I've been distracting myself lately with more cars. You don't have to know the finer points of the engineering specs in order to identify them, so that's what I've been doing. Sort of like in WWII, they used to train plane spotters to ID different kinds of craft by silhouettes, only with cars it's far easier to start with the headlights.

Human brains are built to recognize patterns, faces are some of the most important patterns to recognize. We are social animals, and our ability to interact is heavily dependent on not just identifying who we're talking to, but what expression they're making. I learn best when I hang new stuff on old stuff that has a similar shape, so I've pretty much gone with trying to recognize cars by their 'faces' The headlights become eyes, the radiator grille the mouth, and the end of the hood something like a nose. This is a textbook example of pareidolia, by the way, and I'm not the only one who does it -- my mother bought her Accent partly because she thought it 'looked happy', and the guys on Top Gear are prone to mocking bad design choices by trying to make the same face the car is.

Of course, it also helps that most manufacturers put the badges smack on the front of the car. And on the back. Some of them look annoyingly similar from a distance, but nothing's perfect.

I had a lot of people give me the side eye when I told them where my current apartment was; I gather that a generation ago, this was the wrong end of town. Nowadays, it's pretty much Affordable Student Town, right off the edge of Yuppieville. There are a bunch of reasons I drew the conclusions I did about the neighborhood -- things like 'all the young people milling around are carrying student-y bags and look as if they have somewhere to go' and 'those people just stopped their child from throwing crumbs at other people in Dunkin Donuts in a sane way that did not involve howling or smacking anybody' -- and a really big one was the local population of cars.

You can tell a lot about a neighborhood by what's parked on the street. There will inevitably be a few beaters anywhere you go, since someone's always got a 17-year-old that can't be trusted with Daddy's Infiniti, but I've only seen a couple out here. There are three, maybe four, second-hand car dealers within about half a mile of me. They're all full of 3-5 year old Toyotas and Hondas, and 5-10 year old BMWs and Audis. I don't have loads of details on these things, but I do have a rough idea of the pecking order among the biggest half-dozen car manufacturers, mainly what they cost and what the average person thinks about them. The people out here can't afford to splash on intangibles like a big name badge on a brand-new car, but they are on the ball enough to buy a reasonably quality car once it's been whacked with the depreciation stick a bunch of times. The closest thing I've seen to a car that would have been a POS even when new is the Hyundai Elantra I keep catching at the Stop & Shop.

They take pretty good care of their vehicles too; it's rare enough to be noticeable when I walk past someone making that unbalanced-washing-machine GUG-GUG-GUG noise at a light. I realized earlier this week that since I've moved here, I've never once been awakened by that ear-rending squeal that means either my neighbor has taken up skinning live piglets as a hobby, or he needs a new fan belt, something that happened regularly when I lived in a college dorm.

There are a few models I can recognize now, right off the bat. Mainly they're Mazdas, since that's what Moggie was looking at. The new noses they've put on all their things look like some kind of cat-shark, in a variety of moods. The Mazda3 and Mazda6 are pretty neutral, but the MX-5 looks mischievous, and the CX-7 van thing looks like an angry cat-shark. (An angry pregnant cat-shark, corrects Moggie.) Toyota and Honda each have their own style of headlight covers; I think the Civic ones are kind of cute, for what they are. Newer Altimas have these odd little fingers sweeping back towards the wheel well on theirs; I don't have any idea why, although the first thing that comes to mind is trying to piss off someone who has a large stockpile of knockoff Nissan headlights, as the otherwise-useless detail would prevent the regular ones from fitting.

I occasionally know just enough about the different brands to be surprised when one of them breaks character somehow. I was tromping down to Cambridge a couple of weeks ago when I was passed by a Fiat Panda hatchback going the other way. I don't know whether I was more surprised that someone had a Fiat that wasn't a 500 -- so far as I know, the only thing they bother selling in the US anymore -- or that someone had a Fiat that actually ran.

Then there was the day I was walking down Broadway and saw someone loading stuff into a tiny, low, dark blue coupé with a lot of glass down the back. It had butterfly doors, which you almost never see on the kind of production cars normal mortals buy. My whole brain twitched when I checked the badge on the front and saw it was a Toyota. Seriously. Toyota makes reliable family sedans whose selling points are things like 'hasn't needed many transmission repairs' and 'upholstery stands up well to dog vomit'; I didn't even know they knew what butterfly doors were. My best guess had been that it was something Nissan derived from one of those terrifying little Datsuns -- which by the way are still on the road, and still look like something that should be driven by a guy named Sammy who can get you any stereo equipment you want as long as you don't ask too many questions.

