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Tuned in to VIP

Valley thirtysomethings tired of their tricked-out Civics are trading up – to modified versions of the luxury brands their elders used to drive

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: Arizona Republic, June 10, 2007


At first glance, the Lexus and Cadillac parked outside the Rockford Fosgate headquarters in Tempe look like any other luxury sedans you might see trolling around Sun City – that is, if Pimp My Ride had just done a special on your grandparents’ hood.

Clearly, there have been some body modifications done to both cars – the $1,500 deep dish wheels on the Cadillac are an immediate tip-off. But they’re tasteful and subtle, the kind of upgrades a young driver might conceivably be able to talk grandpa into. Cool styled doors on the Lexus that still attentively match the classic lines of the original; fenders that flare without flaunting.

But take a seat inside Zach Luke’s Cadillac CTSV or buddy Jake Braaten’s Lexus GS 430, and you immediately realize these are not even your father’s towncars. Custom-fitted with an arsenal of high-end speakers (over two dozen on each car), dashboard video screens and mega-watt amplifiers, the cars literally blast the news that it’s a new generation behind the wheel.

“When I’m in here, I listen to pretty much strictly hip-hop,” says Luke, the stocky 32-year-old marketing director for Rockford Fosgate, the Valley-based manufacturer of high-performance audio systems, behind black wrap-around shades and a few tattoos. “Just because it’s the bass. It’s the music that’s most bass-heavy – and that’s the one thing that really shows this system off.”

Jake Braaten, who works with Zach as the company’s director of new product development, says he and his pal are part of a new trend in the tuning subculture called VIP. Already big in Japan for years, where the word for the subculture is “bippu,” VIP is where the Fast and the Furious crowd has gone to grow up. Well, sort of.

“All the people who grew up customizing Honda Civics have kind of matured, so now they’re into Lexus or Mercedes or BMW,” says Braaten, 34 years old and, like Luke, married with children. “They’re older, some with families now, and better jobs. But they’re still car enthusiasts, only they haven’t turned into muscle car fans. They’ve simply moved up to luxury sedans.”

But they’re not going gently into that good night. A kickin’ audio system is still important, no matter how many angry looks you may get from your neighbors.

“Now that I’m a homeowner myself, I try to be respectful to the neighborhood,” insists Luke, who says he’s been hooked on monster car stereos since age 16, when he worked at a grocery store right in front of a car audio installer. “It’s not like I sit out in the driveway and hammer on the speakers. But yeah, I’ll get on ’em at a stoplight, if someone pulls up blaring theirs. There’s just a joy you get from it. It’s that beating-on-the-chest thing.”

Luke and Braaten have a significant edge in the noise department, being able to utilize their personal cars as showcases for the hottest audio systems offered by their company, which last year netted over $135 million.

“That definitely helps,” admits Braaten. “I mean, these cars each have probably $20,000 in audio and video equipment in them. How many people can afford to do all that?”

But even in that particular category of VIP styling, the modifications are, in their own ways, classy and subtle. The enormous set of woofers in the trunk of Braaten’s Lexus face into a fiberglass enclosure, which contains and directs the audio waves up through a wide opening behind the back seat – more like an efficient home entertainment cabinet than an asphalt-shaking low rider. Luke’s Cadillac has its rear speakers hidden behind suede panels with classy leather inserts, with custom tweeter pillars built into the window frames.

In the VIP scene, it’s all about making the modifications “presidential” – not pimped.

“I like to keep everything as factory as possible, so it doesn’t look as if it doesn’t belong,” Luke explains. “It’s all about keeping it tasteful.”

Neither of the guys race – that’s a relic of the import tuner scene the more mature Veep crowd has apparently left behind. But they both like to meet up with others in their exclusive clique behind the ASU football stadium, where the informal club’s been dubbed Lot 59.

So far, the bippu scene hasn’t quite caught fire in America, despite the ongoing attempts of U.S. enthusiasts to popularize it on these shores. Some of that may have to do with Japan’s choice of cars as “pure” prototypes: bosozoku boss favorites like the Toyota Celsior and Nissan Cedric don’t jibe with the American suburban experience.

“I’m pro-American,” he says, “so for me, it had to be the Cadillac.”

Still, both he and Braaten are prepared for the next fad, if and when VIP becomes yesterday’s scene.

“It sounds funny, but you get bored with the car – no matter how much you put into it,” says Luke, who estimates he’s gone through 20 vehicles in his 16 years of driving. “You’re always trying to get the newest car, to be the first to lift it, or lower it, or put the $20,000 system in it.

“Because it’s the guy who does it first who gets all the attention,” he adds. “And I don’t care what anybody else says: the only reason we do all this stuff is to get attention!”

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