What type of car should I buy?
July 31, 2017 9:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm a professional photographer whose car factors into my clients' first impression. Help me hit the sweet spot between "I bought this in college and I just do photography on the weekends," and "I'm charging you waaay too much."

I just made a post here asking if my (very) old car was making me look unprofessional. I regularly meet clients for the first time in the parking lot of the photoshoot location, next to my old car. I live in a rather affluent area near a large (American) city, and many of my clients drive cars that are considerably more expensive than mine, and chat about their latest trip to Paris. There were a lot of great answers to my question, and one of the main takeaways was, 'I wouldn't want to see you in a beater, but I also wouldn't want to see you in a sports car.' Also, 'An old car would imply to me that you are young, just starting up, or doing this as a side job. A sports car would imply that I'm paying you too much, and I wouldn't trust you.'

So my question now is, if you were pulling into a parking lot for a photoshoot with me, what type of car would say to you, "solid, established business professional who I trust is competent and successful, but who isn't charging me too much?"

The intent of my question, rather than deciding precisely which make and model of car I should buy, is more to get a general idea of people's perceptions towards different cars and to see if any general consensus emerges towards brands and types. I'd really like to hear what specific details/brands/types would make you raise an eyebrow, whether they be too far on the cheap side of the spectrum or too far on the expensive side.

posted by quiet_musings to Work & Money (34 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You want a clean, presentable, totally unremarkable sedan. Like, the goal with cars (IMO) is to own a car that says absolutely nothing about you. I've owned a Honda Civic and a Toyota Camry, and assuming they're in good condition and not obviously ancient, those are the kinds of cars you're looking for. Anything similar will do ya – a Sonata, a Malibu if you want to buy American, etc. Grown-up cars.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:01 AM on July 31, 2017 [12 favorites]

Would you be using the car to also haul your equipment? If so, I'd say a recent-vintage Subaru would fit the bill nicely. Solid upscale "sensible" car with decent cred with the upper classes.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:01 AM on July 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Prius seems like a good choice.
posted by monologish at 10:01 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think something reliable and functional for hauling equipment, but not extravagant, like a Toyota Rav4 would make sense.
posted by primethyme at 10:02 AM on July 31, 2017

I'd go Subie as well, but maybe a Forester or Crosstrek... even if you never ever have a client that might want you to drive where a little ground clearance would be good, I think any photographer could benefit from a little ruggedness in their image.
posted by Huck500 at 10:04 AM on July 31, 2017 [3 favorites]

Smaller SUVs, like the RAV4, Honda CRV, Subaru Forester, or Mazda CX5 are perfect for this. They are practical, you can load plenty of gear in them, they get decent gas mileage, and they don't draw attention to themselves.
posted by plastic_animals at 10:10 AM on July 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

Seconding Prius or Crosstrek. For what it's worth, a photographer friend drives a late model Prius. She likes the car a lot . . . but swooned when she saw the Crosstrek in that hyper blue color. Both seem to give that vibe of artsy sharpness but with dependability/reliability.
posted by cyclopticgaze at 10:18 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yep, I also immediately thought Subaru.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:18 AM on July 31, 2017

I also immediately thought Subaru. An Outback, specifically.
posted by HotToddy at 10:27 AM on July 31, 2017

(I see that some folks here are suggesting SUVs. Since you're near/in a big city I'd be cautious about that – I know a lot of people who give big-city SUV owners a whole lot of side-eye. Unless you're towing a boat on the regular, stick to a normal car.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 10:29 AM on July 31, 2017 [4 favorites]

Agree with above. Something like a Honda Fit, a Prius, or a Subaru says you are responsible and sensible, and if they are newer models this would convey that you have enough money to be able to buy or finance the purchase. I really like those Crosstreks, too. Sporty but in a hiking kind of way. They cost more but the people that buy Subarus are also investing wisely in a vehicle that will last and can perform well outdoors, so I think that when I see one.
posted by LKWorking at 10:30 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Something like the Honda HR-V hits the line between car and SUV while being more compact and city-appropriate.
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:40 AM on July 31, 2017

I think a Prius or Leaf sort of takes the car out of the conversation - those are practical vehicles that say more about your environmental interests (or desire to drive in the HOV lane) than anything else.
posted by mosk at 10:40 AM on July 31, 2017

Depending on your budget, if you're looking for something a bit more fun for yourself, an in-warranty GTI is super practical and super fun and is plenty professional looking and carries some creative cred.
posted by ftm at 10:43 AM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Mazda CX5 if you want to look a little more tech-forward than the RAV4 or CRV. Or maybe the Mazda3 hatchback if you want to spend a little less.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:44 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think a minivan is the totally invisible vehicle. Can carry everything. Also (conveniently) inexpensive.
posted by Jesse the K at 10:46 AM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Much of this depends on your audience, and the area of the country where you live. For example, real estate agents in West Coast cities very, very often drive luxury cars. There is a status thing attached to real estate for some reason. In that industry, image is everything and competence equals looking like you make a lot of money.

