No One Is Auto Immune

The good news: The sluggish economy means great deals on new cars. The bad news: The money you save might have to go toward therapy for the identity crisis you develop as you try to decide which car is right for you.

My crisis came prematurely when I accompanied my friend Jake to a BMW dealership. Awaiting him was a done deal on the exact car Jake wanted, which is to say the updated version of the exact same model he’d been driving forever. The only thing left to decide was color—black or gray. However, Jake went into mental gridlock while viewing the cars side by side. When the salesman ran the numbers—and they were very good numbers—and Jake did not react, I suspected something was wrong. When he said the car could be ready in an hour and Jake said we couldn’t wait but he’d come back, I knew something was wrong—so did the salesman. Even as they shook hands and Jake said all the right things, I sensed this sale wasn’t going to happen.

I’ve known Jake a long time. He has never been one to stall on follow-through or indulge in second-guessing. It was clear that what I’d witnessed was a guy who, at the critical I-do moment, said, “I don’t.” Before I could ask what provoked his change of heart, he derailed me by asking, “When’s your lease up? What are you going to get?” A simple enough question, but the more I dwelled on my own road identity, the more confused I became. That’s when I realized buying a new car in L.A. is analyzing who you were, who you are and who you want to be. Or put another way: Are you what you drive?

As if the choices weren’t complicated enough (color, size, extras), now there’s growing peer pressure to drive something eco-friendly. Who would blame you if you find yourself suddenly booking a shrink session—or two?

So it seems I’m right in the same conflicted place as Jake, except with a few more months on my lease. Am I boring? Adventurous? Easily manipulated? Vain? Trying too hard to appear young—or cool? Not trying enough? Do I need to prove I’m politically correct? Do I resent the pressure to give up my SUV? Do I dare choose a color other than black?

I have gone through this before. I remember when I realized I was too old to drive a white, soft-top Jeep Wrangler. I was at a light, and next to me was a girl in the identical car. It was a sunny day, and we both had the top off and the radio on. We were also both wearing a T-shirt and jeans and had our hair in a pony­tail. The difference was she was probably no more than 20, and I was 35. It was obvious right then that the surfer look had an expiration date, and the line between sporty and silly was a thin one.

That’s when I switched to a black Toyota 4Runner, the four-wheel-drive model I never came close to putting into four-wheel drive. With tinted windows, it looked like every other SUV on the road. And that was the point—to go from “Look at me” to “Don’t look at me.”

But now that it’s time for a change, the question is, to what? I believe in minimizing my carbon footprint, but the thought of a Prius—the car of choice of so many of my friends—brings out my rebellious streak...and my claustrophobia. An SUV hybrid seems the logical choice, except it’s more than I want to spend. I’ve looked at smaller SUVs, which seemed like a good idea until I noticed that my more affluent friends buy those exact models for their nannies. Of course it shouldn’t matter, but good judgment isn’t always in the driver’s seat. Is that shrink session starting to make sense now?

Most therapists will agree that car-shopping confusion is neurotic, possibly, but not out of line with reality. We live in a megalopolis that keeps us in transit for a good part of every day. To the world around us, a car is the most visible sign of our identity.

Years ago I lived across from a guy who rented a one-bedroom apartment, but he drove a very loud red Ferrari. You don’t need a master’s degree to figure out that guy’s psychology: “Please judge this book by its cover.” Sure, cars can get resold or, in the case of that Ferrari, repossessed, but at the moment of purchase, you’re making a choice about who you are today and who you think you’ll be over the next few years.

I envy people who know exactly what car they want and have no self-doubts. However, I don’t envy people who live in places like New York or other cities with such extensive mass transit they don’t need an automobile. How will they ever realize who they really are? They don’t know what they’re missing. Going through the stress of buying a car is actually an opportunity to ask yourself some serious questions—and a good reason (as in, the amount of money at stake) to answer them correctly.

By the way, Jake decided on the Lexus GS hybrid in black opal, and I have no idea why. That’s between him and his shrink. Meanwhile, I’m still reading car magazines in the hopes of finding the perfect ride for whoever it is I am.

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