Good Car-ma

January 18, 2004|By Nicholas Leonhardt

AH, CARS.

They last longer than some marriages and cost as much as some homes. We demand space-age technology yet gush when they look "real sweet." Like a first love one never forgets, beloved cars remain in our hearts even when we slip behind the wheel of a newer model.

As crowds cruise through the Motor Trend International Auto Show in Baltimore this weekend to inspect the latest hybrid cars, two old flames from the past reappear. A reincarnation of the Thunderbird, ultimate status symbol of the '50s, is already flaunted by drivers in their 60s. Later this year, a revamped Mustang will charge down streets, 40 years after motorists saddled up the original.

Despite the latest technological advances and toys, one aspect of cars remains constant: The names of automobiles reflect our ever-changing culture.

In the early '60s, animal names appealed to our emerging wild side: the Sting Ray, Barracuda and Cobra. Obsessed by space travel, the country turned its wanderlust into the automotive Galaxie and Starfire. By the early '70s, the fuel crisis pumped guilt into America's love affair with cars, giving us Pacers, limiting our travel.

As technology took over everyday life, cars sounded like chemicals concocted in test tubes: the SS396, 3.0CSL and DMC12. Hummer's newest model, the H2, is just one oxygen atom away from water. The Saturn people finally gave up trying to juggle electrons and just named theirs the ION.

With the advent of pop psychology, a car revealed its owner's hidden psyche. If women were from Venus and men from Mars, then car names came from the ghost of Sigmund Freud.

Half a century ago, Americans were content merely to control the pavement in the Roadmaster; now we dream of clearing climate-controlled paths in a Trailblazer or Explorer.

For the macho, the Ram and the Charger declare their character. Those who wish to ramble with dignity seek the Ambassador or his Envoy, while the Intrepid suits the fearless. Drivers espousing romance rather than recklessness could Rendezvous with Buick and Escape with Ford.

During years when our country seemed too commonplace, we yearned for the glamour of Europe. Automakers offered us the Riviera, the Monte Carlo and the Seville. Our current wave of patriotism inspires American cars named after American locales, but not every spot in the "amber waves of grain" will do. Culturally and automotively, we have moved beyond the bland, Beach Boys glory of Malibu and Monterey. Now, rugged, manly sites out West inspire vehicles tagged the Dakota, Montana and Tahoe. Even foreign manufacturers salute our Wild West with the Tacoma and Santa Fe.

Unfortunately, some carmakers take this rough-and-tumble image too far. Just because drivers identify with a Wrangler or Mountaineer doesn't mean they want to zoom out onto the Tundra, or face an Avalanche.

Today, the war on terrorism colors our driving.

Jeep proclaims its Liberty while Lincoln Mercury offers SUVs large enough to carry a platoon and salutes the Air Force through its Aviator and Navigator. Can the Bombardier be far behind? Competing against the Hummer's military prowess, Jeep developed a concept car, the Rescue. It boasts a 3-D navigation system, a satellite phone and an interior resembling a cockpit for the next bumpy landing at the shopping mall.

The newest fad, of course, is the hybrid auto, which combines a gas engine with battery power. To date, only three models are available in the United States, but they already have four strikes against them. The names are uninspiring: Prius, Insight and Hybrid. Costing around $20,000, they are not nearly expensive enough to attract the trendy who want to brag about a new toy. Conversely, the cost savings in gas are not great enough to attract the minority of Americans who actually base their purchases on fuel efficiency. Lastly, when the U.S. government has to bribe hybrid buyers with a complex tax deduction scheme, these cars will seem as hip as an IRS agent.

Since America has resurrected the Thunderbird and Mustang and reincarnated Harley Earl, the Calvin Klein of car design, let's travel the rest of this road. Americans should stop pretending that fuel efficiency, safety features and warranties matter most and admit the real reason we love our cars: They're real sweet.

Nicholas Leonhardt is a junior at Loyola Blakefield High School and lives in Lutherville.

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