Our generation’s coming of car-buying age should be a cause for hope as automakers look toward an uncertain future. There were 63 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2007, according to an estimate from the Census Bureau.
But we are a generation uncomfortable with our parents’ transportation, survey-takers and market-researchers say. Somewhere between South Park and Barack Obama, we apparently developed something of an ethical streak. We’re concerned about the effects the Baby Boomers’ Yukons and Tundras are having on the places they’re named after. We’re also a bit unsure whether we need automobiles at all.
Automakers know that. The vehicles on display at the North American International Auto Show are smaller, more efficient and more connected than they were even a year ago. Here’s what some companies are doing to catch your eye.
TOYOTA: A STEP AHEAD
According to one study by consulting firm AutoPacific, our generation prefers Japanese cars to American ones. Half of us would consider buying a Toyota. Only 34 percent would consider buying a Chevrolet. That’s in large part due to what Toyota has on display in Detroit: small, affordable cars and small SUVs with a green shine. Toyota unveiled a new Prius, a word that has been almost synonymous with “hybrid” for the last few years. Before the car was revealed, it sat covered with a sheet featuring a cross-section of growing green grass along the bottom. Toyota’s marketing campaign that features a Prius made of sticks and leaves isn’t overtly targeting young people, and that’s what makes it valuable. Still, it’s an attempt to associate Toyota with a cause our generation cares about much more than our parents. Couple that with affordable, reasonably attractive-looking cars, our generation seems pretty inclined toward Toyota.
CHEVY: LIKE A TREE…?
The plug-in hybrid electric Chevrolet Volt has become, in the minds of many, General Motor’s last and best hope. That’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, but the company is putting a lot of resources into a car that it hopes will not only make money but also change its image from a slow, boring automaker into a smart, eco-conscious and fashionable one. Executives have said the Volt, which they hope to have in showrooms by 2010, will be to GM what the iPod was to Apple. GM designers seem to be trying to channel the iPod through the car’s white plastic center console. Too bad Apple doesn’t sell white plastic iPods anymore.
FORD GETS IN ‘SYNC’
The healthiest of the American automakers unveiled a redesigned Taurus on Sunday. Remember the Taurus? That spaceship-like staple of corporate and rental fleets that you crammed into along with your family on vacations? This is nothing like that. Ford’s lineup is in the middle of a drastic makeover, and much of that is meant to make the brand more appealing to young people. The best example of this is Ford’s Sync technology system. Before Sync, automakers only put things like navigation systems and voice-activated cell phones in high-end models. Ford puts Sync in all of its cars, something young people have told pollsters we really like. Ford says it’s soon going to add support for “apps” — think iPhone — to Sync.
A SOULFUL KIA
Nowhere at Cobo is there a more overt and aggressive attempt at reaching young buyers than Kia’s Soul’ster concept. It’s based on the Soul, a small, cheap SUV that looks a bit like those boxy Scions. The people who designed the Soul seem to have bought into the idea that young people raised on Facebook and text messaging need to constantly express themselves, even through their cars. The Soul, like the Scion, will go to market along with an array of accessories like custom rims. Perhaps they’re envisioning a gathering of Souls similar to the gathering of Scions in that strange commercial in which hundreds of cars drive to the desert to hear a strange hooded man proclaim, “It is our differences that bring us together.”