If you think a vehicle is nothing more than a way of getting from Point A to Point B, try trading in a new Porsche Panamera for a melon-green Smart Car.
As a sociological road test, I decided to do exactly that. The Porsche is the kind of car you'd expect to see parked next to a hedge-fund-manager's place - a black autobahn rocket with 400 horsepower and a $148,000 price tag. The Smart is the darling of the save-the-planet set - a miniaturized, three-cylinder vehicle with a smiling grille.
My methodology would be a tongue-in-cheek approximation of what author John Howard Griffin had done in a book called Black Like Me. By taking pigment-altering drugs, Griffin had darkened his skin, then headed out to see how he was received. My experiment would be far easier; I could switch identities simply by stepping out of one car and into the next.
Until the Porsche and the Smart arrived, my ride was a faded Honda Accord that let me slip around town unnoticed. Now I was about to experience a pair of statement vehicles. Both said "Look at me," but in far different ways.
The Porsche said I was a rich alpha dog who liked fast cars. The Smart told the world I was secure in my manhood, and that the fate of the Andalusian River Hamster meant more to me than selfish automotive fantasy.
Or so I hoped.
First the Porsche. I tried to be blasé, but the Panamera was crack cocaine on wheels. It thrummed with power, and the cockpit was a leather and carbon-fibre cocoon. I started taking the long way to work just so I could spend a few extra minutes slicing through traffic. My favourite touch was a button marked Super Sport: When I pressed it, the Panamera dropped lower on its suspension, hunkering down like a rodeo bull preparing to burst out of the chute.
After years of passing unnoticed, driving the Panamera was a step into the spotlight at the centre of a grand social stage. When I stopped at the grocery store, a young guy who looked like Kanye West ran up to me and shook my hand. "Brother, that's a wicked ride," he said. "You're rolling in style." Another time, I unwittingly parked in front of a girls' school, and looked up to find a dozen young female eyes trained on the Porsche, wondering who might be inside.
Now it was time for the Smart. In theory, I liked it. It cost about one-seventh as much as the Porsche, and consumed a fraction of the resources. The Smart was a vote for a better, more responsible world. Buying it was like choosing a partner for brains and integrity instead of looks.
As relationships go, the Porsche had been like dating a supermodel with rage issues - the rush had been irresistible, but there was a price. I'd gone through more than $100 worth of fuel in no time, and a serious ticket was only a matter of time. Who knew what a tune-up would cost?
Now I was strapping myself into the Smart car. It had 330 less horsepower than the Porsche, and it was 86 inches shorter. A pair of gauges popped out of the dash like the eyes of a cartoon bug. The seats were covered in striped cloth that reminded me of a teenage girl's beach bag. I clicked on the radio, and a Karen Carpenter song came over the tiny speakers.
In the Smart, I found myself ignored by men and women alike - whatever appeal the Porsche had conferred upon me had evaporated.
As a test, I tried parking in front of the girls' school where the Porsche had drawn so much attention. This time, it was different; I might as well have been the guy who comes to fix the photocopier.
I headed to the office. As I rolled into the parking lot, a colleague spotted me and burst out laughing, as if he had spotted me piloting a go-kart in the Santa Claus parade with a fez on my head. "Where's your dignity?" he asked.
Until recently, he had driven the most decrepit Honda Civic I'd ever seen, so he wasn't exactly Steve McQueen. But now he lorded himself above me on the vehicular totem pole - I had been consigned to a level reserved for men who drive buttercup-yellow Mazda Miatas or New Beetles with fresh flowers in the dashboard vase.
The Porsche and the Smart weren't just two different cars. They were two radically divergent transportation philosophies. The Porsche was James Bond. The Smart was David Suzuki.
Being Bond was more fun, but I had to admit that the Smart had its strengths. I could park it anywhere, and it was brilliant at U-turns. I drove it for three days before the gas gauge budged.
I began to discover the Smart's constituency. Other Smart drivers waved at me - we were pilots in the same, ecofriendly squadron. I found out there was a club you could join if you wanted to trade body panels with other Smart owners. The panels are plastic, and plug into place like Lego pieces; you can change colours with another driver as easily as two girlfriends trading tops.
