I’ve been giving some thought to cars lately: for no particular reason other than mild interest and an ongoing feeling of being set adrift by the Volkswagen emissions cheat device scandal. I won’t say betrayed. But I will say, after 33 years of driving VWs and reading their manuals, I’d come to believe that environmental protection was something the company was serious about. Now, every time my Polo nags me to change to a higher gear, I scream, ‘YOU STEAMING HYPOCRITE!’ Hopefully, loud enough to be heard in Wolfsburg.
After watching forty million electric bike videos on the YouTube, I started watching car review videos for a bit of a break. I find these pleasantly boring, like sinking into a warm bath of nostalgia for William Woollard-era Top Gear, when it was a dull show about cars rather than a documentary about right-wing extremists.
There’s Autogefühl (pronounced to rhyme with “auto careful”, obvs), which is a nice unexciting German chap (and now with pub bore British side kick) reviewing cars in fine, obsessive detail. I’m particularly fond of his vegetarian disdain for leather upholstery and that he likes to point out the fake chrome twin exhausts on the back of so many high-end cars (the real one is hiding underneath, and there is only one of them).
If I want something a bit more racy, I turn to Carwow, which features fast-talking and personable brummie Mat Watson. He’s kind of what Top Gear might be if it was presented by someone with a healthy ego. These really are the only places you’ll see reviews of the kinds of vehicles people actually buy rather than animated versions of the posters 10-year-old boys put on their walls.
I’m not in the market, but I like to keep up. Mainly, I’m fascinated by the disparity between what people seem to care about (“kerb appeal”) and what actually matters. I suspect we’re into territory signposted Late Capitalist Decadence with most of this stuff. My watchword is always that line from Steve Forbert:
“Driving a Jaguar’s impressive
But you can’t watch it go by…”
In other words, if you buy a car, the bits that matter most to you, the driver, are inside looking out. But these warm bath car reviews spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about external details, character lines, LED headlights, alloy wheels, chromed exhausts, and so on. What I would care about would be: do I get back ache after more than an hour inside? Can I see adequately in all directions (are there blind spots)? How do I connect my phone? And will it default to the ELO’s “Above the Clouds” every time it runs out of podcasts to play?
Another thing that has struck me, as I attempt to force myself to care about brands other than Volkswagen, is that the popular higher end German cars all look alike within their segment. You might be able to see a difference from the rear, as they tend to be wider and higher at the back; and you might be able to tell some difference in length, but when these things are coming towards you, they’re really hard to tell apart.
Which is odd, coming from my little VW bubble. At the consumer end of things, you can clearly see the difference between a Polo, a Golf, and a Passat. You can even easily tell the difference between a Golf and a Jetta, which is really just a Golf with a boot. But they look different to each other. I simply cannot spot the difference (face-on) between an Audi A3 and an A4, nor between a BMW 3/4 or 5. Probably, I haven’t been looking long enough, but a thought struck me.
If you’re coming into a prestige brand towards the bottom end, you probably want the (relatively) cheaper, smaller models to look as much like the more expensive, bigger models as possible. Because the game here is about conspicuous consumption and keeping up appearances. And the identikit front ends are part and parcel with the silly LED lights, the uncomfortable oversized alloy wheels and the fake exhausts.
None of which is original to think or say, but one can’t help wondering about the psychology of these people. Because they believe they’re communicating something, and they are, only it’s not what they think.