More Older Women Are Driving Luxury Cars – And Here’s Why
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With more financial and personal freedom, older women are driving luxury car sales. Anne O’Hagan gets behind the wheel.
What is a car to you, anyway? Is it a glorified shuttle bus or a gleaming chariot, your office on wheels or your getaway car? Does it reflect your values, declare your status or simply transport your precious cargo? The role of a vehicle morphs over the course of your lifetime, as does your relationship with it. And if you’re a woman for whom baby seats and carpooling are squarely in the past, a car can be something else entirely—it can be a luxury.
Increasingly, women today are choosing to buy themselves luxury vehicles, and by doing so, subverting tired, old perceptions. It makes sense. Perhaps you’ve divorced, your children have flown the coop or you’ve downsized. You’ve worked hard, you need a change and with some new-found financial freedom, you develop a fresh perspective on…yourself. If you’ve arrived at a point where it’s less about what you need and more about what you want, then you may be ready for a test drive. This way, please.
I like to drive and do so a fair amount, but like many women I’m semi-oblivious to what’s under the hood. I actually Googled “transmission” to write this story; it’s all about looks for me. As for luxury cars, I know very little beyond the unmistakable sound of a Porsche in my driveway. What I do know is that luxury is not just conceptual when it comes to cars. While automakers market their brands as sensory experiences that leave deep impressions, the luxury quotient in a vehicle is measurable—and not just based on price.
Tangible luxury takes the form of premium materials, notable comfort, clean lines and smart design. Space is a luxury (i.e., legroom) but then so is a two-seater sports car that’s just big enough for two. Signifiers of luxe can be subtle: Audi’s ventilated seats (what woman wouldn’t love that?); Mercedes’ ambient interior lighting with a choice of tints. Or they can be in your face: the starlight feature in the Rolls Royce Phantom that lines the roof of your car with tiny fibre-optic stars or Tesla’s Model X falcon wings. As Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader.com, says: “Modern luxury pays attention to details but ultimately doesn’t care what logo is on the trunk.”
Luxury does have a way of announcing itself. The day I cruised up to the entrance of the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto at the wheel of a Lexus RC 350 the colour of cherry Coke, the valet attendants’ eyes lit up. It’s a car with an aggressive vibe. Driving it, I felt like I’d joined the cast of The Fast and Furious. Too long to be a sports car, too racy to be anything else, the RC 350 is a “sports sedan” with a 6-cylinder, 3.5 litre engine, 6-speed transmission and all-wheel drive. It accelerates quickly with a palpable power, its leather seats embrace you as you’re enveloped by the premium sound system, but this is a guy’s car—real life Hot Wheels —and as much as it impressed me, I was missing the conceptual side of luxury, the sensory experience—the female kind.
From Audi, I requested a TT partly because I’d coveted its minimalist chic lines for years, partly because I’m not alone in that: women apparently love it and I wanted to know why. When my test drive was confirmed, however, I was assigned an R8 instead, Audi’s top-of-the-line vehicle. This sent me into a test drive tailspin as I tried to imagine myself commandeering a true super car worth $180K, even reviewing what I’d wear for my maiden voyage. It was a jaw-dropper for the men in my life—they couldn’t wait—but confusing for me: in terms of categories, the R8 is beyond luxury. I wondered about the women who buy them but didn’t get far. Nor did I get far driving it. When I went to pick it up, I was given a TT after all. Back to reality, I slid behind the wheel of my elegant Sepang Blue Audi TTS Coupé whose engine, unlike the R8’s, is discreetly tucked away, not on display through its rear window like a trollop.
That weekend, escaping the heat of the city, I found myself winding my way through the forests of Muskoka on a stretch of freshly paved back road. The car’s attributes, a 2.0-litre TFSI engine and 6-speed dual-clutch transmission (0 to 100 km an hour in 4.9 seconds—not that I tried), made the drive feel like a gift. I loved everything about the TTS from its powerful grip of the road, thanks to Audi’s signature Quattro system, to its ultra-obvious blind-spot detection, its flat-bottomed steering wheel with shift paddles to the user-friendly retro round cooling fans, even the sound when you turn it off: “Bud-um.” If you’ve got anything larger than a pocket dog, however, a caution: my retriever had to ride shotgun (which she was okay with, by the way).
