that we may be, we are big, bloated, self-centered, styleless, disposable, and interchangeable. Don’t bail them out, hire them some European designers.

OK. I lied. I owned one other American car. I had an AMC Pacer. It was a custom conversion that my dad gave me. Not only did it have a custom paint job, it had a beanbag for a passenger seat (somehow that was legal, we could pile 6 people in there). AND, and I am dead serious, it was a pick-up truck. A Pacer, an automobile inspired by the ladybug, that was converted into an utterly useless pick-up truck with a beanbag seat. WTF does THAT say about me?

No, this isn't mine. Some other idiot havad one too.

No, this isn't mine. Some other idiot had one too.

PS – Some of my best friends drive American cars.

PPS – I drive a 1994 Saab 900 convertible. It speaks volumes about me.


33 responses to “What your car says about you and why the US auto industry is failing

  1. Ok here is one.

    Mercedes Wagon. I wanted luxury cause I am older and needed a padded seat and a truck wasn’t in the cards for someone not living on a ranch.

    The retro VW bus was killed because it cost VW too damn much money to produce, so I opted for a Mercedes.

    There you have it.

  2. The other thing about American cars, and GM cars in particular, is that they all look alike.

    Seriously, why is there a GMC Suburban and a Chevy Suburban?

    They’re the same car!

    But wait, there’s more, if you pay an extra $20k, you can buy the same car only this time it’s called a “Cadillac Escalade” and you get a round clock in the dashboard. How’s that for differentiation?

  3. I probably drive more American cars than Americans do, because it’s all Avis supplies. Most of them suck rocks.

    Maybe the rental industry is to blame for the survival and suckage of the US motor industry?

  4. Terri, I would add that, depending on the age of the wagon, you also enjoy the floating, waving sensation.

    Rafael, I don’t get that either. The added costs for doing that could be a big contributor to the flailing failing.

    Simon, I wouldn’t be surprised if the cost pressures and lowest common denominator driver requirements for rental cars were another contributor.

    We’re going to have this problem solved by the end of the day.

  5. Fantastic.

    I lived on Hertz rental cars for 4-years between 2002-2006, mostly American cars, some Mazdas, a couple of Toyotas. As a non-American, I just didn’t understand why Americans have such a general dislike for these cars. Yep there are a ton of bad examples, and lets not even get started on trucks. It doesn’t matter who makes them, Japanese, Korean, American, they are trucks. very few people need them, but almost everyone seems to have them.

    You are right though, American cars appeal to the average American. Thats not bad, it just doesn’t work. No one wants to be reminded they are average each time they get in their car.

    What ever comes of the bailout, and theres no way the US Tax Payer should bail-out Chrysler, Ford and GM though could be great again, it needs to become and American priority. Of course the real problem with any form of bail out, is that it goes against the grain of what the American Government has been preaching with religious ferver around the world for the past 50-years. It’s what allowed the Americans to grab many of the ailing national car companies in other companies, it’s what got them partnerships in Asia. What they gonna say now, whoops we got it a bit wrong?

    Me. Current car 2004 Mercedes C230. No Idea why I bought it, fed up trying to find a new Chrysler Magnum/Dodge Charger in the right color with right extras, wandered into CarMax on motor mile and bought the only care I looked at.

    Prior car, Chrysler PT Cruiser(in the UK). I actually bought it to take my triathlon race bike around in. I even got it(the car) in the same color as the bike. You remove 1/3 of the rear seat, mount a quick release bracket on the floor and the bike fits straight in.

    What does that say about me and cars? My first year in the Merc I did just 6430 miles. I could give a damn about cars, essential for moving your bike over a 100 miles when you can’t fly. Thats all.

  6. Saturn SC-1
    I’m practical but don’t anyone to know it.

  7. 1991 BMW 525i 5-speed. Because I wanted to make sure my daughter learned to drive stick shift because she will rent cars in other countries, and because my son made me promise to teach him to drive it when he turns 15.

  8. Toyota RAV4 because, weirdly enough, I drove one as a rental last February (in snow) and loved it, and when I was looking for a car in July I got a helluva deal on a lease from Toyota (the same day Chrysler declared that they would no longer do leases because they couldn’t predict the future value of their cars).

    Owing to having lived in Europe for 17 years, this is only the second car I’ve owned in my life.

    Have no idea what it says about me.

  9. I drive a Jeep Liberty because I have 3 big stinky dogs that smear snot on every window, get fur on every seat, along with sand from the river, mud from the woods, and spill water from their travel bowl.
    Before them, I drove an Acura.

  10. I’m not sure I even want to know what my car says about me: a Lexus Lx470 (SUV). Maybe something along the same line as the Hummer owner? The reality is: this is one of the few cars that fits three car seats side by side. We could have gone for the mini-van, but it didn’t have enough leg room for me (being 6’1″ has its disadvantages). Also, I just couldn’t get over the “boring suburban mom” image … sorry if that’s shallow. Maybe I do fit in with the Hummer owners?!? 😦

  11. Lisa,
    Lexus Lx470
    I need something wide enough for 3 car seats and long enough for me.

    Jeep Liberty
    I am more in love with dogs than my car.