If your audience is high end, you charge $2,000 per day, or you're one of those photographers that rich people hire to fly across the country (or the world) to photograph their wedding, buy a luxury car, because your audience expects it.

To answer the question more directly, many cars have some (often ridiculous) over-generalization for some people:
* Luxury car (Lexus, BMW, Cadillac, Infinity, Mercedes, Acura) - You have money or are trying to look like you have money
* Prius, Leaf, Volt, Bolt - Liberal, environmentalist
* Tesla - Showoff with tech money
* Subaru - Liberal outdoors person (or just practical if there's ice and snow)
* Pickup - conservative, blue collar working person
* Giant SUV - Suburbanite
* Minivan - Soccer mom
* Sports car - midlife crisis

If you have a very high end or difficult audience, buy a luxury car. If you need a pickup, buy that. Otherwise, any nondescript sedan or small SUV would probably work.
posted by cnc at 11:03 AM on July 31, 2017 [5 favorites]

I don't think it matters too much what brand or type of car you have, but it would probably be best for it not to be obviously dated (so maybe less than 10 years old(?) or as new as you can afford). And I'd suggest it be black - harder to keep clean and shiny, but I think at least a little more classy/impressive than any other color when it is, which may be important given the description of your clientele. The color may actually help overcome at least part of a deficit in age or downscale model.
posted by ClingClang at 11:08 AM on July 31, 2017

Fellow photographer here. My only suggestion is to get something with a trunk. Keeping your equipment safe is more important than your car, IMO.
posted by girlmightlive at 11:14 AM on July 31, 2017 [10 favorites]

Honda Fit, about 5 years old, slate grey with a sticker about art or design. Economical, flexible for hauling or any of the rest of your life needs...

Oh, crap, on preview, yes you need a trunk for security. But for some reason my thought is a non-SUV.
posted by aimedwander at 11:16 AM on July 31, 2017

Consider a hatchback for ease of gear-hauling in a compact, city-friendly vehicle. My VW hatchback has an insert that conceals the contents of the trunk. A VW Golf made in the last decade would go unnoticed easily around fancier cars, but not be out of place in other areas, if that's a concern too.
posted by a moisturizing whip at 11:18 AM on July 31, 2017

Honda Fit. Cheap, economical, small enough for a city, space to haul equipment. Says exactly what you are trying to say.
posted by greta simone at 11:21 AM on July 31, 2017

Go buy a Kia Soul.

It's properly useful for transporting camera stuff in the back, not too expensive, easy to get in and out with it's slightly raised ride height, very economical in Eco mode, stands out a bit if you want to put a magnetized business logo on the side, and in a rarity these days, comes in some pretty cool color combinations.

The Soul says "Hey I can afford a car for my business" which give people confidence that you are running a successful business and no one would look at you sideways for any reason for driving one as an aspiring photographer.
posted by lstanley at 11:52 AM on July 31, 2017

I would expect something a bit out of the ordinary, something that makes a statement. That's what I would expect of work produced by a professional photographer and, as you say, your car makes the first impression. So I'd go with an appealing sedan, probably European: a Volvo, a late Saab, perhaps even a VW. A Mercedes or Audi or BMW if you're so inclined, but it should be a more unusual model or a classic.
posted by DrGail at 1:15 PM on July 31, 2017

FWIW, after our SUV got broken into, the guy who came to replace the broken windows (yes, plural) said that 95% of his business is SUV's because there's nowhere to hide anything. So I agree with a sedan since you'll have expensive gear in the car and you need a trunk. Anything newish with a big trunk should be fine. My Ford Focus had a huge trunk, my Honda Civic did not (though it was a hybrid, maybe that made a difference) so definitely measure trunk space when you go shopping.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:28 PM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

To be clear, the theft issue with an SUV is that you can see the stuff, not that it's better protected under a sheet of metal. With trunk releases and/or fold-down seats in every vehicle these days, all that matters is whether a potential thief knows or thinks they know something of value is in the trunk.
posted by wnissen at 3:26 PM on July 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Yep, a late-model Japanese, Korean, or possibly American sedan is what you're looking for.

Anything older than ten years, no matter how well-maintained, gives off a vibe that you're a hoarder who can't let go of the past. (Says the guy who until a few months ago drove a 96.)

Hatchbacks are ok, but they give a budget-conscious vibe to me, and I don't think it would be a good option for a photographer with gear to lug around.

SUVs say either that you're a wealthy suburbanite, or your parents are wealthy suburbanites who handed their old car down to you when they bought a newer one. The exception is the Honda CR-V, which seems to have become a default for people in their late twenties and early thirties (like what a Civic is to recent grads).