Like many women, I associate the freedom of movement that driving affords with independence. A luxury vehicle just intensifies that feeling. Whether it’s fast, sleek or solid, it seems to elevate your basic requirement for mobility to a sense of empowerment—all the more so if you’ve chosen it for yourself. It’s not surprising then that at a J.D. Power Automotive Forum in 2014, it was noted that the motivation for buying a luxury car had shifted from a “look-at-me display of wealth to a self-reward for achieving success,” said Michael Bartsch, VP of Infiniti Americas. “Conspicuous consumption has shifted to self-reward.”
Last summer, Sarah Ferris, owner of the Ferris 360 gym in Toronto, picked up her new Porsche, a 911 Turbo S cabriolet, from the factory in Stuttgart. Then she and her boyfriend did a proper motor trip around Europe before shipping it home. With her daughters grown up and her business thriving, she’s at a stage where she wants to enjoy her ride. When I ask about practicality, she just laughs. “Who wants that now? Besides, you can get so much into a convertible,” she adds with a wink. “I picked up a shipment of 15 new kettle bells [roughly 235 pounds] and drove them to the studio in my Porsche. I just went very slowly.”
If you spend a lot of time in your car for professional reasons, the self-reward of luxury comes full circle. Susan Toyne, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International, recently replaced her 2013 Mercedes Benz C300 4Matic with a 2016 model—that’s how much she loves it. She looked at BMW but found the Mercedes to be more current in its styling, both inside and out. And given her 24-7 work life, it’s an investment that makes sense to her. “It’s actually quite affordable given the brand and level of luxury,’ she says, noting the 7-speed transmission, turbo 4-cylinder engine and remarkable gas mileage. It’s also dead gorgeous.
The first summer night I test drove the 2017 C300 4matic Coupe, I cruised down Toronto’s Don Valley Parkway with the panoramic sunroof open to a crescent moon listening to Beyoncé’s Formation on the Burmester surround sound. Smooth, super responsive yet quiet, the transmission, which is configurable, was set just right. The C300 comes with a dizzying array of features that could overwhelm you, but the top 10 luxury essentials are there, including parking assist, rain-sensing wipers, blind-spot detection, adaptive brakes and hands-free access. The interior is a stunning pearl grey leather with dark wood trim, its silhouette is elegant and it’s just a superb drive. I’ve heard disparaging comments about Mercedes of late—hard to fathom after driving this delight.
Not everyone wants a sports car, though. Perched up high, commanding a clear view of the road, can feel safer to some women. Audi, BMW and now Jaguar all make luxury SUVs with that in mind. But what about the emissions they produce? Can they offset my carbon footprint anxiety? Enter the Lexus RX450h. This huge, gleaming crossover (combining aspects of a car and an SUV) runs on two sources of power, gas and electricity, letting you do the right thing for the environment. Vaguely menacing in appearance, the RX450 looks like a mythological creature poised to attack. But in stop-and-start city traffic, it glides along demurely on battery power, emitting nothing more than a small, satisfied sigh as it comes to a stop.
If low emissions and good mileage aren’t enough, the RX450h also helps you drive better—increasingly, the true measure of a luxury vehicle. Lexus’s advanced cruise control system adjusts your speed according to surrounding traffic, and its pre-collision system detects other vehicles in your path. Get too close, and the system will automatically apply the brakes to slow you down. Once the lane clears, the vehicle will accelerate back up to the pre-set speed.
Just about every luxury vehicle is a computer on wheels now. It’s just a question of degrees (and dollars). When I drove the 2017 Subaru Outback with a technology package that comes standard, I discovered that it’s actually a luxury car in disguise. Subaru drivers are ultra-faithful to the brand for its handling in winter conditions, its multiple airbags and 5-star safety rating. But the 3.6 Touring Outback is also seriously kitted out. Features include pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and lane-keep assist, steering responsive fog lights and—my favourite—the clever little whistle that lets you know the vehicle ahead of you has advanced while you’ve been looking at your phone. So smart, so necessary.
Subarus are like the Birkenstock of car brands: not sexy but exceptional value for quality.
Some women have no interest in driving around in their asset, while others revel in the power, style and design of a well-made vehicle. But if you’re going to drive at all, you might as well be happy and safe—the truest luxuries in life.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!”, p. 68-71.