What drives L.A. and N.Y.?

Brett Berk writes "Stick Shift," a weekly online car column for Vanity Fair.

I’ve just returned home to New York from a week in L.A., where I discovered yet another topic people use to fuel the tedious Los Angeles/New York debate. When Angelenos are done discussing the relative merits of each city’s weather, schools, sports teams, quality of life and rappers, they move on to automobiles.

And no, this isn’t about my driving. As a Detroit native, a lifelong car nut, a UAW member and a professional automotive journalist, I know that my driving is beyond critique. It’s about the idea that we New Yorkers -- occupants of the U.S. city with the lowest national rates of car ownership and one of the few places in the United States where a vehicle isn’t a necessity -- don’t know, care or understand enough about cars. At least not beyond the basics, e.g. if it’s yellow, you’re going to dinner; if it’s black, you’re going to the airport; if it’s white, you’re going to jail.

The relative equities of Chevy versus Ford? Invisible. Wagon or crossover? Blah, blah, blah. The difference between an F-150 and an S550? Ask me if I care. “Never mind brands and models,” Mike Dushane, executive online editor of Car and Driver, told me. “On Friday, a colleague at a company we work with in Manhattan had a deeper question for me: ‘Can you explain the difference between a coupe and a sedan?’ ” (If you’re a New Yorker, the joke will be lost on you. Here’s a hint: two doormen versus four doormen.)


But the San Diego market research firm Strategic Vision offers a countervailing point of view. Its most recent New Vehicle Experience Study -- which surveys 120,000 new-car buyers -- was just updated last week and reveals that attitudes about cars on the East Coast and the West Coast aren’t that different.

First, there are some basic demographic similarities between the cities’ car buyers. New York and L.A. have a smaller proportion of married buyers than other places in the country, a larger proportion of college graduates, a younger average purchase age and more ethnically diverse owners. And, given the status-seekers in both locales, both have higher proportions buying luxury vehicles than the general population.

Even more interesting than these simple statistics are the psychological motivators shared by drivers in our nation’s biggest metropolises. “Both New York and L.A. have two major groups of new-vehicle buyers,” Alexander Edwards, president of Strategic Visions, told me. “Those who are looking to find the best deal regardless of the brand or vehicle sold, and those who are looking for a delightful drive.” Deal-makers and pleasure-seekers: Sound like anyone you know in either place? And, he went on, “both New York and L.A. drivers look for vehicles with confident and energetic images,” meaning cars that will communicate their ability to lord it over fellow humans. Aggressive go-getters: another area of bicoastal overlap.

But although it appears we’re buying the same cars for many of the same reasons, it’s the slight differences in details that tell the whole story. While New Yorkers’ luxury vehicle purchases are driven by a desire for what Edwards calls “elegance and refinement,” L.A. drivers are frequently more inspired by what he calls a “love to show off.” I blame what I call “the Lohan factor” for skewing this data (she buys and wrecks a lot of cars). More important, where L.A. drivers are more adventurous, New Yorkers tend to be more competitive. To this I can say only one thing: Told you so.