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A lovely alternative

When I drive the Lexus SC430, I feel pretty. Oh so pretty. I feel pretty and witty and let’s just leave it at that, hmmm?

The SC430 -- as polished as a manor house banister, as smooth as Napoleon brandy strained through Naomi Wolf’s silk stocking -- is that mightily maligned thing: a chick car.

The term is a put-down, of course, with the same kind of derisive energy as the phrase “chick lit,” referring to female-centered fiction -- tales of diva domesticity, cell-phone courtships and shoe-intensive anomie. Volvo recently rehabilitated the chick-car phrase, sort of, when it unveiled its YCC sport coupe at this year’s Geneva Auto Show. The YCC (Your Concept Car) was designed entirely by female Volvo employees and included features such as oversized rubber bumpers, automatic parking system, floral seat-cover and carpet sets, and rocker panels that rotated away as the doors opened to keep road grime from getting on dresses. Apparently, Volvo has more summer cotillions than other car companies.

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The well-meant YCC illuminates one of the mysteries of cars and gender: car design that attempts to cater to women instead tends to patronize them as if they were deficient in some way. The YCC -- whose perfect driver seems to be a parking-impaired debutante -- is no more stereotype-sensitive than Chrysler’s notoriously pink Dodge LaFemme of 1955. The LaFemme offered features such as Jacquard upholstery, color-coordinated umbrella, mirror compacts, lipsticks and camera; it was the automotive equivalent to the Eisenhower-era pearls and sweater sets. No wonder housewives abused Valium.

So what is the connection between car design and gender? Industry researchers have only a few certainties to work with. One is that both men and women tend to shy away from vehicles with a “chick car” label.

It’s instructive to note that in Europe, the equivalent term for a chick car is a “hairdresser’s car.” Gay, in other words. A chick car is not only feminine in some ineffable way, but feminizing. It imputes femininity -- or perhaps a kind of gender-preference valence -- upon its owner/driver. Men don’t like having their male credentials called into question; women resist the onus of femininity in the second-sex sense described by Simone de Beauvoir.

Consider the SUV: Few in Detroit could have predicted that these truck-based, hard-to-park, skirt-splitting vehicles would become so popular with women. But women love them, and often the bigger the better. In owner’s surveys, women SUV drivers extol their vehicle’s high seating position and commanding outward view, their sense of invulnerability -- in a word, their empowerment.

So, women want what men want? Not necessarily. Very few women -- Angelyne notwithstanding -- drive Corvettes, for instance. Corvette has long since passed into the popular imagination as a vehicular codpiece, a high-performance sock-in-the-crotch favored by men of a certain age and hairline. This image is as durable as it is patently unfair -- the Corvette is one of the world’s great sports cars and I’d take one in a minute, regardless of the snide whispers behind my back. Yet, inescapably, the Corvette is masculine, just as a white VW Rabbit Cabriolet is feminine.

It’s worth pondering how cars become invested with gender.

The British poet Caroline Bird has written that “femininity appears to be one of those pivotal qualities so important no one can define it.” But I think, at least when it comes to cars, there are some formal qualities that consumers and observers read as feminine.

One of these is scale. Cars that are much smaller than average strike us -- in the primitive centers of our brains -- as feminine. Big vehicles, such as SUVs, are masculine. This schema almost certainly arises from our evolutionary development where the discernment of sexually dimorphic characteristics at a distance was important to survival. Are those females or males coming over the hill? Never mind, hand me my club.

It’s not simply a matter of wheelbase and track, however. The Miata, the Mini Cooper, the New Beetle and the PT Cruiser all have diminutive quality about them, a preciousness, a daintiness. They are cute, which is to say they pack a lot of styling attitude in a short space, in ways that utilitarian compacts such as the Hyundai Accent or Mitsubishi Lancer do not.

Aggressiveness: the male’s calling card. Three stylistic qualities rule our perception of aggressiveness in car styling: angularity, balance and stance. When BMW redesigned the Z roadster (the Z3 to the Z4), one of the design team’s goals was to give the car a harder edge, an angularity that would be perceived as more masculine. And so the Z3’s previously smooth and sinuous lines were peaked and sharpened like lapels and pants creases, given what BMW’s then-design chief Chris Bangle called “flame surfacing” styling.

