Two garage attendants are talking about the svelte Mini Cooper Coupe I've just parked. One says he likes it; the other laughs. "Are you kidding? That's a chick car." The first man's face falls.
I saw this coming as soon as I stepped into the $22,000 Coupe, one of Mini's newest models. The Coupe has a standard Cooper body shape, but only two seats and a capped roof that looks like a slicked-back pompadour. Sporty but not aggressive.
It joins vehicles from the Mazda Miata to the Volkswagen Cabrio and BMW Z3 that have been pejoratively lumped together as chick cars. These are often two-seaters or convertibles, and certain gung-ho guys deem them too effeminate to drive.
Conversely, a vehicle like the Chevy Camaro, a muscle car redolent of testosterone, might be branded a meatheadmobile. Both evoke a negative reaction among certain tribes.
It's a culture war between chick cars and dude's drives, pushing gender stereotypes. Testing vehicles from the Mini Coupe to the Dodge Viper, I've discovered: You will be judged.
It's obvious that some cars skew female or male, in terms of both audience and overall aesthetic. Most of us can easily identify in which camp a car sits.
The Hummer H2 is a dudemobile. The MX-5 Miata, female (though confident men know it's a blast to drive). Corvette, guy; Lexus SC convertible, woman.
Carmakers are certainly aware of this schism. It goes back as far as the Model T, which Henry Ford decreed appear only in black. Or Carroll Shelby branding the original Ford Mustang a "secretary's car," because he thought it underpowered.
Yet "the industry does not share a focused concept of a 'woman's car.' They would agree that marketing a car toward women only is not a smart plan unless it is some narrow version, like a white VW Golf Cabrio from 1985," said Chris Bangle, the former chief of design at BMW Group who now runs his own design firm.
Look at the extremes that Volkswagen has taken with the 2012 Beetle, which was redesigned to be more masculine. One TV commercial shows a young guy driving through city streets in his black Turbo. He gets high-fives and fist bumps from a bonanza of men, including the driver of a semitrailer truck, construction workers and even a Harley rider. Dudes, it seems to suggest, are united behind the latest VW Bug.
This stands in sharp contrast to the first "new" Beetle, released in 1998, which emphasized copious curves and whimsical details like an interior flower vase. Customers bought it in droves. Female customers that is, by almost a 70 percent ratio. VW even created a special one-off Malibu Barbie car, with rhinestone accents and extra vanity mirrors.
No more. Now VW hopes to even out the ratio for broader sales.
Some perceptions come simply from a vehicle's size and profile. Bangle, the former BMW Group designer, notes that a car's body mimics a person's, with a face, shoulders, hips and rear.
Which may explain why some cars devolve into caricature. Chevy designers obviously wanted the modern Camaro to outmacho the Ford Mustang. The result is all exaggerated muscle. Headlights shine from inside a long narrow grille like a menacing glare. The hood bulges and the roof is low and chopped.
I once drove a female friend around in a growling SS model, and after a few minutes she turned me and simply asked, "Why?" The Camaro, by the way, is outselling the Mustang.
Which is not to say that women necessarily buy cars that look feminine or vice versa. Maseratis generally have feminine profiles, and guys adore them. The Bentley Continental series is crisply masculine, yet it isn't unusual to see women behind the wheel, particularly in places like Malibu. (Women account for 12 percent of sales of the $200,000-plus Bentley GTC in the United States.)
Jim Shaw, Bentley's head of concept engineering, says: "We try to make a design that's universally appealing to sexes. It's difficult to hide the powerful stance and big engine, but we blend that with tiny executed details, especially in the classic interior."
The side door compartments were doubled in the all-new 2012 Continental, he says, to accommodate purses. "Men's bags, too," he adds.
Bangle and Shaw both agree that contrary to common cliche, women like powerful engines. "In my experience the adrenaline — jazz of powerful cars — can appeal to females just as they do to guys," says Bangle.
Says Shaw, "Power gives security."
Personally, I find it perplexing when I step out of a Porsche Boxster convertible and get a comment like, "I know it drives great, but it's still a chick car."
The Boxster is fast, nimble and outrageously fun.
If that's the definition of a chick car, I'll be seen in one any day.