What a Car Says About its Driver

I once heard somebody say, "You are what you drive." I thought these words were ridiculous when they first hit my ears twenty years ago, and I feel the same way today. But just because cars don't tell you everything about their driver, it doesn't mean they tell you nothing, either.

I've been thinking about cars lately because after a lousy experience, I'm starting to think differently about what I value most from my motor vehicle.

Here's the situation. My wife drives an Audi Q7 that came off lease during the peak of the supply chain issues in 2021. We were paying just under $900 for the lease, and because of the car shortage, getting a new one would have been 30% more or some crazy number. So instead we bought it out for whatever the terms were, and my monthly payment went down to $800. Nice!

One thing Robyn and I didn't consider at the time was the 60 miles a day she puts on the car driving to work. So here we are three years later, and with 80,000 miles on the odometer, its book value is crashing relative to how much we still owe. We're ~$15,000 underwater. Not nice.

Not only has this been a horrible financial outcome, but to add insult to injury, the car is crapping out. I don't know exactly what's happening, but it's been a constant headache. We had two major repairs, each over $10k, that fortunately were covered by my warranty. Sidebar- my car was in the shop for a week, and they didn't have any loaners. Ugh.

So we had to lease a car for her to get to work, and when I asked for some financial assistance from the dealership, they told me to call Audi corporate. They apologized for the inconvenience and told me to submit a bill for reimbursement. So I did. And a week later, I was rejected. Lol what?!?

To make a bad situation worse, a week after I got my car back, the check engine light came back on. But once again, there were no loaner cars available, and there was no way I was shelling out another bag to Enterprise. So we had to wait five weeks to get the car into the shop because that's how long until a loaner car was available.

The rotten cherry on top of all this is that my extended warranty ends at 100k miles. That's a thick red line that I won't cross, considering all of the expensive problems I've already experienced. The clock is ticking.

Sorry for making a short story long, but I'm sharing it so you can understand where my mindset is. Having a car that doesn't spend weeks in the shop is at the top of my priority list. At least for now, fresh off of this debacle.

The way you feel about things, cars included, changes over time.

My first car was an old bronze Buick Regal. At 18 years old, I didn't care that it wasn't a cool-looking car. I was just happy with the freedom it gave me. Thrilled, really.

I felt differently about my second car. This was during my kicked out of college twice period, and so naturally, I was feeling a bit insecure. I wanted a nice ride to pick my ego up off the sidewalk. I bought a used Infiniti G35 sedan. I think it was ~25k and cost me $400 a month. I liked the car, and I felt good driving it.

Cars are interesting because, for some people, they're just a way to get from A to B. Plenty of drivers don't care about other aspects like comfort, luxury, or status symbol. Others care deeply.

I saw an older guy last week getting into a gorgeous Range Rover, and I thought, "Aren't you a little old for that?" I don't mean that car specifically, but more so what it represents: The desire to signal to both friends, family, and strangers that you have money. But my second thought was, well that's not really fair. I have no idea who this person is and what his motivations are. And then I thought,  what exactly is the right age or level of wealth to drive a car like that? At what age does what you think others think about you peak?

There are no right answers here.

What if the guy I saw had always dreamed of being able to afford a Range Rover, and now he's living out his dream? Great!

If we're being real, based on how he looked—and forgive me for judging—this person has been in a luxury vehicle for a long time. But so what if people want to signal their wealth through their car? Is there anything wrong with that?

Or, what if he's driving a nice car because he's proud of his hard work and wants to enjoy the finer things in life? Isn't that part of what money is for? To be spent however one wants?

It might seem like I'm overthinking it. Dude, it's just a car. But I don't think I am! Cars fit into a weird bucket of socially acceptable status symbols. Sometimes.

If you're the biggest jerk in town and you have a cool car, then whatever. Nobody is impressed. But if the driver is a good person and gets personal satisfaction from driving the nice car and also from signaling that they make a nice living, well then that's perfectly awesome.

We use all sorts of physical objects to signal, from watches to clothes to cars and homes. Some are acceptable, some are not, and again that's all very subjective. Interestingly, most people wouldn't look at a big house and say, "What a jerk." But they might see somebody in a luxury vehicle and think, "That guy sucks." Sometimes fair, sometimes not.

I saw Car Dealership Guy post this meme recently, and it's perfect.*

This shows that both people with no money and people with tons of it choose Toyota. At the very top of the wealth spectrum, if you're not a car person, then there's no reason to use it to signal your wealth. And of course, if you don't have a lot of money, then Toyota is a very safe and cost-effective vehicle.

I'm at the point in my life, especially after the nuisances I've dealt with, that I value not having a headache over anything else. That being said, and I know you're not supposed to say this out loud, but the truth is that I do get some satisfaction out of driving a nice car. There, I said it. Based on what a joke I was earlier in life, I'm very proud that I can afford something I never thought would be possible.

So, what will I drive when my Jeep Wrangler lease is up? I'm talking like I'm at the Toyota stage in my life. But the truth is, I'm still too young and dumb to make what's probably the right decision. I'm still at the top of the bell curve.

*I also think you can replace net worth with age and it works all the same