A vehicle's looks are still the key issue in car ownership — we have to live with it on a daily basis, so it needs to appeal.
We spend weeks comparing new car performance and prices... then fall for a shiny one.
The road to new car ownership is paved with good intentions.
We've come to a decision, or at least a shortlist, based on hours of research, in-depth discussions with colleagues and a focus on the fundamentals such as fuel economy and safety ratings.
Then we walk into the showroom and see it in the flesh and that shiny, seductively styled car appeals directly to our ego. Bugger the budget, pragmatism can take a back seat.
"We're not rational creatures," says Australia SCAN social analyst David Chalke. "If we were, we'd all shop at Aldi."
And we're certainly not shopping in the bargain basement bins. Sales of sub-$80,000 sports cars — by definition a discretionary purchase — are up by 34 per cent this year.
Chalke says a vehicle's looks are still the key issue in car ownership — we have to live with it on a daily basis, so it needs to appeal.
The fact we each have a unique perception of what constitutes beauty explains the variety of car styles sold.
"We have an inherent appreciation of aesthetics and the car embodies that," he says.
"The car is a statement to you about yourself and a statement to the world about yourself. It is beautiful yet a carapace (shell) that helps to protect us from the wicked, evil world."
There's a caveat to that: sometimes the best-looking (and it's always subjective) car isn't the smartest buy. Some are downright impractical, some are too pricey and some aren't that fun to drive.
Here's our pick of the good lookers.
First car: Suzuki Swift, from $15,990
The Swift is a cult car, partly due to its smart use of a small space and partly for its clean design. They're popular simply because the sharp, uncluttered lines are backed by a sharp, uncluttered driving experience. Toss in the premium for reliability and this is one little car with a deserved big reputation.
Baby cars: Fiat 500, from $18,000
The retro-styled bubble from Fiat is a hit with the fashionistas. It's a bubbly car in every sense and appeals to inner-city dwellers who appreciate its flair and ease of parking. The fact it can be colour-co-ordinated inside and out doesn't hurt either.
Small cars: Mazda3, from $20,490
The Mazda3 proves that being good looking improves your popularity. The 3 combines an easy to identify exterior design with simple, logical and stylish interiors that feel more upscale than most competitors. The overall impression is of a car worth more than the price — and that always massages the ego.
Small SUVs: Renault Captur, from $23,990 drive-away
The Captur was the consensus vote in this category. Well-proportioned and svelte with a contrasting roof that makes it stand out in the traffic, it's loaded with French flair. The colour-matched interior inlays add individuality.
Mid-sized SUV: Volkswagen Tiguan, from $31,990
If minimalist interpretation is your thing, the Tiguan is a good example of a modern SUV. It combines the functionality of an SUV with well-executed design. The basic box has been given enough flair to flatter and is an inviting proposition when combined with the premium interiors on the top-spec models.
Large car: Chrysler 300, from $55,000
The king of bling is a bit more subdued this generation but the "Mafia staff car" proportions haven't changed, with massive wheels to offset the big body and a low, swept-back glasshouse. It's a niche product — Chrysler sells fewer than 40 a month — but no one can deny it has presence on the road.
Prestige small car: Mini, from $29,000 drive-away
The default choice for individualisation, all Minis have a mesmerising array of exterior and interior choices. The only real limitation is your imagination... and your bank balance.
Prestige car: Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe, from $65,900
Widen the hips, erase a couple of love handles and lower the silhouette of the C-Class and you have the C Coupe. The curved roof is a minor compromise for rear passengers but sometimes you go with form over function and in every other regard this premium coupe is a stylish piece of design at a reasonable price.
Prestige SUV: Jaguar F-Pace, from $74,340
The Evoque broke the trend when it came to SUVs, then Jaguar launched the F-Pace, a soft-roader inspired by the F-Type sports car. A stunning silhouette and an interior that is well thought out and presented.
Limousine: Mercedes-Benz S-Class, from $220,955
The S-Class refuses to be a big box. Couple this with its heritage as an exceptional flagship and it's an attractive proposition. Few cars at the price can match the interior, with cushiony headrests, swathes of perforated leather and attention to detail.
Cheap sports car: Mazda MX-5, from $31,990
An enduring and winning formula of purist driving characteristics and simple interior in a cheap but contoured convertible. Mazda's less-is-more MX-5 is a retro-styled but far from retrograde basic sports car.
Dream car: Ferrari 488, from $469,988
Purists may decry the 488 as not being as svelte as its 458 predecessor but the vastly improved aerodynamics also enhance performance. The coupe is stunning and the hardtop spider convertible only improves on the look. The interior is more entertainment than ergonomics.
Our esteemed European correspondent has some dissenting views, read the full article on CarsGuide.