Anything European will register as too fancy, except maybe a Jetta.

Hybrids send a message about your personal beliefs. If your clients share those beliefs, fine, but I'm willing to bet not all of them will. The question becomes, is that a conversation you want to get into with a client?

A Subaru is a good car, but they tend to run more expensive than comparable cars, so if cost is a concern for you, I'd pass.

The good news about sedans is that you have a ton of options, and many are quite affordable. Personally, I drive a 2014 Corolla, and I love it. I smile every time I drive it. I've rented Hyundai Sonatas several times, and that was a really enjoyable car to drive, as well. The Honda Accord is one of the most popular cars in the US. And I've been seeing a lot of Chevy Cruzes recently. I don't know anyone who drives one personally, but they look nice and they're obviously popular.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:07 PM on July 31, 2017

I'm not sure why kevinbolt thinks Subarus are more expensive than comparable cars; I think the numbers show it's just the opposite. I drive a Legacy which is pretty tricked out, very comfortable, and professional appearing (with the leather seats). It's about 80% the price of most of its competitors. The trunk is huge, so plenty of room for gear. The back seat has its own heat/cool system, so if you're driving more than one person somewhere, it's comfortable. It has keyless entry, so you can keep the fob in your pocket and still open doors and the trunk, which is handy if you're carrying a lot of gear. It's easy to park with rearview camera and radar sensors that let me know if someone is coming up from either side or behind (handy for backing out of parking spaces). It has cruise control that matches the speed of the car in front of me, my favorite feature. It's a really nice, affordable car.
posted by Capri at 11:42 PM on July 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Another fellow photographer here...depending on the shoot I need to haul lighting gear, C- stands, and 9 foot rolls of seamless background paper, so a sedan is not an option for me. YMMV.

I drive a late model Jeep Grand Cherokee. It looks sharp, but not too pricey and I'm never self conscious about my more well-off clients judging me.

No matter what you choose to buy you should get a commercial photography insurance policy- You've got to protect your money making equipment, particularly your cameras and lenses. Also, my SUV has black interior and dark tinted glass. I cover all my gear in the back with a black sheet and it largely "disappears" from view.
posted by fueling depth at 12:03 AM on August 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

It has keyless entry, so you can keep the fob in your pocket and still open doors and the trunk, which is handy if you're carrying a lot of gear.

I have this, too. It rocks! I consider it a "must have" for photographers or anyone else with a bunch of gear they haul around to do their job.
posted by fueling depth at 12:09 AM on August 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't think a nice car will make people think you are "charging you waaay too much" it is equally possible they will think you are charging them way too little. Just buy the car you want to buy and stop fretting about what other people think.
posted by Lanark at 2:19 AM on August 1, 2017

Arf, sorry to be the contrarian but I gotta say, to pin this enormous purchase on the wagered guesses of hypothetical client opinions is not the best move perhaps. If you don't NEED a new car then don't get a new car. If you WANT a new car, then get one that you are comfortable paying for and will fit your needs. Don't worry about what people think of you.

If I saw a photographer roll up in an old but not duct-taped together car I'd think "this guy has sound financial judgement and isn't frivolous." When I see people driving the flashy newer subarus, prius, etc (the status symbols of my area) I think about their monthly car payment and roll my eyes. I know its judgy but this question is based on judgement, so.
posted by pintapicasso at 3:18 AM on August 1, 2017

I'd buy a recent Ford Fusion or an oldish BMW/Merc type thing depending on what exactly you want to project. (Straight practicality vs. still practical, but a bit upmarket)

Nice things are fine, they just shouldn't be overly remarkably nice. If your target market is the upper crust, though, it doesn't matter, there flashy is good (to a point..a brand new exotic might make even they question your rates)
posted by wierdo at 7:23 PM on August 1, 2017

With the caveat that I never hire photographers, the people I work with and know who deal with clients all drive late-ish model SUVs and pickups. Some of that is practicality (ground clearance and 4wd are required in this work) but a lot of it is just anonymity -- these days, a fairly late model Toyota 4Runner or Jeep Grand Cherokee are basically invisible. They aren't perceived as ostentatious (eg BMW), and don't have the baggage of a Prius or a jacked up pickup. I'd put a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry in that same category -- they don't stand out as flashy and don't have a lot of preconceived notions ("tree hugger," "trashy," "bro") that some other vehicles have.

So if your budget allows, I think anything in that category of a late model vehicle that is mid-priced and is popular will probably work, with tweaks for the area you live in and the people you work with. (Florida will be different than Colorado, say.)
posted by Dip Flash at 5:51 PM on August 3, 2017

« Older Is there a word for only giving people you like...   |   Please help me with my quest for getting a refund... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.