Thursday, September 23, 1999

Minivan puts him on road to geekdom

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Yesterday, I was a man. Today, I am a soccer mom.

        I have taken delivery on a minivan and abandoned hope of ever owning a Porsche. I count cupholders now instead of horsepower. I prize keyless entry and cargo space and room for seven passengers. I couldn't be any less cool if I could still squeeze into my leisure suit.

        Minivans are nature's way of reminding you that your salad days have wilted; that you have stopped cruising and started chauffeuring; that the sports car gene has probably skipped your generation. They are the ultimate in utilitarian transport, and the antonym of allure.

        Woe is mundane, middle-aged me. Farewell, Ferrari. Hello, hearse.

        Steve McQueen never drove a minivan. Paul Newman would never drive a minivan. James Bond? Not a chance. Not even when he was played by that double-0 dork, Timothy Dalton.

        Yet here I am: Sliding doors, hauling kids, maneuvering through traffic as nimbly as a coal barge. I have become a past-prime pillar of suburban stupor. Someone said it: if I were any more square, I'd be divisible by four.

Time to grow up
        Parenting is about providing, about priorities, about sacrifice. Sports cars, primarily, are about self-indulgence. Show me a guy tooling around in some flashy two-seater and I'll show you an arrested adolescent whose roof needs repair and whose daughter needs braces. (I don't really believe that, but it's good therapy.)

        Show me a guy behind the wheel of a minivan and I'll show you regret, resignation, mid-life crisis and parallel parking paralysis. I'll show you someone who gets melancholy at the sight of a Miata.

        It's irrational, of course. Performance cars are usually pricey and inherently impractical. Their power is of little legitimate value on roads governed by 55 mile-per-hour speed limits. Their size limits passengers and luggage. Their cost can be considerable. Their upkeep can be unrelenting.

        Impracticality, of course, is part of the appeal. Sports car enthusiasts don't make their purchases on the basis of fuel efficiency, trunk capacity or Consumer Reports reliability ratings. They do it to gratify their ego, upgrade their image, relive their youth and/or flaunt their wealth. They act not on logic, but out of longing.

        Accordingly, sports car advertising seeks to cultivate a mood rather than advance an argument. Here follows the text of a new commercial promoting Audi's snazzy TT coupe: “I will lose myself in the sound of the engine and watch the white lines of the road shoot by me like a million comets.”

        The narration is intended to suggest speed and the open road, to evoke an automotive experience so sublime that the driver is desensitized to surrounding traffic. This may not be the sort of person you want in your carpool.

Caravan, not Corvette
        To become a responsible grown-up, it is sometimes necessary to put away one's toys. The neon beer sign might fit a fraternity house motif, but it clashes with Martha Stewart-shaped sensibilities. Similarly, that snazzy Mustang convertible is not going to get six kids to Inspector Gadget, even after you remove the fuzzy dice from the rear-view mirror.

        So we compromise. We recognize that a lot more of life is spent in gridlock than on the Autobahn. We rationalize that driving is more about ends than means, getting from Point A to Point B in the safest, most efficient manner. We realize we might look ridiculous tooling around with the top down, a cutting-edge car serving to underscore our advancing age.

        So we buy the minivan, and lose ourselves in the sound of children laughing in the back seat. We watch the white lines of the road shoot by and try to remember where to turn for gymnastics practice. We feel the sports car pang only periodically.

        Not long ago, en route to some errand, I chanced to stop at a light beside a sleek, silver coupe.

        “What's that?” my son asked, excitedly.

        “That,” I said, “is a Corvette.”

        “That's sweet,” he said.

        He had a point.

        Message Tim Sullivan at