News Driven

You can cruise the collective national psyche in the amazing world of car media.

You can spend all day lapping up high-end media—political and foreign news, economics, arts, and ideas. But if you want to know what's really going on in this country, way down in the collective psyche, there's only one place to go: the amazing, strangely illuminating world of car media.

I've been car shopping lately, pulling up reviews and ratings, buying the car magazines, studying the ads, cruising the Web sites. If you're not a regular in this corner of the news universe, the first thing that hits you is how vast it is, and how massive is the hunger for any and all information related to cars. The most popular automotive magazines have paid circulations of more than a million each. Most major newspapers have dedicated car columns, and new-car reviews and trend stories are mainstays of the general-interest mags. Web sites range from the straight-ahead and extremely helpful, where you can do extensive car research for free, to a Drudge-like site I stumbled on called, which carries reporting and gossip about current and future car models, including grainy, apparently covert photos of mysterious vehicles still in development.

To the outsider just entering this world, it has a certain rabbit-hole quality. Car writers and their followers often lapse into an exotic, baffling dialect that's about as closely related to English as is modern Basque. From a recent column by The Boston Globe's car columnist, Royal Ford:

"At the North American International Auto Show earlier this month, we had hot tuner cars that are replacing the muscle car of yesteryear in the hands of hi-tech kids who know chipping and turbos the way we know stroke and bore and four-barrel carbs. There was also the latest rendition of hemis, as in 'That thing got a hemi?' as the TV ads cajole, referring to hemispherical combustion chambers, meaning the top of the piston and the top of the cylinder that receives it bulge upward for high compression volume."

Got that? There's also a tendency toward wild, testosteronic flights of metaphor. Panning a new BMW sport-utility vehicle in last month's issue of Car and Driver magazine, Aaron Robinson wrote, "The X3's ride is hard-edged, concussive, and insufferable. Hit a craggy, undulating section of road, and the X3 bucks like a mare with Little Richard's pinky ring stuck under the saddle. Do it at speed, and the X3 is almost as good as a guillotine for testing your neck joints." In a sidebar, an editor of the magazine also weighs in: "I've seen sillier cars. There was an angry, slotted Bizzarrini GT back in 1968 that scraped its belly on the ground like a skulking lizard."

Once you get into the spirit of this stuff, it becomes kind of infectious. And revealing. Cars are at the center of our civilization, after all, and to ignore their significance is to miss out on a rich vein of cultural data. Choosing a car today is an almost existential decision, and no matter how you choose, you wind up sending a lot of very precise, coded messages about yourself. There are Hummer people and there are Subaru people, and we all know who they are. There was a commercial during this year's Super Bowl built entirely around the metaphysical question: Can a station wagon be cool? Answer: Yes, if it's a Dodge Magnum with a massive "hemi" under the hood.

The elite media have become especially attuned to these questions, and car journalism often involves deep semiotic readings. In a Newsday column a few months ago, Susan Cheever wrote, "Cars are like a religion in this country. It's clear before you bend your knees to get in behind the wheel that the Mini Cooper aims for the simplicity of the Shakers and the seriousness of the Episcopalians, with possibilities for redemption at every red light."

In a recent review of a Volvo sedan, James G. Cobb of The New York Times noted, "Despite Volvos' reputation as safe, solid, and secure automobiles, and despite the company's experimentation with bolder styling and brisker powertrains, the stereotype persists: If you drive a Volvo, you must be a political leftist, a liberal-arts professor, or a granola-crunching activist. Before the Iowa caucuses, an anti-tax group, the Club for Growth, attacked Howard Dean in a television commercial that described his campaign as a 'latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing' freak show."

And the identity slicing is getting thinner and thinner. Hybrid vehicles, with their attendant green vibes, have lately emerged in some circles as the noble alternative to the world-eating SUV. But the wily automakers were not about to let that gap go unfilled. Later this year, they're going to start selling hybrid SUVs, which will almost certainly launch car media types into a whole new round of cultural psychoanalysis.

In fact, it has begun already. One of the most user-friendly car writers out there, Washington Post columnist Warren Brown, wrote in a recent moment of pique that Toyota is winning huge image points for its gas-electric sedan, the Prius, and "playing the Green Knight to a news media obviously in need of one." This, Brown argued, is a bit stupid. "The current auto market is a place of open warfare, with all combatants attacking one another wherever they see a chance to increase profits. That is why Toyota offers 'green' cars with one hand while seeking to rake in green cash with the other by selling big trucks with big engines.... It is why GM, Ford, and the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler, long and erroneously perceived as environmental laggards, will soon launch gas-electric hybrids that will truly make the Prius yesterday's news."

Hemis, body piercing, and hypocrisy, all in one beat. Who could ask for anything more?