Three For The Road

Robert Baller is an American everyman. The earnest 40-year-old software engineer works out of his stucco-style home in suburban Sacramento, Calif. He has a wife, a 13-year-old daughter and an 80-pound Labrador. But inside his three-bay garage is nearly a hundred grand worth of heavy metal: a Honda Civic, a Toyota minivan and a racy Nissan 350Z. "The Z is our date car," he explains. That's fine, but isn't three cars for two drivers a bit much? "Some people might think it's excessive," says Baller, "but our friends haven't said anything."

If they have, they're probably scheming to get a third car of their own. These days a driveway that looks like a car dealer's lot is fast becoming the new suburban status symbol. A recent study from the Department of Transportation has confirmed what a drive through any suburban neighborhood would suggest: cars now out-number licensed drivers in American households. Nearly three out of 10 American driveways today are jammed with three cars, up 27 percent since 1999, say Ford Motor Co. researchers. The spare-car craze is being driven by baby boomers in their peak earning years who are taking advantage of all those zero-percent deals to indulge their relentless need to out-accumulate their parents. Boomers are convinced they need a car for every eventuality. Besides the date car, people need wheels for the hardware store (a pickup), vacation (an SUV), soccer (a minivan) and the daily commute (a gas-sipper). "There's also the Costco car," says auto researcher George Peterson. "Because you need something that fits 48 rolls of toilet paper."

Carmakers are giddy at the prospect of a 50 percent boost in car ownership. So they're engineering more new models than ever. There are now 278 different flavors of cars on the road, up 26 percent from a decade ago, according to Edmunds.com. With all those choices, Detroit's new slogan could be "Bet you can't drive just one," jokes Chrysler trend-spotter Dave Bostwick. Chrysler's already doing brisk business in third cars: about half the buyers of the sporty $35,000 Crossfire and retro PT Cruiser drive them as an extra car. To encourage more of what Detroit calls the "occasional-use prerogative," there's now the Hummer SUT with a truck bed fused to the back and the Chevy SSR roadster-pickup.

Even as Americans snap up these new models, they're also hanging onto Old Faithful, since cars are lasting longer now. When a car dealer told real-estate exec Ed Novak his seven-year-old Nissan was virtually worthless, he kept it--and bought a convertible. Now the "spa yellow" Honda is wedged between his Nissan and his wife's SUV in front of their Washington home. Admits Novak: "It was an irrational purchase."

The extra-car imperative is transforming the humble garage. Nearly one in five new homes today has a three-stall garage, almost double the rate of 10 years ago, according to the National Association of Home Builders. "Homes swallowed up by garages are the perfect metaphor for the automobile in American life," says Syracuse University culture expert Robert Thompson.

So, what's next? A four-car family. Tom Dillard is already there. He has a wife, two young daughters, two dogs and 16 wheels in the driveway. The cooking teacher just shrugs, saying everybody has spare cars in his Seattle subdivision: "I'm just trying to keep up with the neighbors." Looks like the rat race is getting gridlocked.

Three For The Road | News
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