Washington’s ambivalence about cars

Jeffrey Denny

Our nation’s capital is many things — our seat of government, the center of the free world, a high school field trip destination, the scourge of Trump supporters. It is not a car town. So the annual Washington Auto Show, which just ended, stands out as an oddity. Even the name sounds like an oxymoron, like “exhilarating Toyota Prius” or “late-model DC cab.”

For car lovers, Miami, Los Angeles and Manhattan have their ostentatious wealth of Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Maseratis and other exotica. Detroit is … Detroit, where it’s illegal to drive anything but American cars even if they’re assembled in Mexico. In Sun Belt regions, show-quality classics like the ’57 Chevy abound. Southern California is an epicenter of “tuners,” hopped up Japanese econ-brands with blatting soup-can exhaust pipes and cartoonish wheels as seen in the “Fast and Furious” movies with the perfectly named Vin Diesel.

You also see surprising clusters of BMWs around Spartanburg, S.C., where the Bavarians opened a motor werks, and likewise, Volkswagens in Chattanooga, Hyundais in Montgomery, Ala., and Hondas in central Ohio. Texas has oil-bought high-end Mercedes AMGs and other new-rich favorites, but pickup trucks are de rigueur, even for Dallas and Houston gentry with nothing to haul but Neiman Marcus bags.

Washington, in contrast, seems to hate cars. Even though the city is surrounded by four of the five richest counties in America — that’s right— it’s hard to tell from our rides. You see a lot of silver-grey minivans and SUVs, innocuous Honda Accord and Toyota Camry four-doors, and sensible Subarus and Prius (more on these later). Lawyers might drive Land Rovers because they like sitting high and looking down at us. Mercedes, BMW and Audi sedans and SUVs are popular, but their understated styles make them anonymous and anodyne, like Michael Bublé. You might see a Tesla or two — not just because they’re fast, sleek and cool, but because they’re electric, which is politically cool. We also have more than our share of giant black GMC and Cadillac SUVs led by screaming police cars, telling us that some high government official is trying to get home before the nanny leaves or the kids go to bed. Pickups are strictly for landscapers and contractors who need them for work.

Why is Washington such a bummer town for cars? We’re serious-minded (read: boring). Cars are appliances, utilitarian personal transpo units with seats, wheels, cup holders and NPR. If you want to draw attention, then bloviate on Meet the Press, wear a pink knit hat, or sext an intern. You don’t drive a hot car, even if you drool for the new Porsche 911 GTS and have the $100,000 base sticker to spend. It’s just not done.

Why not? If you’re a law firm partner, a hot car says you’re getting hair plugs and leaving your wife for a young associate that someday you’ll marry and then divorce for a younger associate. If you’re a lobbyist, it says you shill for tobacco, oil, or a murderous foreign despot. If you’re a federal employee or contractor, neighbors will suspect you’re scamming the taxpayer or selling state secrets. Remember CIA intelligence officer Aldrich Ames, convicted of spying for Russia in the mid-1990s? One tip-off: His new Jaguar. Here, you can’t even wear the Hermès tie or scarf your spouse bought off Craig’s List without people saying, “Whoa — look at you!” You definitely can’t rattle the neighbors’ windows revving your Jag F-Type R with the supercharged 550 horsepower V-8. (Don’t even pronounce Hermès properly as air-MAY — say HER-meez.)

I get funny looks when I bloviate about cars. I pounce and pore over Car & Driver, Motor Trend and Road & Track the minute they arrive. The Washington Auto Show is a car magazine come to life and lets me see, touch and smell what’s new and trending. More than that, it’s a refreshing dose of the real world for a place many have called “ten square miles surrounded by reality.” Outside Washington, people like cars. Here, we see them as vehicles for public policy.

In the real world, for example, a cafe is a place where you get coffee. In Washington, it stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy, the federal regulations that currently require each car maker to get an average of 30.2 miles per gallon across its line of cars and 24.1 mpg for trucks. Congress passed CAFE in 1975 after the Arab oil embargo jacked gas prices, and set the first average at 18 mpg for cars — the best we could expect from the lumbering land yachts Detroit was launching at the time. Now the CAFE regs are tuned to protect air quality, fight climate change, and reduce dependence on fossil fuel and oil sheiks.

That’s cool — and automakers have stepped up. Advanced engineering has revolutionized cars propelled by the century-old gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, squeezing a lot more mph and oomph out of the mpg. Even Porsche switched from its legendary six-cylinder engine to a new turbocharged four-cylinder for its Cayman, and it performs even better. Pickups are lighter yet stronger — the macho, market-leading Ford F150 now uses “military grade aluminum” instead of steel for the bodies. Hybrid gas-battery cars are commonplace. All-electrics are next. Not just the $100,000-plus Teslas. The new $30,000 Chevy Bolt (after rebate) has wowed the car magazine gang with quality build, advanced driving dynamics, and a 238-mile battery range, putting Detroit ahead of its Japanese and German rivals.

Today’s more efficient cars are still great — which matters more to the car lover than the Washington crowd. Let’s look at some other ways we see cars differently, brand by brand.

GM, Ford, Chrysler

What car lovers see: The new Mustang! The new Camaro, Charger and Challenger!! The new Corvette!!! Well built, powerful, ergonomically smart, and a thrill on the twisty roads. The new Cadillacs are pretty sweet, almost nearly but not quite competitive with the Germans in luxury, fit, feel and finish (too much shiny black plastic and chrome bits that cheapen the interiors). Even the new Buicks no longer belong to the blue-hairs. Detroit is back!