  12. Lisa – you’re from Texas – you have an excuse..

  13. Amy Poehler: After 21 years and sales of nearly 7 million cars, Ford has announced that it will no longer make the Taurus, forcing many thirtysomethings to find a new way to show the world they’ve given up on their dreams.

    And Moi? My history: Toyota Corona Mark II Wagon -> Datsun B-210 [10 years sans mobile] some American car Johnson & Johnson leased for me (I loved driving it in NYC, I didnt care and had no fear) -> Honda Civic -> Saab 9-5 -> Lexus LS430. I have never bought a new car and dont plan to. The Lexus LS is not how I see myself but I got a very good deal from my father in law. If I had more money I would get something less luxurious (ironic statement) and sportier. Peace out.

  14. Ok. We need to add a few cars to this list.

    Ford Ranger: Lesbian

    Surburban: I am supposed to be a soccer mom with a lab in the back and 3+ kids, but really I just use a lot of gas driving myself around for pedicures and up-doos. The lab and kids are a fantasy, but maybe one day…

    I am one of Sara’s P.S.s… 4-door Jeep Wrangler. For the most part I agree with the American car observation, but whatever, I sold out. This is up there with my dream cars. I LOVE the old Ford Broncos that kinda look like today’s Jeeps. So what does that say? Well, I grew up on the beach with friends in Jeeps/Broncos – driving around with the roof off. I have an obsession with seeming a little tough. Maybe its because I am so incredibly sensitive and cry at dog-food commercials with puppies. I dunno. The tough look coupled with sunshine on my face and wind in my hair sold me. Say what you will. Whatever.

  15. i strenuously object to the assertion that Volvo’s have no style. my S40 is badass:

    The Faithful Steed

  16. i strenuously object to the assertion that Volvos have no style. my S40 is badass:

    The Faithful Steed

    otherwise, awesome.

    please, sir, can i have some more?

  17. As soon as you start “strenuously” objecting, yeah that’s just protesting too loudly. 🙂

  18. I have a theory that American cars might be alright, it’s just there’s an extra stage on the production line called “Now make it suck”: take that stage away, and things might improve for the industry.

    My recent experience of this, was the last rental car I had in the US: a Ford Focus – a perfectly good car on this side of the pond, but the 2.2l (I think) automatic I got over there was *terrible* – huge amounts less poke than our 1.4l Nissan Note, and it steered like a cow. I always wondered about the “driving” in 70’s cop shows, now I know : you can waggle the steering wheel all you like and still be sure it’ll go in a straight line. Neat!

    [ then again, I was a BMW driver too, so my opinions may not count! My last car was a ’96 3-door 316i which we’d intended to drive into the ground, then kids came along and we fell into your mini-van category 🙂 ]

  19. what does this car say?:

  20. Now that we know you drive a ’94 Saab 900 convertible we know all we need to know about you. OK, not really.

    There’s a whole raft of car types you missed – especially the whole raft of muscle cars, anything French, and the bank vault full of supercars (Ferrari, etc.). But overall a good list.

    @stepheno’grady: me doth protest “badass” for any stock Volvo; sweet ride and tight performance I’d buy, but not badass.

    @marchamilton: you have lucky children.

    1995 BMW 318i; used, bought completely randomly when in urgent need of a car. Since an E36 was always one of my dream cars, I suppose it’s defining. It says “Besides the fact that four doors are a bazillion times more useful, I *love* the styling thank you very much. And being one of the best performing production sedans ever made by a human, I don’t care if it’s not fast off the line”.

  21. @shane Ferrari: My penis is so large that I (and an additional passenger) can climb in and drive around in it.

  22. This post is hi-larious. What’s wrong with the American auto industry? No pride. It became all about profit and not quality. Detroit lost its soul.

    I drive a Mazda 626 because I’d feel like a moron to buy a nice car to sit in my driveway. I hate it really should be blown up. *hint*

    BTW, if someone is considerate enough to blow my car up 1.) warn me so I can take my tennis stuff out of the trunk and 2.) delete this comment. Thanks.

    I want my BMW back. Sigh. One day.

  23. I thought where you lived (zip code) would say more about what car your drove.

    I know that the car tends to be the second biggest purchase (in terms of spend) but defining your personality type by the type of car you drive is stretching it I think.

    I drive an Audi BTW. I dont think I wanted to send any statement by choosing it.

  24. Luckily Acura isn’t on your list 😉

    Seriously though – IMO, Japanese cars have had better quality and longer life than American cars. Had a Nissan before the Acura and both have been great to me with little problems.

  25. ’09 Honda Fit
    http://fit.honda.com (warning: flashtastic)

    I would have bought a hybrid but they jacked the prices up by 5-10K when gas prices were high and I got this instead. I still get 40MPG and I’d have to drive a Prius for about 15 years to break even on price.

  26. Pingback: US auto industry bailout

  27. While I agree with the personality argument re: Detroit, it has one fatal flaw – the Toyota Camry. The car is about as boring and soulless as you can get. It doesn’t revel in the suck the way many American cars do, but it doesn’t stand out, either. It just sort of…is.

