Cars can be image makers or image breakers

Thundering down a highway in a smoking-hot BMW M6, I flick on my blinker and slide into the left lane to pass slower vehicles. Immediately a minivan swings in front of me, throws on his brakes and sticks there at a steady 50 miles per hour, boxing me in. • Ah, the dreaded BMW hater, intent on taking the arrogant jerk in his Bimmer down a notch.

One of the fascinating things about testing cars for a living is seeing how other drivers react to you, for good or for bad. A vehicle is your personality on wheels, and once behind the wheel of a silver Rolls-Royce Phantom or a yellow Hummer, you may also find yourself taking on aspects of that persona.

Some cars make loud statements, so it's best to be aware what they are before dropping $20,000 or $200,000.

Perception is everything

I've tried on many an auto personality. One day I'm the Camaro guy — mullet not included — the next a trust-funder in his red Maserati or the Porsche purist hurtling toward a mid-life crisis.

That said, you're really never a Toyota Corolla dude. Many cars are just utilitarian, the khaki in the great auto tapestry. The only thing you're declaring is that you like to travel from A to B with minimum fuss (the recent pedal recall notwithstanding).

Carmakers are extremely aware of brand perception, which they try to manage carefully through advertising and public relations. Sometimes it works well — like Mini's image as fun and rebellious, yet still eco-conscious. But once the image gets away, it can be disastrous. (Take notice, Toyota.)

"When public perception goes awry there's always a better way to position yourself so that it is less harmful to the brand," says Joe Molina, president of California-based JMPR Public Relations, which represents Bugatti and Bentley. "Hummer is an example where the image was totally mismanaged. Nobody was minding the store."

A good way to avoid such a fate, says Molina, is to have marketing people carefully listening to word on the street. "If you hear the same thing from two or three markets, that's trouble. The top people need to know before it's too late."

Love 'em or hate 'em

There's nothing like taking a car on the road to gauge if you'll be loved or loathed.

Some cars are obvious: Everyone loves a classic. A buddy drives a 1961 Lincoln Continental which oozes cool nostalgia. He's been pulled over by police numerous times, but has not once been given a ticket.

Then there are surprises. I've never received a bigger reception than the time I tested a convertible Smart car around Manhattan. The city's usual glib indifference was scrubbed away by the tyke-sized mini-car.

Exotic cars are tricky. I've recently driven both a Lamborghini Gallardo and a Ferrari 599. (Loved them both.) Small boys in the city, many whom have only ridden in yellow taxis, follow these exotics with awed eyes — the call of the cool car is somehow primal.

Yet there can be hints of distaste or mistrust among adults. Who needs a fire-engine-red, $300,000 car, they seem to say — is there some emotional hole you're trying to fill?

And with everyone watching you (and they are), I did find myself feeling rather special and maybe just a bit above it all. Give the car room, please.

Cars can be image makers or image breakers 03/25/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 4:15pm]

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