carstory
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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."

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Lexus RC 350, $64,000

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.

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