by Iris Winston

The DINKS (Double Income No Kids) traded their Camaros for mini-vans when the kids arrived. Aging city boomers now drive Sports Utility Vehicles around town.

Empty nesters zip about in two-door sports sedans (just to emphasize that the kids really have left home).

Tough guys in sleeveless T-shirts and ball caps drive big trucks with oversize tires and inefficient mufflers.

The quietly affluent drive luxury sedans.

The flamboyantly rich cruise about in bright red Lamborghinis.

We long ago accepted that we are what we eat. Perhaps we are also what we drive.

Definitely, says Ottawa psychiatrist Dr. David Waiser.

“Every house, every car, every dog that we own is an external representation of our internal world,” he says. “The neat message of the pinstripe suit is a flash of what’s going on inside the wearer.”

Dr. Waiser, who drives a black Toyota Camry, says that sedan owners seeking anonymity tend to buy vehicles manufactured in the US. Those yearning for status and culture buy European and those looking for a middle road (“Better vehicle, but not as much status as European models”) turn to Japanese vehicles.

Huw Williams of the Auto Dealers’ Association suggests that the car market is directed by demographics and practicality rather than personal statements. (He owns a Ford Taurus, “a car that is appropriate for business reasons. It’s not too flashy and I have to drive people around.”)

“The car market was always driven by how people see themselves and by the car that they grew up with. I sure liked that muscle car when I was a teen,” he says. “But mini-vans don’t say as much about people’s personalities as about their needs.”

Car fashions change, he points out.

“The Mazda RX7 was big in the ’80s but SUVs have virtually killed off the sports car market. The baby boomers are driving the market place.”

Perhaps, says Dr. Waiser, but the market place itself is driven by our psychology.

“When we modify our choices, for monetary or other reasons, we modify only up to a certain point,” he says. “Our unconscious decides almost everything.”

Car manufacturers and dealers worldwide apparently subscribe to that theory. They do their utmost to tap into conscious and unconscious desires, economic reality and image projection in designing the latest hot vehicles. It is no longer politically correct for advertisements directed at male car buyers to depict glamourous, long-legged blondes perched on car hoods as subliminal suggestions that with the right car, they too could have….But dream weaving is still central in marketing cars.

Manufacturers convene focus groups of owners and non-owners of particular models to discuss their pros and cons. Product development teams, which usually include psychologists, sociologists, colour analysts and economists as well as automotives experts, study the market place and the human psyche. Demographics (population profiles), psychographics (personality and attitude profiles), environmental concerns and fashion trends guide manufacturers, who must usually plan several years in advance.

“Design teams — different teams for sports cars, jeeps, sedans and so on — plan new colours and designs three years before cars hit the market,” says Chrysler Canada’s Public Relations Manager Jody Ness, who drives a paprika Eagle Talon.

“I wanted a small, sporty car in a red that didn’t scream ‘give me a ticket’. The more subtle Arizona colors are very hot now,” she says, acknowledging that the vehicle reflects both her needs and her personality.

Other drivers are purely pragmatic. Cherry Maxwell of Kanata just leased a 1998 Plymouth Neon because lease conditions were good and she had read a number of positive reports about Neons.

“But there is no relationship between my personality and the car,” she says. “I think there may be for some people, but in my case, it was a purely practical decision. I regard cars as something that get you from A to B in the most economical and practical way possible.”

“I wanted safety and convenience when I bought my Honda Civic Sedan,” says Elizabeth Butler of Ottawa.

She purchased a four-door vehicle with automatic locks on doors and windows and a latch to drop the back seat.

“It has all the functionality for everything I want to do and the price was right,” says Ms. Butler, acknowledging a fit between her practical, non-flamboyant lifestyle and her choice of vehicle.

“Compact cars, small pick-ups, station wagons, four-door sedans and mini-vans ooze pragmatism,” comments John Arnone of the Ford Motor Company of Canada. “They tend not to make a statement about attitude to life and status. But SUVs do make a statement about keeping up with current trends. Blatantly sporty cars are for less pragmatic thrill seekers.”

Luxury vehicles, such as Porsches, indicate affluence.

“Most of all, though, people who drive Porsches love to drive,” says Porsche Canada’s Media Relations Manager Barbara Manha. “Some buy to make a statement about affluence but the majority repeatedly buy Porsches just because they want agile, responsive vehicles.”

Maybe so, but Porsche manufacturers are heavily involved in “typical research” into life style, demographics and economics and work with industry experts and lay focus groups to ensure that Porsches retain their market segment.

But when it comes to the immediate salesman/customer level, “the first thing we have to do is listen,” says David Durrett, General Manager of Tony Graham Lexus Toyota. “What the customer is driving now plays a part. What he or she says he is looking for is more important. Some customers are more interested in safety features than others. Some are looking for a vehicle for their son or daughter. In a lot of cases, it comes down to fashion.”

And is the fashion determined by our unconscious desires? Are we what we drive?

(Iris Winston drives a 1990 two-door Toyota Corolla SE, cherry red. Money determines the year. Yes, the kids have left home. And the Toyota features a sun roof and back seat that folds down — good for providing air and shade for her two large dogs, who are frequently along for the ride.)

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