What Your Car Says About You

Forbes

Education level, tech smarts and wealth are just a few traits your ride can convey

Porsches smack of success. Hondas preach practicality. And, according to a recent report, Chevys proudly proclaim of their owners, "I don't use the Internet."

Your car implies more about your life than you might think. While 13% of Chevy owners don't use the Web, by contrast, less than 3% of Honda owners remain in the technological Stone Age. The antithesis of flashy, Honda owners are usually pragmatic and well educated; 70% boast a college degree or higher, compared with 35% of Chevy owners and 45% of Ford owners.

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The data was released in the spring as part of this year's New Vehicle Experience Study by San Diego-based market research outfit Strategic Vision.

"Honda buyers buy primarily for the trust and dependability they find in our vehicles," says Honda spokesman Chris Naughton. "Typically, highly functional vehicles deliver less image because customers didn't purchase for image."

Education level and computer savvy are just a couple of the things your car says about you. We collected demographic data on 10 prominent auto brands from the manufacturers themselves, as well as from neutral sources like Strategic Vision. It turns out, your wheels also give clues to your age, gender, income level and marital status--even your political leanings.

Mini Mindset

If you'd like to cultivate an image of sophistication, try buying a Mini Cooper. The line of Lilliputian hatchbacks appeals to urbane buyers with median incomes of around $125,000. But aside from wealth, Mini owners are a tough bunch to pin down, demographically speaking, since the car has broad appeal.

"It's a certain mindset," says Nathalie Bauers, spokeswoman for Mini USA. "People who relate to the brand, there's no age to that."

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Bauers says Mini owners fall into four categories: brand enthusiasts, who relish the car's British racing roots; design aficionados, who like the car's simple elegance; social butterflies, who want to be part of the Mini community; and gas misers, who crave the Mini's fuel efficiency.

Some of the latter group trade down from trucks and SUVs not because they feel financially crunched by high gas prices, but because they want to be conscientious and reduce their impact on the environment. These "right-sizers" like the Mini's eco-friendly image; all Mini models get at least 34 miles per gallon on the highway. Says Bauers: "Many of our customers are people who get a smaller car because it's the right thing to do."

Gray Area

While Minis appeal to several different types of people, owners of the classic English luxury vehicle Rolls-Royce can't be pigeonholed beyond the fact that they're rich.

"As you can imagine, our customers do not really take surveys," says Rolls-Royce spokeswoman Karen Vonder Meulen. "The one common thread that all our customers share is a passion for life and most truly love cars."

Indeed, well-known Rolls owners range from royal families to rappers. Recording artist T-Pain, who ranks No. 9 on Forbes' Hip-Hop Cash Kings list, owns North America's first Rolls-Royce Drophead. The fire-engine-red coupe boasts a 12-cylinder, 453-horsepower engine and a top speed of 150 miles per hour. Base price: $435,000.

Similarly, the Bentley trademark screams wealth--typically at least $5 million in investable assets, to be precise--but in a softer voice than some of its competitors.

"Our cars aren't as brash as some other performance-car manufacturers," says Stuart McCullough, a Bentley board member. "We tend to be understated, quintessentially English. That reflects the mood and style of our customers."

Such restraint can be considered especially important in the current climate. With unemployment rates skyrocketing around the world, many auto enthusiasts would rather drive an understated gray Bentley than a flashy red Ferrari.

"The most opulent part of a Bentley is on the inside," says McCullough. "Rich people are very aware of how others see them at the moment, the choices they make. Now is not the right time to be seen to be spending money when you're laying people off at your factory."

A note to those wealthy employers: Think twice about splurging on even an understated new car. If you see scads of Hondas in your company parking lot, their savvy owners may be wise to your ways. If you only see Chevys, you might be able to get away with it.

In Depth: What Your Car Says About You

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1. Bentley

The Bentley trademark screams wealth, but in a softer voice than some of its competitors. "Our cars aren't as brash as some other performance car manufacturers," says Stuart McCullough, a Bentley board member. "We tend to be understated, quintessentially English. That reflects the mood and style of our customers." A Bentley also reflects its owner's bank account: typically flush with at least $5 million in investable assets.


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2. Buick

Known as one of Detroit's geriatric brands, Buick is trying to shake its reputation with splashy vehicles like the LaCrosse. Owners of the 2010 Buick LaCrosse are 13% younger as a group than owners of the 2009 version, according to Buick reps. But on the whole, the sedan's owners remain a stodgy bunch: two-thirds are older than 55. They're also reasonably affluent, with a median household income of $75,000.


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3. Chevrolet

On top of all the challenges facing Detroit automakers, Chevy must find a way to deal with the fact that its owners have a reputation for being behind the times, to put it nicely. Strategic Vision's 2009 New Vehicle Experience Study found that 13% of Chevy owners have never used the Web. By contrast, only 3% of Honda owners remain in the technological Stone Age. While 70% of Honda owners boast a college degree or higher, only 35% of Chevy owners can say the same.


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4. Ford

Like Chevy, Ford faces a few unfavorable demographic trends. Only 45% of Ford owners have a college degree and 12% don't use the Internet. To combat this image and appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy group, Ford has introduced features in its cars such as Ford Sync, which allows drivers to play music from an iPod on the auto's sound system using Bluetooth technology. Drivers can request songs by voice command; Sync will even read text messages aloud.


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5. Honda

The antithesis of flashy, Honda owners are usually pragmatic and well educated; 70% boast a college degree or higher. "Honda buyers buy primarily for the trust and dependability they find in our vehicles," says Chris Naughton, a Honda spokesperson. "Typically, highly functional vehicles deliver less image because customers didn't purchase for image." Honda users also tend to be tech-savvy--only 3% of owners don't use the Internet, compared with 13% of Chevy owners.


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