The kind of wheels you drive speaks volumes about your personality and lifestyle.
When you see a red convertible sports coupe zooming down the highway, driven by a fiftysomething, balding man with a young blond woman in the passenger seat, two words are likely to pop into your head: midlife crisis.
That may not be the case at all. He could be giving the car - and even a driving lesson - to his college-graduating daughter. But it is true that the car you drive conveys an impression about you, right or wrong. And if perception is important to you, it makes sense to think twice about what kind of car you buy.
"In this kind of economic climate, the kind of image you project is much more important, because you may not want to show off in front of a neighbor who is having a hard time even if you are not," says Wesley Brown, a partner in Iceology, a California-based consumer research and trend consulting firm. "Your car makes a strong statement about who you are."
Who Drives What
To find out what the car says about its owner, we contacted a mix of luxury and non-luxury automakers to tell us what kinds of people typically buy which cars. The information comes from purchasing demographics supplied by the automakers who responded.
And the results aren't necessarily what you'd expect - especially when it comes to the high end.
For example, just because someone can afford the most expensive cars on the road, that doesn't mean they want everyone to know it. There are highly successful people who eschew the bold and flamboyant, instead preferring something more discreet and discerning - like the US$246,990 Bentley Arnage T, "the perfect mix of British refinement and amazing performance," says Valentine O'Connor, a Bentley spokeswoman. The car will certainly cost you, but it doesn't stand out and scream, "I'm rich!" the way a similarly priced Lamborghini or Bugatti does.
Buyers of this ultra-luxury car tend to be highly successful, with a net worth on average of US$30 million, according to Bentley. Most likely they are self-made executives and business owners who worked their way up the ladder. And they are much less interested in impressing others with their wealth and success than they are in rewarding themselves, Bentley believes.
But don't think all Arnage T drivers are alike. Bentley buyers can afford just about any kind of car; many of them might prefer something much more modest - maybe even something fun and trendy.
Mercedes-Benz believes a Bentley owner is just as likely to own its smart fortwo two-seater urban car. The Arnage costs more than 20 times as much, yet it only gets an Environmental Protection Agency combined 11 mpg, compared with the smart's 36 mpg. Fuel efficiency, a city-friendly size and being part of a trend could be important to someone who'd otherwise buy a Bentley. Or maybe that person would buy both.
"Smart fortwo buyers are defined by attitude and lifestyle rather than age and income," says Ken Kettenbeil, spokesperson for smart USA. "Our buyers tend to be opinion leaders and thought starters. The smart customer could be a CEO or midday commuter, because of [the car's] vast appeal."
Deserving Luxury, Desiring Greenness
While the smart may be a touch small for some drivers concerned about the environment, when gas prices hit $4 a gallon in July, greenness became top of mind to many car buyers. Some of them bought vehicles that outwardly communicated their concern.
Buyers of the Lexus RX400 hybrid SUV were among them. Drivers of these cars are pretty well off; they have a medium income of US$202,900 and can afford just about any widely available car. At US$42,080 for the RX400, though, owners of this car can satisfy their desire for luxury as well as their good conscience, as the car gets an EPA rating of 25 mpg.
Much as an RX400 owner might also feel the purchase of the car is a reward for his or her own success, that's more or less the sole motivation among those who buy a Porsche 911. The most decidedly male (87%) buyers are successful (median income US$390,000), know what they want, work hard to get it and enjoy rewarding themselves when they reach a milestone.
That's not too much of a surprise. But there are some cars or brands that that don't make such obvious statements about who's behind the wheel. For example, what does it say about someone who pulls up in the US$42,150 Infiniti FX?
According to the automaker, the driver is most likely a married man in his early 40s who is active, youthful and "enjoys exciting, sensation-seeking activities," says Kyle Bazemore, an Infiniti spokesperson.
But don't interpret that as the driver being immature or unaware of his responsibilities.
"He thinks he's younger, but he acts his age," says Bazemore. "He is keen to family matters."
If his wife just bought the similar yet slightly cheaper Infiniti EX, however, he should probably worry. It turns out that the buyer of this car is more likely to be a female who's "an active style-seeker," says Bazemore. She tends to be an empty-nester who is fashionable and "in the know."
As much as the automakers' buyer data and demographics suggest about a particular car buyer, there are always exceptions. Seeing someone drive a smart fortwo doesn't immediately define that person as a CEO or a college student and rule out something in between. One cannot assume every Lexus hybrid SUV driver cares about the environment. And not every Porsche 911 driver is a brash, aggressive, white-collar male.
Well, they probably are. But aside from that one, your car says only something about you, not everything.
By Jacqueline Mitchell