What Washington sees: Detroit doesn’t mean cool cars, except maybe the Presidential state limo (a modified Cadoo). Detroit means Obama’s post-recession bailout, the clueless auto execs who flew on private jets to testify before Congress, the buy-American drive to support American workers, and Ralph Nader’s auto safety jihad that surely saved millions of lives. To Washington, Detroit means regulation, tax incentives, highway funds, labor issues, worker retraining … the list of policy issues is longer than a Beltway ramp at rush hour.

Volkswagen

What car lovers see: Fahrvergnügen across the fleet, led by the legendary GTI, the pocket-rocket hatchback with the solid German thunk to the doors and trunk, quality interiors, race-track handling and altogether driving pleasure. All for less than 30 grand.

What Washington sees: The VW emissions cheating scandal, tons of dirty diesel fumes hurting our children, and billions in billable hours for regulatory and class-action attorneys.

Toyota

What car lovers see: It’s a struggle. You have to look past the toast-dull Corolla, Camry and most other models that either lack any noticeable design, or Franken-stitch together design cues from other makes (gaping grilles). Or redefine ugly, like the Prius, which looks like anime origami fever-dreamed by Japan’s Fujitsu K supercomputer — and styled to please other computers — while the humans were at lunch. But your consolation for the ennui is the Toyota 86, a throwback to the two-seater sport coupes like the old Datsun 240Z, and also less than 30 Grovers. Nissan has the same problem as Toyota — a few brights in a dreary fleet. So do Hyundai and Kia, in spades, but at least they’re cheaper. Mazda shows them all how to make solid, attractive, quality cars that are affordable and a blast to drive, engineering what they built and learned from the stirring Miata (MX-5) roadster into their entire fleet, even economy cars and SUVs.

What Washington sees: Obama’s important or horrible (depending on your view) Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, designed to create the world’s largest free-trade zone. Obama called it crucial for American jobs and industry. Trump called it a disaster for American jobs and industry and executive-penned us out of it. One gripe with the pact: Labor and others claimed that Toyota and its Japanese brethren got a better deal — they’d be able to make cars for America with parts from Asia and still get the tariff deductions. Japan’s auto makers are wise to look at cars the way Washington does — as a policy issue. Doesn’t hurt that Toyota opened plants in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia to create local jobs.

Subaru

What car lovers see: Nothing. We can’t see Subarus. Or if we can, we don’t get the appeal. Sure, they’re good cars. But they’re not much to look at, or especially comfortable, interesting or fun to drive. They’re no more affordable, rugged or dependable than the other Japanese makes. To its credit, Subaru was first among the few economy cars with all-wheel drive — making it the Official Automobile of the State of Vermont — and still stands out in that market. The Forrester, Outback and even the “luxury” Impreza and Legacy sedans also exude a flinty, no nonsense New England sensibility, and the Yanks do like to show off their modesty. Volvo used to fill that need and niche, but they’ve gotten too fancy. (Quick trivia aside: Who owns Volvo? That’s right — Zhejiang Geely, the Chinese car maker. Who owns Jaguar and Land Rover? Yep — Tata of India.)

What Washington sees: Suburus everywhere, especially in DC’s northwest quadrant where the policy wonks live. Here, “wonk” is not a gig on smart but clueless pencil-necked geeks who love to make rules for people in the real world they’ve never met except as numbers on a spread sheet. Here, “wonk” is a badge of pride. The local American University even builds its brand and marketing around the term. “Describing experts, thought leaders, and Washington insiders, the word was a perfect match for the AU community — smart, passionate, focused, and engaged individuals who use their knowledge to effect meaningful change,” AU explains.

Subaru is the perfect expression of the Washington wonk ethos. Not to mention the first choice for the earnest, intellectual, New York Times-reading, podcast-absorbed, locavore gluten-free non-GMO lactose intolerant vegan or pescatarian (as long as the fish is farm-raised and free-range). Their bumpers declare for Bernie or Her and how we should Coexist. They drive slowly and deliberately, uncertain and timid, further choking traffic and fueling road-rage but unconcerned because they’re driving responsibly and by the rules as they should.

Double all of that with the Prius (“the Latin word for impotence,” a character on 30 Rock says). Prius is the car for people who really hate cars and want everyone to know they really hate cars and also that they don’t care for people who love cars. But we should Coexist.

Right there — that’s why car lovers and the Washington crowd are different. We either don’t like or don’t care about cars. To grossly generalize, Republicans want to drive their living rooms in comfort. Democrats are simply uncomfortable with the very idea of the automobile. Independents, of course, are ambivalent. What unites us is that we’re all on the phone, texting or helicoptering our kids the whole time we’re driving. Who has the time or bandwidth to notice how the car handles?

All that said, much in jest, the greatest thing about the Washington Auto Show was not the cars. It was the much needed festivity on a cold, grey February Saturday — the families that packed the convention center, the lines waiting to sit in the Corvettes, the kids climbing in and out of the cars and SUVs, the babies planted behind steering wheels for cute pictures.

Car love does exist in Washington. We just need to embrace it. It’s ok. Not everything needs to be a policy issue. Sometimes it’s just fun.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington communications professional and writer.

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