Are we really what we drive? Greg Dixon takes three very dif­fer­ent cars for a test run to find out

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The sound is pure sex.

When you push the starter of an As­ton Martin Rapide, it makes a noise — some­thing be­tween a purr and growl — which sounds dan­ger­ous, preda­tory, boast­ing and un­de­ni­ably car­nal. It sounds like it means busi­ness, sexy busi­ness, and to be hon­est, I found it a bit un­nerv­ing.

Of course for those of us un­used to push­ing the starter of a $329,000 sports car — which I would imag­ine is more than 99.9 per cent of us — ev­ery­thing about a ve­hi­cle that costs many times one’s yearly in­come is pretty damn un­nerv­ing.

This, af­ter all, is the mar­que James Bond drives; a V12, 6-litre bul­let with a top speed of 296 km/h. This is a ma­chine that ac­cel­er­ates from zero to 100 km/h in just 5.2 sec­onds. If it was a woman, she would be a su­per­model. If it was a man, he would be a For­mula One driver. This is not just a car, it’s sex­i­ness, cool­ness, ag­gres­sive­ness, speed and beauty in a per­fect package.

And then there’s the his­tory. Named af­ter a man — Lionel Martin — and the As­ton Hill hill climb­ing race, the As­ton Martin com­pany has been build­ing road and rac­ing cars for nine decades, has had a Royal War­rant of Ap­point­ment since 1982, and has been driven by 007 nine times, from Sean Con­nery in 1964’s to Daniel Craig in this year’s

Goldfin­ger Sky­fall.

Bond, So, as I set­tled my­self in the Rapide’s fine leather driver’s seat and pre­pared my­self men­tally to mo­tor from the lot of the In­de­pen­dent Pres­tige deal­er­ship in Auck­land’s Grey Lynn, I did pause for a moment to con­sider whether I was really man enough to take it on the road. Then I pushed the starter — purr-growl! — put the car into gear and set out to dis­cover what driv­ing the sex­i­est beast on the road really means.


just things. They’re use­ful things ad­mit­tedly, good for get­ting from point A to point B, for tak­ing kids to and from school, for trips to the su­per­mar­ket, con­vey­ing live plants from the garden cen­tre and dead ones to the tip, for get­ting you to work and for queu­ing in traf­fic on long week­ends.

But they’re money pits too. They are greedy lit­tle baby birds that need con­stant feed­ing with ex­pen­sive fos­sil fuel. They have a ten­dency to break down or fail a war­rant of fit­ness or get smashed up at the most in­op­por­tune times. And they de­pre­ci­ate in value like no other as­set. They are likely to be the costli­est

thing, be­sides a house, that we will ever buy and, if my ex­pe­ri­ence is any­thing to go by, you de­velop a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with them no mat­ter how well they be­have.

But cars are more than just con­ve­nient trans­porta­tion and in­con­ve­nient ex­pense. They are an ex­pres­sion — whether we like to think this or not — of who we are.

Don’t be­lieve me? Name a car, and I’ll show you its driver. Toy­ota Corolla hatch? It’ll be owned by a mid­dle-aged woman who wants re­li­a­bil­ity and doesn’t like a fuss. A tooled-up Holden Com­modore? A bloke in suit if it’s less than 10 years old, and a bloke in a blue col­lar if it’s older. An SUV? If it’s a Ja­panese model, a woman with kids from the North Shore, if it’s Euro­pean one, a woman with kids from the east­ern sub­urbs. A Mercedes saloon? Rich re­tired bloke who uses his Gold Card for free travel to Wai­heke Is­land. Any kind of Fer­rari? A wide-boy busi­ness­man who prob­a­bly won’t be in busi­ness next year. Subarus? Boy rac­ers. A Prius hy­brid? A gree­nie, but one who still eats meat oc­ca­sion­ally. A Ja­panese-im­port Honda Civic? Di­vorced, post-menopausal woman. Ja­panese im­port Honda Ac­cord? Di­vorced, post-menopausal man ...

I could go on — and, of course I am

gen­er­al­is­ing. Women drive Fer­raris and Com­modores and men drive Corol­las and Civics, and most of the hy­brids on the road are taxis. But hid­ing among my wild cliches is the wider point: what we drive ex­presses some­thing about us.

Our car will al­most cer­tainly re­flect who we are in terms of age, ma­tu­rity, gen­der and so­cio-eco­nomic level, says Tom Agee, a se­nior mar­ket­ing lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

His own his­tory of car own­er­ship is an ex­am­ple of this, he says: when he was in his 20s and 30s he had sports cars, an MG-TD and a Tri­umph Spit­fire. As a fam­ily man he has owned a VW bee­tle and a VW combi van, Ford sta­tion wag­ons and var­i­ous stan­dard and lux­ury com­pany cars. Now, as a se­nior cit­i­zen, he has found re­li­a­bil­ity, com­fort and fuel econ­omy in a Nis­san Primera.

