Auto Choices

Yesterday, while making a turn in my town, I noticed an all-electric BMW i8 turning to follow. The car is jazzy, no question. With the air channels down the sides, it looks capable of taking off like a 737.

I live in an affluent area (sometimes, my wife and I feel it’s too fancy for us) so sights like this aren’t rare. Nor are the Teslas, or the black Ferrari 458 that occasionally cruises by our house. While I admit I wouldn’t mind a sunny-afternoon ride in one of these cars, I’d never drive one or own one for myself. The i8 runs around $145k. The Ferrari 458 would be an especially ridiculous choice–as I can’t even properly drive a stick shift (how sad) and costs around $300k. That’s a flashy liability, at best.

A red Ferrari 458 with racing stripes.

These are beautiful objects, no doubt. Toys, really. Nobody regularly commutes to downtown Seattle in an Italian race car. As my mother is fond of saying, ‘They’d have to have their head examined.’


Because I’m a judgemental person (yup, guilty) and a kind of anti-snob, I wonder about the motivations at work. These are–I’m guessing–predominantly male drivers with wealth and healthy egos. (The Teslas are a little more understandable, based on price and eco-friendly green technology.)

I drive a minivan. My wife is happy driving her 2008 Highlander. What really puts our choices in perspective (thanks to her hard work, we have these choices) is the older gentleman in the neighborhood who drives a gold late-model Camry. The first time I saw him, I was impressed. He appears well north of 70 and this was the car he chose for what was most likely his last auto purchase. It’s a solid, good-looking (if boring) car that costs half of what some of his contemporaries are driving. (Here, it’s pretty common to see retirees in Porsches and Jaguars and Mercedes SUVs.) This man’s choice is functional rather than flashy. It’s un-impressive. I think it’s admirable. Assuming he (like so many empty-nesters) had ample resources, he chose to do something else with his money. Help for the grandkids, charitable giving, whatever.

The most visible way we Americans show off our social status and accomplishments is by the vehicle we drive. You can’t take your house around and show people. Clothes (especially for men) seem kind of vapid. I, for one, am not interested in $300 jeans with stitched swirls, and I certainly can’t spot them from a hundred yards down the street like an Italian sports car. There’s a fair number of muscle-car drivers who pass my house, guys who want the world to know about their big engines by revving them or peeling out. Why? Oh, right, because anyone within earshot is going to be impressed. Really?

Wealth and Character

One of the quirks (drawbacks/advantages/puzzling attributes) of being an altruist is that I don’t see material goods as an indicator of sterling character. In this increasingly me-first country, I’d rather award the lottery jackpot to the special-education teacher driving a 15-year-old Honda Accord. The world, of course, doesn’t work that way. Trickle-down-economics (for those old enough to remember Reagan-era policies) was a nice theory, never a reality.

Last summer, on a Lake Washington cruise, I saw the house belonging to the founder of the Value Village chain. It’s a grand palace occupying a “corner” of Bellevue lake-front property. It probably costs more than the combined incomes of…how many Value Village regulars? Hundreds? Thousands? (While I haven’t checked up on this man’s charitable giving–it’s really not my business–there was a sharp irony in seeing this abode purchased with profit from what many of us see as a kind of public service.)

Guilty as Charged

So, I’m judgemental. And a bit full of myself. And, to some, an insufferable prig. My sister once chided me along these lines, certain that I would, in fact, own that BMW X5 someday (when I’ve worked hard enough for it). Naturally, I swore on my life that no such thing would ever happen (like me ever voting for the GOP, the decidedly un-altruistic party).

There’s so much need in this world, in this country. So many people who could just use a leg up, a little relief, a kind act. I recently helped my son’s school group chip in at a food bank, and it was a rewarding experience. The people in line were good people. They just need a little help, that’s all. What do you choose to do with your time and resources?

Flawed or not, silly or not, I have a feeling my last car will also be of the un-impressive Camry variety. I hope, when I’m done, I’m fortunate enough to have resources and can make choices. I hope my kids hold me to my word. The sleek Beamer? No, Dad. Take the gold sedan, and donate the rest. You’d look ridiculous in a sports car, anyway!

Author Justin Edison, looking unimpressed with his reddish goatee.