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July 29, 2013
This is supposed to be a serious "car culture" topic, but as is standard operating procedure for me it ran very long, so I threw in a lot of smartass comments to keep people entertained along the way. All mocking is intended to be in good fun.
Matt Hubbard from Speedmonkey.co.uk recently posted his list of their top ten coolest cars. His was assembled from lists sent by others, his criteria being, "A cool car is cool simply by the fact it immediately elevates the status of anyone - no matter what age, sex or creed - who is sitting at the wheel. It is a leveller."
Of course, everyone has a different opinion of what they find "cool." The General Lee (with flag and all) might be well received in Paula Deen country but probably won't be as well received in Harlem. What gives status to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills is very different that what would give status to the urban hipster crowd.
I think I would internalize the definition of a cool car as one that makes you feel like the person you want to be. Since there will always be haters, snobs, elitists, or general all-around jealous jackasses no matter which crowd you run with, you should probably go with whichever car makes you feel cool, and to hell with the opinion of whoever disagrees. Nobody's really wrong: to each their own, and your own opinion matters most.
My list is not a list of cars but a list of personalities, what might appeal to them, and what I think a good car would be for impressing that crowd.
The Resourceful American
We often pride ourselves on toughness rather than refinement and the ability to get a good deal rather than showing off how much money we can spend. We also really love to see the "home team" compare favorably to the best Europe has to offer.
For this, there is the Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1. Every Top Gear road test calls them unrefined, uncomfortable, but fast and cheap. Worried about suspension harshness? What are you, getting soft in your old age?
Being able to run Ferrari-fast lap times at a third the cost while absorbing the bumps in faded Wranglers without complaint is just the sort of attitude that a huge section of America prides itself on. And it wasn't just made anywhere in America, but Kentucky of all places, a special point of embarrassment for the owner of any European car it beats.
My preference is for American flag blue with double white racing stripes.
The Green Driver
The ultimate goal is to go down the road and make it cleaner than it was before you got there. Sure, Camrys are hybrid now, but someone might not notice that hybrid badge. You have to have a Toyota Prius so everybody knows you're being environmentally conscious, especially if you have the money to be driving a Rolls Royce. Oh, the sacrifices you make! What a martyr!
Mockery aside, I am happy to see that having a Prius in Hollywood is cool, because if we all drove 8mpg muscle cars, the world would be a dismal place. Why nobody's made a Prius stretch limo yet for these folks is beyond me. I would take the Lexus HS250h Hybrid, the luxury-fied Prius.
There are always people who will camp out for a week to get the new iPhone, happily discarding their 6-month old iPhone as "obsolete," giddy for the few seconds a new feature will save despite the week spent camping for the phone and the day spent setting it up. It's not rational in terms if hours and minutes, but for those determined to live a Star Trek fantasy on the cutting edge of technology, it's time well spent.
For them, there was no car cooler than the Saturn EV-1, but it's long (too long) awaited successor, the Chevrolet Volt, is a decent substitute, and my pick for this class. Aside from that, there really isn't a specific make or model that is the coolest...life is lived in the features list: Bluetooth, satellite navigation, lane departure warning, and most recently "park assist." It's only 6 feet but hey, the car drove itself!
The Shamelessly Wealthy
Sometimes, us common folk just don't understand fine luxuries. Why would anyone pay $80 a pound for coffee beans a squirrel crapped out when Dunkin' Donuts is a tenth the price? (See The Resourceful American above)
Then again, there are segments of society that appreciate a handcrafted luxury car as a symbol of having "made it." For them, classic style never goes out of style.
You can buy a wonderful classic car that costs ten million dollars, but if you have to explain it, it's not cool. In comes the Cadillac Escalade and Bentley to supply all the rappers and rich show-offs of America.
Unfortunately, Bentleys now remind a lot of folks of tooth grills, basketball players, and crass rap lyrics. If you want to show off your success with class, the bespoke Rolls Royce is still unbeatable.
"I Wish I Were Japanese"
The manga comics, the Japanese word tattoo, the Asian calendar girl poster. You just weren't meant to be born in Ohio, were ya Timmy?
There are plenty of folks for whom a foreign car is an extension of their love of another culture, but fans of JDM take it to a whole other level. For them, the R-34 Nissan Skyline is an icon. Sure, the modern-day GT-R is faster, but anybody with the money can walk into a Nissan dealership and buy one. The right-hand-drive R-34 wasn't meant to be here and everybody knows it. I've only seen one, once, in Hawaii...never on the mainland.
