This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue.
Throughout Hollywood's golden era, glamorous women were synonymous with glamorous cars: Think Rita Hayworth posing demurely at the prow of her Lincoln Continental (a gift from Orson Welles) or Elizabeth Taylor and her Continental Mark II, custom painted to match her violet eyes (a gift from Warner Bros. for her role in Giant).
Flash forward: Ellen DeGeneres tears around L.A. in a silver Porsche 911 turbo ("I love to drive fast -- that's why I married a Portia," she joked on her talk show). But her love of hot cars is tempered by the fact that Cameron Diaz, Julia Roberts, Kate Bosworth, Kirsten Dunst, Rachel Bilson, Emily Blunt, Natalie Portman and many other Hollywood women have been photographed entering or exiting the driver's side of a … Toyota Prius?
"I can't tell you the number of women who come from that world that still buy the Prius," says Tara Weingarten, founder of VroomGirls, an L.A.-based website devoted to women and cars.
Is basic -- albeit green, reverse-chic -- transportation like the Prius or Nissan Leaf really what women want in a car in this famously fashion-centric town? The answer lies somewhere between the testosterone-fueled Testarossas favored by Hollywood alpha males and Paris Hilton's notorious pink Bentley.
"I think women care a little less about what car they drive," speculates Lake Bell, the actress and screenwriter (and former car reviewer for The Hollywood Reporter). "Even as an avid car enthusiast myself, frankly, I find this an admirable quality. After all, women are historically accused of overanalyzing their choices."
Weingarten divides Hollywood's female car buyers into two camps: those indifferent to what they drive and those who see cars as an extension of their personal style.
"Women see a car as akin to a handbag or shoe -- it's another accoutrement, like a Chanel blouse," she says. Color can be a dealbreaker: Weingarten knew a Hollywood executive who, when told it would cost $6,000 to substitute the color she wanted on a BMW X5 SUV, bought an Audi in that color instead.
"My feeling is that women go not for status but what looks good to them -- it's just a matter of figuring out which car fits their personality," says entertainment attorney Debbie Von Arx, who drives a Lexus RX 400h hybrid SUV.
According to Weingarten and other observers, Hollywood's dominant "chick cars" include the Mini, Prius, BMW X3 and similar compact SUVs. Mercedes and Lexus win over the more sports-oriented BMW because of their softer rides and gentler handling. The Mercedes C-Class, Lexus ES and other entry-level luxury models are favored by creative executives and publicists who don't want a car as pulled together as they are to outrank the rides of their bosses or clients.
The Porsche Cayman emerges as a favorite among women who can pull off a full-on sports car. "It's small and sexy and has these big hips -- it's really hot," says Weingarten. "Nobody looks bad driving it." Meanwhile, expect to see more Hollywood women behind the wheel of an Aston Martin: The storied British carmaker is in the midst of targeting upmarket female drivers.
Unlike men, who tend to be slavishly brand-loyal, women often are willing to switch. Melanie Cook, a partner at Ziffren Brittenham, drove the same Mercedes E320 cabriolet for 18 years until, on client Barry Sonnenfeld's recommendation, she purchased an Audi A7. "My old car didn't even have cupholders, so this was a big step up," recalls Cook.
Bell recently discovered the ultimate specification for a Hollywood status vehicle: scarcity. "I now have a car I always imagined cool friends of my older brother drove: a cream 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser, complete with the perfume of gasoline upon accelerating," she says. "It's the ideal car to drive to an event in L.A. in a sea of predictable luxury cars. I win valet every time."