||Today's Youth a Tough Sell for Automakers
Automakers have a problem. The kids of America do not want cars.
At least not as much as they used to.
According to research conducted by General Motors Co., 30 percent of them got their driver's license when they turned 16.
For their parents, a car represented freedom -- the ability to escape from parents and go where they wanted without anyone looking over their shoulder.
Today, young people find that freedom online. GM says more than half of those surveyed said they would actually rather meet up with their friends in cyberspace than face to face.
"There's simply new and better and, frankly, more efficient alternatives to communication and getting that freedom that they used to rely on the auto industry to provide," said John McFarland, senior manager for global marketing at Chevrolet, one of GM's divisions.
Just ask Christopher Elkins, a 22-year-old engineering student at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He has a 2002 Ford Focus. But now that he has a place of his own, going out is less important than it used to be.
Last year, Elkins drove his car to school every day. But he decided it was too much of a hassle. So, this year, he takes the bus. Elkins said he uses his car only about once a week to get groceries.
"I would prefer to bike or walk, especially in Ann Arbor," he said.
But automakers cannot write off a whole generation.
According to GM, there are 80 million millennials -- a group it defines as 18- to 24-year-olds -- in the United States. And they already wield a trillion dollars in spending power. Unfortunately for Detroit, they are spending little of that money on cars.
Ever since Toyota Motor Corp. launched its youth-oriented Scion brand in 2002, automakers have been trying to convince kids that cars in general -- and their cars in particular -- are cool. Scion has had some success. The median age of a Scion buyer is 29, the lowest in the industry, according to Toyota. "We don't really think that any brands today are doing it right," McFarland said. "We don't think anyone quite 'gets' this group."
And that includes Chevy.
Talking about life
But McFarland and his team are trying to change that. They started by changing the way they did market research. Instead of getting a group of kids together in a room and asking them to describe their ideal car, GM's designers sat down with them and talked about life -- what they wanted out of it and how they live theirs. GM found that what they really value is their friends and doing things with them. When they did start talking about cars, the designers discovered that, instead of the sporty compacts and cute hatchbacks they thought kids wanted, what they really desire is "a car to do things with."
In other words, they want basic transportation, not performance.
They also found out that these younger consumers are more realistic than they imagined. Sure, their dream car is still a Lamborghini, but what they really want is a car that can take their friends places. They want it to look cool, but they really do not care how fast it is.
So GM began work on a series of Chevy concepts that it hopes will finally strike the right chord with the youth of America -- or at least a significant number of them.
Chevy recently unveiled two of them at the North American International Auto Show, and more are in the works. One is a mini-muscle car; the other looks like a baby exotic. Both are powered by modest motors that promise more fuel economy than speed.
They are "more poseur than doer," said Clay Dean, director of advanced design at GM, who said the company this year will show them and other concepts to young people at auto shows all over the country.
Other automakers also are trying a new approach to attracting younger car buyers. Chrysler Group LLC put some of its youngest designers in charge of the Dodge Dart program in an effort to channel the zeitgeist of Generation Y, according to Ralph Gilles, head of design at the Auburn Hills, Mich. automaker.
"I want you drawing the car you would drive," Gilles told them.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said they got it right, adding that the Dart will be "key" to bringing millennials into Dodge showrooms.
"I think the car has all the requisites to get it done," he said, adding that technology is a big attraction for younger car buyers, which is why there is so much of it in the Dart. "There's no car that's this evolved."
'Smartphone on wheels'
Dodge's focus on technology makes sense, at least according to the results of a recent survey by Deloitte and Michigan State University's Broad College of Business. They talked to 1,500 consumers of all ages in the United States, as well as 250 Gen Y consumers in China and 300 Gen Y consumers in Western Europe, and found most 19- to 31-year-olds want "a smartphone on wheels."
Tasnim Rahman, 19, said that while fuel economy and looks are important to her, what the University of Michigan student really wants in a car is "a lot of modern technology because we need it today. We are very tech savvy, so we need a car that's tech savvy, too."
Nearly 60 percent of the young people surveyed by Deloitte said in-dash technology is the most important part of a vehicle's interior, while 73 percent said they wanted touch-screen interfaces. Most also want to be able to use smartphone applications.
Fortunately for Dodge, the new Dart offers all of that. So do many of Ford Motor Co.'s new small cars.
Moray Callum, Ford's director of design for the Americas, says his research has revealed the same thing as GM's.
"Having a car is not the same priority anymore for young people," he said. "Adults are worried about texting being a disturbance while driving. A lot of kids think that driving is a disturbance to texting."
Ford, too, has concluded that image is more important than performance to younger customers.
"They're all about the arrival," Callum said, adding that this is why Ford has focused so much on styling in cars like the Fiesta. "They still think the car says something about them."
(Source: The Detroit News, 01/16/12)
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