For fans of other cultures, my personal favorites are just about anything by BMW (Germany), Citroën (France), Alfa Romeo (Italy), or Lamborghini (the United Arab Emirates).
Minis, MGs, and Jaguars in "British Racing Green" (we have to specify "British" on this side of the Atlantic) are symbolic Anglophile automobiles, and are especially cool if you can 1.) throw in British English terms like boot, bonnet, and motoring in your vocabulary and 2.) pull off the attitude of the pleasant Englishman that got run over in National Lampoon's European Vacation every time your classic Lucas-wired Jag ends up on the side of the highway with the smell of burnt insulation.
The Automotive Historian
This is a crowd for which having to explain it is what makes it cool. A Ford T-5? What's that? Oooooh, cool! Bonus points for cars people haven't seen in person before, max points for cars they haven't even heard of before.
There's such a wide range of possible vehicles that fit the bill here, but the most popular category seems to be "orphan marques," brands that no longer exist on the new car market. Studebaker, Packard, AMC, DeSoto, Hudson, and more recently Oldsmobile, Mercury, and Pontiac all have loyal followers. My personal favorite is the 1964-65 Rambler American 440 convertible and I like anything made by Pontiac.
Some are so obsessed with "the deal" that all else is secondary. Who cares if a car looks like a demented cheese wedge if it gets 2 more miles per gallon? Colors aren't picked by aesthetic value but by insurance cost. No purchase is made without the approval of Consumer Reports. And you wouldn't be caught dead driving anything but a silver Toyota Corolla or gray Honda Accord with the original dealership license plate frames still attached. I wish I could say the Corolla would bet pick because I like Toyotas, but that would be bringing emotion into an accounting task, so I have to go with the car I really don't want to buy: the silver Honda Civic.
There are a lot of buyers for whom "car" is another word for "speed bump." We're not talking about "baby trucks" like the Colorado or Ranger, but full-on V8 American pickup trucks. Rugged, tough, loud, built-with-your-bare-hands American attitude. Diesel isn't something for slow fuel efficient German cars, it's man fuel for a big man's big truck. Hey, there's a reason those testicular vehicle attachments are called "truck nuts" and not "sedan nuts."
Of course, many of them squeal as though they've been grabbed by the nuts at the gas station, but that's another topic.
My personal favorite is the best-selling Ford F-150. Individuality? There are almost no limits to what you can do to a truck to make it uniquely yours without spending a lot more money, and the flat back window and flat tailgate are wide open canvasses for expressing your politics, appreciation for a favorite NASCAR driver, or letting people know what kind of animals you hunt (just left of center, Kyle Busch, and I I love meat but I prefer it pre-killed).
This breed comes in many subsets. Some like to drive drift or drag racing cars just barely on the legal side of the law, others dress theirs up in their favorite NASCAR racer's colors as though interstate traffic is drafting at Talladega. I actually have a 2003 Pontiac Vibe AWD with some rally car touches to the appearance, and I sometimes go nuts having fun drifting it in snow. I wouldn't trade my car for anything, but of course if I didn't have her I'd take a Subaru Impreza STi.
The Automotive Hipster
This is assuming, of course, you don't find yourself in the "automotive hipster" crowd, where the only thing that matters is that it gets you where you're going and you seem shallow if you think people will care about your car at all. Oh, you care that all your wheel covers are factory stock? How lame that you get yourself down with "first world problems" while so many are dying of starvation...
Some can be impressed by driving a car far beyond its life expectancy, thereby reducing the energy and money wasted on new cars. You're never really going to impress them, but if you want to blend in , anything with more than 200,000 miles and the original paint will do.
A Few Last Words
Obviously, the truck crowd will be less than impressed that you mastered a few basic Japanese words to impress the importer that snagged your AE86 for you. The accountant never even considered a truck just for the extension of manhood because he can rent one from Menards for $20 that one time a year he needs it. The automotive historian is likely to be less than impressed by your lane departure warning, as I've actually heard, "we had something like it in my day, it was called, 'watch where the fuck you're going!'" Driving a Rolls to a party full of Prius drivers is not going to make you cool.
It all comes down to, in my opinion: who do you want to be, and what makes you feel good?
By the way, for those who don't know me, despite driving the Vibe as a "daily driver" my crowd tends to be Automotive Historian. I would love to have the 1964 Rambler American 440 convertible. Then, rather than deciding if my car is cool based on what other people think I'll base whether or not I like someone on their opinion of my car!
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