Tough Cars for Tough Times

Oct 15, 2008 3:29pm

Take a look at the BMW 5 Series sedan.  It’s a well-built upscale car — but that’s not the issue for the moment.  Does the front of the car resemble a face to you?  It does to many people.  What do you think of it?  Please feel free to weigh in below. Now, take a look at the Toyota Prius.  It’s the darling of environmental consciousness — but that’s not the issue for now either.  What do you see when you look at its "face"? The car companies would be really interested to know your answers because, to put it blandly, there are billions of dollars on the line.  So Karl Grammer, an anthropologist at the University of Vienna, got together with Truls Thorstensen, a design consultant there; they and several colleagues asked 40 people (half men, half women) to rate the "faces" of 38 different cars.

"All subjects marked eyes (headlights), a mouth (air intake/grille), and a nose in more than 50 percent of the cars," writes Grammer on the university website (full text HERE).

The researchers are publishing their results in the December edition of the journal Human Nature, and the abstract is HERE, but the key point is in Grammer’s summary: 

"The better the subjects liked a car, the more it bore shape characteristics corresponding to high values of what the authors termed ‘power’, indicating that both men and women like mature, dominant, masculine, arrogant, angry-looking cars."

Dominant?  Arrogant?  Angry?  It doesn’t take an academic journal to tell us that a lot of cars run on testosterone, even if all they do is sit in traffic.

A few years ago I did a story about a charming, eccentric French-born anthropologist-turned-consultant named Clotaire Rapaille, who argued that in a stressful world (the guy on your tail honking at you?), people retreat to the "reptilian instincts" that drive us all. 

We met at a Chrysler dealership.  Pointing out at the highway, Rapaille said, in a lilting French accent, "People feel it’s a jungle out there.  It’s ‘Mad Max.’  It’s very dangerous.  And the message they want to give is, ‘Don’t mess with me.’"

Rapaille advised Chrysler in the development of the PT Cruiser, a car with a 1930s design, made very much on purpose to look like Al Capone’s getaway car.  You expected toughs in fedoras to climb out of it with machine guns.  And as for the car’s grille, Rapaille said, "It does look as though it has a sly smile, does it not?"

The PT Cruiser has served Chrysler well in otherwise-dismal times.  And in the Vienna experiment, test subjects much preferred the hooded "eyes" of the BMW to the happy little grin of the Prius. 

But when times get really tough, do you have $45,000 (minimum) to spend on the BMW?  Or do you wish you had the hybrid that gets 45 miles a gallon?

(Pictures courtesy BMW and Toyota.)

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