The new cars I see out here start at about Altima SE level, and go up from there. I assume they're coming in from one of the more affluent suburbs north of us, or from Cambridge. Someone out here has a Bentley. I thought it might be a Mercedes at first, or a high-end BMW, as they also sometimes use the distinctive twin round headlamps, but no. It's got the long blunt Bentley nose (Bentley noses are nearly flat at the front; the Germans taper theirs down in a sort of rounded wedge), because when you have that kind of money to spend on a car, apparently the laws of aerodynamics no longer apply to you.

So far the Mitsubishi Eclipse is the only car I've ever seen that doesn't look absolutely ridiculous in metallic sunset orange. Why the hell do people keep painting cars that color? Do they think the GPS will give them better directions if the satellite can achieve a visual lock from orbit?

The Porsche Cayenne is just as puzzlingly ugly in person as it is on TV. Someone near Inman Square has a black one. It's not good at being a Porsche, it's not good at being an SUV, and it's really not good at being attractive. It looks like a hearse from the back. I was watching someone's Let's Play of a James Bond game in which one of the vehicles is a Cayenne, and as the player drove the damnable thing up and over curbs and lumpy mountain roads, all I could think was, 'You know, I think Jeremy got stuck on one of those'.

Someone else in Cambridge also has a BMW Z4. I don't know what model year it is, but it's painted that Ferrari red color that just says, 'I am having a midlife crisis. Please select a moving violation at random and pull me over for it, you'll probably be right'. It looks like two different designers took charge of the bodywork above and below the beltline and forgot to have any conversations about the back window until it was far too late, and now they're just hoping no one will notice. If you're going to spend that much money on a car, it should give you the irresistible urge to pet its fender before you start it up in the morning; that one's just a bit awkward and mostly boring. There's also a Chrysler Sebring convertible around here somewhere, which bears an unfortunate resemblance to a small Fiberglas boat.

Comments

  1. "as the otherwise-useless detail would prevent the regular ones from fitting" that drives most model to model detailing differences. Most manufacturers a part only fits a single year or +/- one or two years. The difference may be that one corner is bent in or out a quarter inch or it may be a quarter inch wider than last years. A bloody pain in the arse.

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    1. I had a feeling that was it. It's not an unattractive detail, it just looks like it's an intentional pain in the ass. I do know that some manufacturers use the same basic chassis design for several models, so some of the parts are interchangeable, but the Nissan Altima is somewhere near the top end of the middle-tier "family sedan" class -- it's probably not worth trying to lock third-parties out of, say, Sentra repairs, but if someone's coughed up for a new Altima SE, they're likely to also cough up for OEM parts, or whatever the equivalent is for cars. The next step up from there is to start looking at Infiniti models, and at that point you just figure it doesn't matter, as they'll have their personal assistants calling the service center anyway.

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  2. Someone imported a Toyota Sera to the US? And it's nearby?? Coooool.

    There's also at least one AZ-1 in the Boston area, judging by how it shows up at the Larza Anderson Cars & Coffee show on occasion.

    Hooray for weird, low volume, tiny Japanese coupes!

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    1. EIther they're local or they have a soft spot for the Hispanic/Brazilian market down by Sullivan Square. The Sera must be on its third or fourth owner by now; the driver didn't look any older than the car, if that.

      Someone out near Highland Ave and McGrath has a soft top Mini. It looks like someone commissioned a roadster from Duplo. Convertibles are not supposed to look soft and cuddly, with big friendly protrusions for chubby little fingers to grasp.

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  3. I may have to find an excuse to be in that area

    Sports car 100% should look soft and cuddly. I mean, you saw Emma. Sports cars don't need to be all sharp edges and implied aggression. Silly butched up testosterone replacements..

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    1. There's a difference between being soft and curvy, and being designed for small chubby uncoordinated fingers. The Mini convertible looks like someone has inadvertently made a cartoon plushie into an actual car. The proportions are all weird.

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