Think­ing about it, it’s prob­a­bly pos­si­ble to il­lus­trate the seven ages of man with what we drive dur­ing his lives, from baby seat to mo­bil­ity scooter.

How­ever, our cars can be more than a man­i­fes­ta­tion of our life stage and in­come.

“For many peo­ple the car is an ex­ten­sion of them­selves and per­haps their own per­son­al­ity — they will spend part of ev­ery day in it for years to come,” Agee says. “They may be judged by what they drive ... [so] to some ex­tent, yes, [we are what we drive].”

CARS ARE our age’s great Gothic cathe­drals. At least they are ac­cord­ing to the late French philoso­pher Roland Barthes. He once said les voitures were — and you might like to keep in mind that he was writ­ing about a new Citroen — “the supreme cre­ation of an era, con­ceived with pas­sion by un­known artists, and con­sumed in im­age if not in us­age by a whole pop­u­la­tion which ap­pro­pri­ates them as a purely mag­i­cal ob­ject”.

Crikey. With such a gift for hy­per­bole, Barthes could have got him­self a sec­ond job writ­ing copy for car ad­verts. But, putting aside the Gal­lic over­state­ment, what we must sup­pose that Barthes is telling us is that emo­tion might have some to do with cars.

Zambesi’s Neville Find­lay — a fash­ion de­signer who moon­lights as a petrolhead — cer­tainly thinks so. When I asked the fa­mously un­demon­stra­tive fash­ion­ista whether emo­tion is im­por­tant when buy­ing a car, he got quite emo­tional:

... whether it’s a hot rod, a sports car or a beach buggy.’

Zambesi’s Neville Find­lay

“Hell yeah!” he said. “They be­come part of your per­sona. They’re like the clothes you wear, though it de­pends. You’ve got peo­ple who will just dress in jeans or track­ies, for them clothes aren’t that im­por­tant. But then there are peo­ple for whom clothes are very im­por­tant. So yeah, I think a car is an ex­ten­sion of your per­son­al­ity ... whether it’s a hot rod, a sports car or a beach buggy, I think it does re­flect your per­son­al­ity.”

For Find­lay, what you see is as im­por­tant as what you get, which is to say how a car looks is as sig­nif­i­cant — or per­haps more sig­nif­i­cant — as its per­for­mance.

‘I think a car is an ex­ten­sion of your per­son­al­ity

“I like a well-con­sid­ered de­sign. I think func­tion­al­ity has to come into it as well, but I like uniquely styled cars that have a cer­tain brave el­e­ment in their de­sign. I ap­pre­ci­ate ... the sound of a car — all those things that sound very su­per­fi­cial.” He laughs. “But I think it’s kind of a package. I am not par­tic­u­larly en­am­oured by — though I do ad­mire — Fer­raris and Porsches. They’re a bit os­ten­ta­tious for me ... some of them are kind of a bit over-the-top showy for me. I’d rather go for some­thing with a lit­tle more sub­tle about it.”

An Amer­i­can brand ex­pert, Wil­liam J. McEwen, pointed out in the mid-2000s that while some stud­ies of car buy­ers seemed to show that buy­ers are ra­tio­nal be­ings who say they only care about prod­uct ex­cel­lence and the cost of own­er­ship, their be­hav­iour says dif­fer­ently.

“Fer­rari and Hum­mer own­ers can, and will, talk about their ve­hi­cle’s re­sale value and its im­pres­sive per­for­mances features,” McEwen wrote in the Gallup Busi­ness Jour­nal. “But they buy th­ese be­cause of how own­ing th­ese brands make them feel.”

Agee agrees that, at the end of the day, af­ter proudly stay­ing sane through much of the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process when buy­ing a car — care­fully weigh­ing up re­li­a­bil­ity and econ­omy and so on — the im­age and rep­u­ta­tion of the brand we buy and the styling and colour of the car can be­come more sig­nif­i­cant.

Style, he says, is usu­ally more im­por­tant than we’d like to think — or ad­mit. CARS CAN make you crazy. Take Friend A. She has a friend who we’ll call The Cow. When Friend A vis­its The Cow, she al­ways parks her car up the road from the house. Why? Be­cause The Cow has made it clear she doesn’t like Friend A’s car, but

While un­de­ni­ably an in­cred­i­ble piece of tech­nol­ogy, the Volt just didn’t rate in the car sex­i­ness stakes when pit­ted against the As­ton Martin.

Pic­tures / Steven Mcni­choll

The name is Dixon, Greg Dixon. It works with the As­ton Martin, above, a bit less so with the Kia Pi­canto, left, the safest car un­der $19,000.

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