On the other hand, a polished smoothness, a kind of tumescent fullness, tends to be perceived as feminine, as it does in the New Beetle.

Balance refers to the forward-aft placement of the cockpit. Cars with rear-biased cockpit placement, which creates a long-hood, short-deck profile, read as more masculine. It’s easy to mock this styling as phallocentric, because it is. Forty years ago, when front-engine sports cars ruled road racing, the priapic profiles of Jaguars, Aston Martins and Ferraris were the consequence of large inline engines crammed under the hoods. Today, engines are far more compact. But the long-hood look still conveys masculinity, a potent elegance.

Conversely, cars with long rear decks and overall symmetry front to rear tend to read as more feminine, cars like the New Beetle, Ford Thunderbird and even the Porsche Boxster.

Stance has to do with the car’s position over its wheels. Generally, cars that are lower and wider, with their wheels pushed farther to the corners of the fuselage, have a more aggressive stance. The Mini Cooper’s extremely aggressive stance saves it from terminal cuteness. Cars that are relatively tall compared to their overall length, meanwhile, tend to have a goofy, just-squeeze-them cuteness, like the adorable Suzuki Aerio, Toyota Echo and Scion xB.

So what about the Lexus SC430? By the standards outlined above, does it read masculine or feminine? Surprisingly, the Lexus casts a shadow almost exactly the same size as the Corvette -- the main difference is that the Corvette is some 5 inches lower. Yet at a glance the Lexus appears quite a bit smaller. So it has compactness about it, but it would be hard to classify the car as cute, any more than a Louis Vuitton clutch purse is cute.

The bodywork is like a river stone. No chin spoilers, air scoops and gills. This convertible is smooth and ovoid -- would “egg-like” be loading the argument? The cockpit is dead amidships so that the hood and rear deck are virtually the same length (a fact that gives the SC430 9 cubic feet of trunk space).

Perhaps the defining difference between SC430 and its competitors -- the Jaguar XK8, the Mercedes SL, the Cadillac XLR -- is the car’s chic refinement, the ease with which it wears its beauty. It is a car of almost supernatural elegance, from its highly figured wood cabinetry to its nail lacquer finish. Lexus says that the car’s designers found their inspiration in the Cote d’Azur, in the shapes of and textures of Riva powerboats and Cannes catwalks. Cadillac, meanwhile, found inspiration in the Stealth fighter.

Generally, the more expensive a car, the more expressive the styling, since the design is less constrained by functionality and production costs. Perhaps as a reflection of the disparity of earning power between women and men, luxury cars tend to be aimed at a male audience. Even setting aside the exotic sports cars like swaggering Ferraris and Lamborghinis, luxury sedans -- Lexus’ own LS430, BMW’s 745iL, the Mercedes S-class and Audi’s A8L -- all have a drawing room heaviness about them, a paternalistic heft.

The SC430 may be the only luxury car on the market -- the first? -- that tilts in favor of the mature woman’s tastes, insofar as we dare define them. And that is worth celebrating. As impeccable as a Cole Porter rhyme, as graceful as a Noel Coward smoke ring, the SC430 is about as masculine as either.

Assigning gender specifics to objects in the designed and engineered world may seem like folly -- mine, thank you -- and yet for reasons not well understood, everybody gets it. It’s well documented that men and women respond differently to color and fine art. Why not car design?

While I wait for my NEA research grant, I’m happy to drive the SC430. I don’t feel in any way ambiguous. After all, gender is only skin deep but beauty goes right to the bone.

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Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil@latimes.com.

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2004 Lexus SC430

Base price: $63,500

Price, as tested: $64,109 (including $625 destination fee)

Powertrain: 4.3-liter DOHC 32-valve V8 with variable-valve timing, five-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 300 horsepower at 5,600 rpm

Torque: 325 pound-feet at 3,400 rpm

0-60 mph: 5.9 seconds

Curb weight: 3,840 pounds

Length: 177.8 inches

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches

EPA mileage: 18 miles per gallon city, 23 mpg highway

Final thoughts: There ain’t nothing like a dame


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