I hate to be the one to break the bad news to you, automakers, but not every car needs to look tough.
I know, I know. You want people to feel cool behind the wheel. You want them to be empowered. You want them to feel like they can take on the world. I get it. That’s fine. That’s just dandy. But not every car is going to do that. Not every car is a rugged off-road SUV. Not every vehicle is a heavy-duty truck you can use to haul several tons of shit. You don’t have to make it seem like that’s their purpose.
Let’s talk about the Ford EcoSport Active, designed for a European market. This CUV is designed for—as the name suggests—an “active” lifestyle, meaning that it can function both within the city context and out on the trail. But it’s not really a tough car. This isn’t, like, the machine you’re taking for a weekend of hard off-roading. You’re not hauling shit with the Ford EcoSport Active. And yet so many of its press photos are of it cruising through some ominous looking woods—a little spot of cute in the greater, moody landscape.
Now, here’s another good one. A photo of the upcoming 2021 Honda Odyssey. I’ll admit, Honda does know its audience. This is a machine for soccer moms and growing families. This is practicality personified. This is not a car you buy because of its looks or its powerful capabilities. You’re buying it to transport The Kids. And there are plenty of photos that capture that aesthetic, with Honda marketing the Odyssey in front of playgrounds or comfortable-looking suburban homes.
I cannot, however, see this as being the vehicle you’d take to the farm or the ritzy horse ranch. It’s not the car you’re taking out for a night on the town. Why? Because this is not a tough car. But Honda has thrown in those little extras just in case.
Here’s another great example: smart. Is anyone buying a smart car because they want to appear to be Hot Shit? Is this a car that lends itself to the appearance of speed? I truly cannot say that it is. And yet: there it is. The Tough Aesthetic.
That’s not a ding against any of these makes and models—some vehicles just aren’t supposed to be tough. That’s fine! That’s okay! People do admittedly like to see pictures that show the functionality of their cars, but in the case of, say, a minivan, that comes more in the form of “I can fit my car seats in here” than “this vehicle can take me on the trail.” If folks want a family-friendly car that can do that for ‘em, they’re not going to be looking at minivans. They’re going to check out an SUV.
A big part of why automakers market the tough factor is because they’re coming at it from a pretty male-dominant perspective. Studies have shown that, generally, dudes want ruggedness. They are, interestingly, more motivated to buy cars based on emotional factors, like styling and layout, than are women.
Women, on the other hand, generally look for reliability, safety, and affordability. They’re more likely to want to know, practically, what the car will do for them and how it will serve their needs.
So, trying to prove that your car is tough definitely caters to the male point of view. For plenty of makes and models, that’s fine. But for others, there should be a stronger emphasis on, y’know, the features. Only a certain segment of the population is influenced by cool pictures of a car going off-roading. Especially when women are responsible for 62 percent of car purchases in the US and influence buying decisions 85 percent of the time.
If you're looking for a reason why those multi-functional SUVs are so popular, it's probably because they appeal to that middle ground. They look nice and rugged and can do really cool shit, but they're also decked out in safety technology and can comfortably fit three kids and the dog.