Hot cars

LAST Saturday my wife and I met another young couple for brunch. I guess we're Yuppies, because the place was called Le Petit Caf'e, and we talked about children, computers, Broadway shows, and whether a Diane Arbus photo would be a smart investment. Suddenly the husband gazes out the bistro's front window to his car, a hot red Honda Prelude, parked at the curb. ``Look at that car,'' he tells us. ``You've got to admit, that's one gorgeous machine.'' This guy's had his car six months, and he's still got a crush on it.

At least he's forthright. Many are not. They lust after beautiful cars, but they act like eighth-graders at a dance. They feel awkward and embarrassed. They shouldn't: They're Americans, and love of cars is in their DNA. But that's the way they are. So, to part with the enormous bundles of money necessary to attain the objects of their desire, they come up with a trick. They collect cool-headed rationalizations.

A friend showed me how this works. She wants a new SAAB Turbo. She comes to visit, brochure in purse. She whips it out to show you the colors and tell you about the automatically heated seats; she's giddy describing the options that are included as ``standard.'' But when she gets around to the power, it's another story. Now, deep inside she feels about the car's power the same way a 19-year-old feels about the fury under the hood of his first muscle car. But she is careful to use the euphemism ``performance.'' Then comes the sleight of wit: The car's power is a ``safety'' feature. You see, if you find yourself in a tight spot, or passing, and a big truck is barreling down upon you, why, bingo, you press pedal to metal and hyperspace into safety.

Let's face it: Sheer blithering delight is what brings people to buy hot cars. But even if they admit that fact, they still feel the need to wrap it in reasoning that sounds logical, sophisticated, and savvy. They say of a Mercedes: ``It gets good gas mileage.'' They say of their old cars: ``I should trade it in while it's still in good condition. Before the odometer turns 30,000.'' They say, apropos of a new Audi, ``I'm looking into the tax advantages of leasing.''

Car manufacturers are more than happy to indulge them by creating an aura of high purpose. Thus, the higher the sticker price, the more textbookish the description. To wit: The new Merkur promotional literature calls the front seat ``the driver's milieu.''

New models like the Merkur are aimed squarely at the baby-boom generation, that is, me and the friends I've been describing. I've got to hand it to them: They have our number. Maybe we need especially elaborate rhetorical concoctions to buy luxury cars because we are, after all, the people who were driving VW beetles 15 years ago. You remember those bugs: the older, the more patched-up, the less powerful they were, the better. Once I saw an old beetle in California whose owner had replaced the bumpers, front and rear, with logs. Bark and all. How organic.

When I saw that, I loved it. I was still at the stage when I paid no more than $250 for a car and would drive it 'til it dropped. Those were the cars known in the want ads as ``good transportation.''

I have since grown tired of good transportation and conspicuous non-consumption that sometimes left me non-mobile in the worst places. My friends and I are ready to buy thrilling cars -- and the greatest thrill is, we can finally afford it. But we need a little encouragement. We need someone like the red-hot Honda owner to tell us, one more time, ``If you have to have a car, why not have one you love?'' He says that in such a calm, cool-headed way.

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