Hummer H2 (© General Motors)Click to enlarge picture

Certain sports cars guzzle down as much gas as the Hummer H2, but owners of large SUVs are often labeled narcissistic.

Excuse me. I don't mean to alarm you. But your car is talking. And I don't mean that husky voice on your GPS system. Instead, your car is saying a lot about your attitude and your personality. Yes, we are what we drive.

Car nuts can admit our rides are a power window into the soul. I may love driving the spectacular Corvette Z06, but I doubt I'd own one. European sports cars have always been more my speed, ever since I defied my blue-collar Detroit upbringing by plastering Lamborghini posters on my walls.

Carmakers acknowledge that minivan sales have gone flat in part because fewer of us, especially women, still subscribe to the "mommy-mobile" image. GM and Ford have given up on minivans entirely, preferring to focus on crossovers instead.

Matter Over Mind
For more than 20 years, Dr. Leon James at the University of Hawaii has researched and taught the psychology of driving. In our car culture, James says, drivers idealize their rides and even lend them human qualities. Under hypnosis, drivers will refer to their car as if it were a friend or lover. In everyday life, owners name their cars and talk to them. And whether the car is racy or outdoorsy, owners seek attributes that mirror their self-image.

"People construct an ideal in their mind of the perfect car, and those attributes are transferred to its driver as well," James said, noting how negatively we associate the drivers of dilapidated or dirty cars. Some of us get so offended we'll deliver a hand-scrawled scolding, strangely written from the car's point of view: Wash Me.

Does your vehicle define who you really are? Voice your opinion!

Whether this driving ideal has much to do with reality is pretty much beside the point. The obvious disconnect is with SUVs, which are forever being shown conquering the wilderness and clambering up mountainsides, even if most owners would hesitate to conquer the curb at the shopping mall.

Car Stereotypes
Speaking of sport utes, we've all seen people go apoplectic at the sight of a Hummer, ascribing all sorts of nasty personality traits to the guy behind the wheel. You might say you're only mad because he's guzzling gas, but I'm not so sure. Plenty of SUVs, or sports cars for that matter, drink as much fuel, but get a free pass. It's the Hummer's commando styling and in-your-face attitude that gets a person's dander up.

During the Ford Explorer rollover scandal, G. Clotaire Rapaille, the French anthropologist and auto-industry marketing guru, asserted that SUV owners were more vain and self-absorbed, and less likely to be community-oriented. As psychology, Rapaille's thesis was carelessly overstated, of course. The charge that an SUV was proof of narcissism could be as easily applied to anyone who buys a Ferrari, a mansion or a designer handbag.

Most of us realize that car stereotypes are just that. Just because Mazda Miatas are sort of cute, and women like them, doesn't mean the guy who drives one isn't manly. More likely, he's secure enough in his masculinity to enjoy his little convertible.

Yet while it's wrong to generalize, it doesn't prevent us from trying. C'mon, admit it: When you see a pickup truck, or a Bentley, it's hard not to speculate about its driver. Especially after they've just cut you off.