Dan Neil's amazing riff on the chick car in his LA Times review of the Lexus SC430 a few years ago:
July 14, 2004
RUMBLE SEAT / DAN NEIL
A lovely alternative
Lexus' SC430 seems made for the female driver. But just what
constitutes a 'chick car,' anyway?
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.
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.
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