Last November, TCC ran a column by Douglas Flint entitled "What Real Men Drive," in which he claimed real men don't drive macho HUMMER H2s or diesel Ford F-350s; they drive International Scouts and Chevy El Caminos. And if they can't get their hands on one of those out-of-production models, other real-man options include:

Any convertible (the Mazda Miata excepted) as long as the top stays down whenever it's not raining or snowing

Any plain-Jane American four-door sedan (think Ford Crown Vic or Buick LeSabre)

The Jeep CJ series ("pre-Eighties wussification")

Anything with a plow on it

In response to his column, TCC reader Erin Mays wrote a letter to the editors praising Flint on his choices and concluding with, "I'm just eagerly awaiting 'What Real Women Drive' by TCC's CarGirl."

So this one's for you, Erin, albeit three months late.

What is a real woman?

The problem with Flint 's column is he never defines what a "real man" is. He simply tells us what real men drive, as if the car defines the man. If that were the case, according to Flint 's vehicle choices, all "real men" would have battle scars, wear Brut cologne and look like the Brawny paper towel guy, plaid flannel shirt and ax included. Not that any of those are bad things.

Real women, on the other hand, are much harder to define. Unlike lumberjacks, real women are multi-dimensional and complex. They're sophisticated, smart, confident, classy, sensitive, sensual, have more than a little chutzpah, and come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and guises: Think Jackie O, Princess Grace, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, Sophia Loren, TCC's writers and ad sellers.

In a perfect world every real woman would own at least four cars - one for each phase of the lunar cycle. But this being an imperfect world, most real women get by with one (maybe two) vehicles at a time.

Over the course of a lifetime, a woman goes through more demographic (and hormonal) changes than does a man. (Remember Gail Sheehey's Passages?) So it follows that women switch car segments more frequently than do men. Does a man trade in his Porsche for a minivan when he gets his wife pregnant? No. It's the woman who switches cars when the "family situation" changes.

A "real woman" will drive whatever vehicle best fits her current lifestyle and responsibilities. (But when she's 18 she'll drive whatever her parents hand down to her or deem to be the safest car.)

In drastic circumstances, real women have even been known to drive (gulp!) minivans. But you can bet they ditch those vans the day their kids fly the coop. That's when they opt for something sexy and self-indulgent, something that says more about them than the people who share the same last name.

Of course, a real woman is a real woman (RW) no matter what she drives. But when you see a woman behind the wheel of one of the following cars (listed in order of a woman's life stages), you can be 99.9 percent sure you're looking at the genuine article.

Care- and kid-free phase

VW New Beetle Convertible Turbo: Guys like to call it a "chick car" (as if there's something wrong with that), but they're just jealous. Young RWs embrace this drop top for its zippy acceleration, nimble handling, super-wide-opening roof, solid engineering, timeless design, great safety features, and some of the coolest colors under the sun.

BMW 3-Series: The benchmark against which all other premium sport sedans are judged, the 3 offers communicative steering, braking, and handling; world-class powertrains; first-class quality, and distinctive styling. Adding the performance package to the 330i ups a driver's realness factor by ten points.

Burdened -- I mean blessed -- with children phase

Volvo XC90: The antithesis of in-your-face SUVs like the HUMMER H2 and Cadillac Escalade, Volvo's svelte and stylish SUV can do everything they do except tow a house, but does so with air of understated elegance. Loaded with comfort, safety, and kid-friendly features, this Swede leaves a smaller footprint on the planet, too.

Chrysler Pacifica or Mercedes-Benz R350: Part SUV and part station wagon, these corporate cousins combine the aerodynamic styling of a bullet train with the comfort and luxury of a stretch limo. Great for moms who love their kids, but not enough to buy a minivan.

Any European Wagon: Tony Soprano's wife, Carmela, loves her Mercedes-Benz E320 Wagon, and she's nothing if not an RW (albeit a fictitious, TV one). The fact is, most Euro-wagons have more fashion sense than anything in an RW's closet. This includes the Volvo XC70, Audi allroad, Mercedes-Benz E320, BMW 530xi sport wagon, Saab 9-5, VW Passat, and some Asian wagons as well.

Reward phase

See "Care- and Kid-Free Phase" (above): New empty nesters often revert to their preferences; if they loved BMWs in their youth, chances are they'll go for them again.

Porsche Boxster S: The gold standard of roadsters, this drop-top two-seater offers superb balance, sharp steering, beautiful styling, and, of course, Porsche panache. Plus, there's just room for one more. If he looks like speed skater Chad Hendrick, so be it.

Volvo C70: Come spring, many up-to-the-minute RWs will begin draping themselves in Volvo's smart and sexy hardtop convertible. Perhaps the first true four-passenger hard-top convertible, the C70 offers enough rear legroom to accommodate four lower appendages (as opposed to two golf bags), a 14-speaker audio system to beat the band (even with the top open), and lockable storage compartments so you don't have to close the roof every time you run into the store. Oh, and it drives great, too, especially with the six-speed manual.

Sun City phase

Jaguar XJ Series: Silky performance, supermodel looks, classic Jag styling, and a sumptuous interior make this the number one choice for RWs of a certain age. The long-wheelbase Vanden Plas edition ups the cushiness quotient with five additional inches of rear legroom, 16-way power seats, four-zone climate controls, blingy wheels, a heated steering wheel, richer wood trim, real wool rugs, a power rear window shade, and classy wood rear picnic trays. Valet parking attendants rush to park this car. The only thing missing is a chauffeur.

Lexus LS430: My mom's an RW and she's been happy driving the same LS400 for the past 14 years. 'Nuf said.

1959 Cadillac, mint condition: Appropriate at any stage of a woman's life, especially if it's powder blue and has sticky clear plastic seat covers. Much to her children's horror, my mother (again) -- adorned in a beehive hairdo and cat-eye glasses -- drove this very car all through the '60s. Giant fins, pointy-bra taillights, powder-blue paint. Egad! We thought it too obscene to be seen in, so we'd crouch in the rear seats until our neighborhood was a speck on the horizon before lifting our heads. Looking back we realize this Caddy was cool, and our mom was a real woman.


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