If you think a vehicle is nothing more than a way of getting from Point A to Point B, try trading in a new Porsche Panamera for a melon-green Smart Car.
As a sociological road test, I decided to do exactly that. The Porsche is the kind of car you'd expect to see parked next to a hedge-fund-manager's place - a black autobahn rocket with 400 horsepower and a $148,000 price tag. The Smart is the darling of the save-the-planet set - a miniaturized, three-cylinder vehicle with a smiling grille.
My methodology would be a tongue-in-cheek approximation of what author John Howard Griffin had done in a book called Black Like Me. By taking pigment-altering drugs, Griffin had darkened his skin, then headed out to see how he was received. My experiment would be far easier; I could switch identities simply by stepping out of one car and into the next.
Until the Porsche and the Smart arrived, my ride was a faded Honda Accord that let me slip around town unnoticed. Now I was about to experience a pair of statement vehicles. Both said "Look at me," but in far different ways.
The Porsche said I was a rich alpha dog who liked fast cars. The Smart told the world I was secure in my manhood, and that the fate of the Andalusian River Hamster meant more to me than selfish automotive fantasy.
Or so I hoped.
First the Porsche. I tried to be blasé, but the Panamera was crack cocaine on wheels. It thrummed with power, and the cockpit was a leather and carbon-fibre cocoon. I started taking the long way to work just so I could spend a few extra minutes slicing through traffic. My favourite touch was a button marked Super Sport: When I pressed it, the Panamera dropped lower on its suspension, hunkering down like a rodeo bull preparing to burst out of the chute.
After years of passing unnoticed, driving the Panamera was a step into the spotlight at the centre of a grand social stage. When I stopped at the grocery store, a young guy who looked like Kanye West ran up to me and shook my hand. "Brother, that's a wicked ride," he said. "You're rolling in style." Another time, I unwittingly parked in front of a girls' school, and looked up to find a dozen young female eyes trained on the Porsche, wondering who might be inside.
Now it was time for the Smart. In theory, I liked it. It cost about one-seventh as much as the Porsche, and consumed a fraction of the resources. The Smart was a vote for a better, more responsible world. Buying it was like choosing a partner for brains and integrity instead of looks.
As relationships go, the Porsche had been like dating a supermodel with rage issues - the rush had been irresistible, but there was a price. I'd gone through more than $100 worth of fuel in no time, and a serious ticket was only a matter of time. Who knew what a tune-up would cost?
Now I was strapping myself into the Smart car. It had 330 less horsepower than the Porsche, and it was 86 inches shorter. A pair of gauges popped out of the dash like the eyes of a cartoon bug. The seats were covered in striped cloth that reminded me of a teenage girl's beach bag. I clicked on the radio, and a Karen Carpenter song came over the tiny speakers.
In the Smart, I found myself ignored by men and women alike - whatever appeal the Porsche had conferred upon me had evaporated.
As a test, I tried parking in front of the girls' school where the Porsche had drawn so much attention. This time, it was different; I might as well have been the guy who comes to fix the photocopier.