    That said, the brands that seem to be weathering this Carpocalypse (to borrow Jalopnik’s terminology) the best are those with distinct-yet-approachable personalities and models that feed back into the larger brand persona. Mini is holding up quite well, for example, as are Subaru and Mazda.

  28. Great post and fun comments. But some things to ponder on…

    There is not really a US auto industry, nor a European, nor Japanese auto industry. What we have is a global industry, with design, manufacturing and marketing distributed. There is however an American consumer. There is lies a good portion of the problem. We, the consumer, have allowed the industry to dictate what we drive and like any messed up logic, the manufacturers built and designed more of what we bought. The cycle continued until we had a significant external pressure – oil cost.

    Look at all the brands listed and the cars. There are now so many “shared platforms” that you don’t know what you are really driving beneath the brand skin. A few connections…

    The obvious GMC/Chevy stable, but less obvious is the Chrysler still uses Mercedes parts (and much to the disgust of Merc buyers the other way around). The Saab is a GM. The Mazda is a Ford. The Lexus is a Toyota. The list of connections goes on, and if you look at component parts it gets even stranger. The Ford Escape Hybrid uses the Prius technology. The platforms have unglamorous names but shared platforms is the way the industry has cut costs and reduced design time.

    If you are interested then watching the documentary “Who killed the Electric Car”, whilst primarily about EV’s highlights some of the real challenges with the US auto industry.

    By the way, I drive a red MINI Cooper S, Red with a Union Jack (British Flag) on the roof – It says give me speeding tickets. Seems to work as well 😦

  29. Britt, I don’t think as consumers we asked for the auto industry (which I agree is global) to mix and match. That was their idea to maximize profits, reduce costs, and make more money. We don’t need the number of car models that are available.

    The mini Cooper is a great example of what the consumer likes. The ability to personalize. Showing up in the same car is tantamount to showing up in the same dress.

    All of the mix and match car parts, paints, accessories has just created automotive Geranimals. And once given a choice, no one wanted to wear those.

  30. Another Mini Co-oper S here. Red w/ white tribal liquid flames to match the roof, mirrors, & wheels. Yeah, I’m flameboyant like that. hehe

    I think people think I drive a small car cuz it gets great gas mileage. Really I drive it cuz I love the design and the way it drives. Great pickup and handling. Actually doesn’t get as good a mileage as my old Honda did before it.

    I too haven’t driven an American car since high school when my family was having a tough time and someone gave us a beige 1972 Dodge Newport. We called it “The Boat” – not only due to its size but because of the way one had to rock the steering wheel slightly back & forth in order to keep moving in a straight line. FELT like one was on water. Engine was so big it consistently broke the engine mounts! Now I only drive American when I have to rent a car, though in Spain one time we were able to rent a Mini Cooper before I had a chance to buy my own. (Oh, wait, I take it back! I drove a Camaro for a year in Houston as well. Dad helped me get it from his friend.)

    Wife drives an Audi A4. I think it says (and she’ll disagree with me), “I’m aspiring to be classier than I am right now, but I don’t wanna spend the money on a Beemer or Mercedes. ” American car for her? Gotta be kidding! She likes cars with STYLE & Power with Great HANDLING. (She sez, “Hey, I don’t even like BMW or Mercedes! I like Audi A4s. Even the A6 is too big.”)

  31. Oh, BTW- I laugh every time I see someone in a ridiculously overpriced VW that they slapped a Porsche badge on & called the Cayenne.

  32. Margaret Harrist

    My first car was a 1972 Ford Pinto. The best thing I can say is I was never tailgated.

    Then, I inherited a 1978 Chevy Nova. Apparently, it had a powerful engine because I got several offers from strangers to buy it. Guess grandad could have won a few street races had he known…

    Now, I cruise around in a Toyota Avalon, which is a stretched-out version of the Camry. Definitely not racy, but we got it because there was so much leg room in the back that our toddlers couldn’t kick the front seats. Now, that car has become the best kind of all — completely paid for — and I’ve told my 12-year-old that this is the car she’ll get when she’s 16. Yeah, she’s psyched.

  33. I owned a bunch of $100 cars early in my driving career…

    The first was a brown Plymouth Duster with a cracked heater core, which cause the anti-freeze to vaporize and enter the car through the heat ducts. Scared the crap out of people the first time the rode with me. Total loser.

    The second was an Audi Fox that had so many electrical problems I tended to ignore the idiot lights when they came on. I should have paid attention when the check engine light came on that day when I was going 60 mph on the highway. BOOM… white smoke… threw a rod right through the engine block. I guess the light was right on that time. I’m a little cooler.

    A GMC Jimmy (my namesake) got lots of laughs and made a lot of noise driving down the street. It’s was a rust bucket, with big enough holes in the floor boards that I could pour out that cup of leftover moldy coffee while driving down the road. I’m big, loud and will drive over your car to get where I need to go.

    Now I own a Toyota Sienna (you nailed that one) and an Audi A6 (I think this is something like “I was a tank commander in a previous life”).

    Great trip down memory lane/free therapy.

    Jim | @jstorerj