I came out of Starbucks to find my first admirer, a woman in her late 50s with grey hair and clothes that looked as if they were made out of hemp. She asked me what I thought of the Smart, but I could see that she already knew all about it. Her question was merely an opening for a discussion with someone she assumed was a member of her own tribe.
She pointed to the metal cage that formed the Smart's body: "Everyone thinks they're dangerous," she said. "But look at that Tridion cell."
Hemp Lady and I were soon discussing North America's bad habits. "We can't go on like this," she declared. "Everyone should have a Smart car."
A Cadillac Escalade SUV with a private-school bumper sticker went by, driven by a trophy blonde on a BlackBerry. The hemp lady gave the Escalade a nasty look, as if she had just spotted the Exxon Valdez plowing toward an Alaskan seabird sanctuary.
At least once a day, I encountered someone who was ready to cheer me on because I was driving a Smart. As they saw it, converting North America to small cars was a watershed, up there with the election of the first black President.
Personally, I was all for the small car movement. But driving the Smart on the highway was intimidating. And the trunk really sucked. It was a little grotto behind the seats, just big enough to hold my backpack, my wife's purse and a couple of bags of groceries. Taking my son to hockey was out - the bag wouldn't fit.
Since it had four seats and a hatchback, the Porsche was a little more practical. But it still had its limitations.
Afraid of getting it dinged, I shied away from parking it in crowded lots. The Panamera was a work of art. I winced every time a gravel truck went by. And although it was better on fuel than I expected, the Porsche drank like a soccer hooligan compared with the Smart.
After so many years in a car that no one notices, the Porsche and the Smart were showing me the power of automotive symbolism - and the price to be paid for it.
These were not neutral statements - many people thought they knew me, based purely on what I drove. When I was in the Smart, they assumed I was a whale saver. When I was in the Porsche, they assumed I'd stolen their pension.
"Porsche guys are pricks," one friend declared. Another announced that no straight man could be seen in a Smart.
I had a more nuanced view. If the Smart's trunk had been a little bigger, I wouldn't care what anyone thought about my sexuality. And if people didn't like me because I drove a Porsche, I could live with that.
I'd met some arrogant Porsche drivers, but the car was awesome, and I still had fond memories of Porsches from my father's time in the military, when he and his fighter pilot buddies raced on the runway on summer weekends. Back then, Porsches were a hard-core enthusiast's vehicle, not a mechanical status symbol. To me, some of that old-school cachet was still there.
So what message did I want my car to deliver, if any? My old Honda said nothing, except that I could use more money. But the Porsche and the Smart spoke loudly.
Who did I want to be? I was definitely leaning toward the Porsche. My wife even liked it. But her affection was not unalloyed. As we pulled up in front of my son's school, she noticed one of the teachers staring at us in the Porsche. My wife rolled down the window: "It's not ours!" she announced.
For my wife, the Porsche's statement was too far toward the Master of the Universe end of the scale. But the Smart wasn't quite the right message, either.
What about me? I was still pondering the cars and their meaning, and wondering whether I'd be willing to live with either of them. The Smart wouldn't carry two people and a hockey bag. The Porsche was incredible, but its talents were overshadowed by its price tag.
Despite my life-long love for cars, I've never spent much money on them, partly because of my youthful experience of working as a mechanic; I learned firsthand what it took to keep a high-performance car running.
Although I once came close to buying a Caterham Seven (a sports car so small that it makes the Smart look like an SUV), I've made little in the way of automotive statements.
So when it came to the Porsche versus the Smart Car, I had to make a choice about the car and what it said. The Smart wasn't me. I do want to save the world, but I need to do it with a bigger trunk - and I have to admit that I felt a little cartoon-ish. I preferred the Porsche, but it still wasn't me, if only because of the price tag - buying it would mean selling my house and telling my son he can't go to university.
I will continue with my 1998 Honda Accord - manual shift, no remote locks, well worn. Its statement: Paid for.