Cars as status symbols

Consumer Reports News: December 18, 2007 10:20 PM

With cars, you wear your status on the road. Everyone knows which ones are the most expensive. The brand marking is clear. In our recent Mercedes E-Class sedan, I was constantly reminded of what vehicle I was driving, because the emblem on the hood was staring right at me, as well as several Tri-Star logos throughout the interior. With clothing, you can buy cheap knock offs and still look presentable. There is no hiding a brand while driving a car. Removing the trunk-mounted badge doesn't fool anyone.

A friend of mine recently learned a thing about rolling status symbols when he purchased a Lexus ES350. He was previously driving a Corolla and spends a lot of time on the road. He was looking for something roomier and more comfortable. He bought the 2007 ES used and got a great deal, spending about as much as one would for a new, well-equipped Toyota Camry. He drove the new car to work and immediately got many comments from co-workers like, "Nice car, you must be doing well." His colleagues inquired about his increase in status and remarked on his assumed financial situation. He told me he felt very uncomfortable by everyone's comments and didn't expect those reactions.

Of course, many people buy expensive cars (even if they can't afford it) just to show-off or project an image or wealth or importance. Those people would probably welcome the comments my friend received. However, not all wealthy people prefer driving expensive cars. For Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, he preferred practical over showy. He commented on his choice of vehicle: "Why do I drive a pickup truck? What am I supposed to haul my dogs around in, a Rolls-Royce?"

The hybrid image
Besides buying a car for status, now people buy cars for the image or message it makes. Take the Toyota Prius, for example. It has become a rolling bumper sticker for the environmental movement. Driving one makes a strong statement, proving the owner practices what they preach. In a recent New York Times article Prius owners said they liked the fact that they drive a car that is known as a hybrid rather than buying, for example, a Ford Escape with a small hybrid logo. They like that it is obvious and clear. It seems others agree since sales of the Prius are up almost 70 percent so far this year. At a time when conscious environmentalism has become cool and politically correct--and high fuel economy desirable—a hybrid vehicle serves as a symbol of commitment to saving fuel and preserving the environment.

As learned from my automotive personality experiment, whether you buy a car for status, fashion, comfort, or the environment, you are what you drive. For me, it's nice to drive various test vehicles that I wouldn't normally have the opportunity to, but I still enjoy getting back into my own cars. They are more a reflection of me. I don't need to be showy, bold, or flashy. I opt for safe, reliable, affordable and fuel efficient. Of course, there are cars on my list that I would like to own someday, but in the meantime, I'll enjoy taking on these temporary personalities.

Liza Barth 

What does your car say about your personality? Is that the image you want to convey? Or does image not matter to you? Post your comments below.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Cars News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more