Are we really what we drive? Greg Dixon takes three very different cars for a test run to find out.
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 Goldfinger to Daniel Craig in this year's Bond, Skyfall.
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.
Cars are 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: "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 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 more importantly The Cow doesn't want her neighbours thinking that she associates with the sort of person who might own such a car.
This is status anxiety. It is not a good thing. But it means that even if we are not snobs ourselves, we still worry about what the snobs think about us, including what we drive. In his conveniently titled book Status Anxiety, philosopher Alain de Botton writes that when we reach adulthood, "we have to take our place in a world dominated by chilling characters, snobs, whose behaviour lies at the heart of our anxieties about our status".
Which is a crap situation. And it can mean that whether we like it or not our status - at least our status in the eyes of others - can be informed by our image which, in turn, may be informed by what we drive.
"Image is important," says Agee. "[Buying a car] isn't like buying something for the house. A car is something not only our friends and colleagues will see us in day after day, but the world will see, may even notice us and judge us by it. This is important for some people who see the car perhaps almost as a fashion accessory."
Then, of course, there is sex. Men's status anxiety over this is not-so-discreetly disclosed by a recent American study that Agee tells me about. In research done by Truecar.com, women buyers were seen to be conscious of cost and fuel efficiency "while males buyers were completely the opposite, purchasing vehicles that were either big and brawny - for example, large SUVs - or chose a high-priced, high-performance vehicle".
In his bestselling 2008 book, Buyology, writer Martin Lindstrom points to a Daimler-Chrysler study that involved scanning a dozen men's brains using high-tech machines called functional magnetic resonance imagers while the men were shown images of different cars.
According to a neuroscientist involved in the project, when the men were shown pictures of sports cars the scans showed that the region of the brain associated with "reward and reinforcement" were stimulated.
"And what is often the most rewarding thing for guys?" Lindstrom asks. "Sex. It seemed, just as male peacocks attract female mates with the iridescence of their back feathers, the males in this study subconsciously sought to attract the opposite sex with the low-rising, engine-revving, chrome pizzazz of the sports car."
Here's a thought: is it coincidence, do you think, that Aston Martins seem to come in 50 shades of grey?
Cars aren't my thing. I take the train, sometimes the bus. But then again, when I last bought a car - in 2005 - I picked one with alloy wheels, leather seats and tinted windows as well as airbags and okay fuel economy. So I'm hardly immune to what Findlay calls "all those things that sound very superficial".
The question - no laughing, please - is just how superficial am I? The editor decided on an experiment. I would drive three very different kinds of car - a tiny cheapy, an environmentally friendly vehicle and a sports car - to see if I felt any different - and whether I got the impression people felt any different about me. The first car was a tiny Kia Picanto, the first sub-$19,000 car to score a maximum five stars in the latest Australasian New Car Assessment Programme safety tests. The second, released here this month, was a Holden Volt, not a hybrid but an electric car with a supplementary petrol engine. The third would be, I could barely contain my excitement, the Aston Martin Rapide. The $18,590 Picanto I would have for five days, the $85,000 Volt I would help drive up north and back again with a small group of motoring writers and the third, an $329,000 Aston Martin, I would have for less than two hours (this, as you can see, is a hierarchy of access).
I would love to defy prediction. I would love to challenge expectation. But I cannot.
While the Picanto fulfils its ambition of being small, safe and thrifty, it was always going to come in third place - even before someone saw a photo of me standing next to it and commented, with a little too much relish, I thought, "not very Skyfall".
The Volt is, undeniably, an incredible piece of technology. You can plug it in the wall at home and charge it up (for less than $3), motor for up to 87km on battery power (more than enough to commute in Auckland) and, when the battery power runs out, keep on motoring for another 600km courtesy of the petrol-powered generator. It has slick American lines, the dashboard looks like it's from the space shuttle, it drives like it means business, and I'm sure it will make the few wealthy greenies who can afford to buy one very happy indeed. Yet it couldn't be my number one - not after I pushed the starter on the Aston Martin Rapide.
Driving the Aston to Bastion Point to photograph it made me feel different all right - it made me feel like the centre of attention. It is like the adjective "head-turning" was invented for it. People stared when I sat at the lights. People stopped and turned to watch me drive past. And, when I parked it atop Bastion Point, tourists took photos - including one who got his wife to pose in front of it.
I won't lie to you: I loved it.By Greg Dixon Email Greg