Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wasted youth

The consensus take on the North American International Auto Show seems to be that it expressed a sense of relief as much as anything. After several angst-filled years, the Detroit show offered a view of an industry returning to stability and normalcy. The new products on display - crossovers galore, big powerful lux sleds, experiments with electricity - all indicate a renewed faith in the market and a desire to get back to the good times now that the crisis has generally been weathered.

Photo: Joy Van Buhler
The flip side is that everyone is still playing it super-safe within existing trends and not really looking at any new niches or opportunities. And most absent from those displays is any indication that the industry as a whole plans to do anything - or knows what to do - about its very real youth-market crisis.

If "youth market" can be construed as "inexpensive, mostly basic cars," then okay, there's a bit of shimmer thrown into the mix at Cobo: the Toyota Furia is an attractive and promising update of the offensively dreary Corolla, the Nissan Versa Note holds down the super-cheap end of things with a bit more class than its sedan sibling (which has the worst interior of any car I have ever sat in bar none), the Dodge Dart GT adds a helpful dose of power to its Alfa underpinnnings...that's about it, though.

None of these likely do anything to move the needle (or LED display) on anyone's want meter. And two small sedans and a basic hatch hardly indicate any sort of movement in the face of the multitude of slick crossovers on display. (Honda's Gear up in Montreal was something else entirely, but again, why was it up there instead of in Detroit?)

This passivity comes after some very public (and borderline embarrassing) hand-wringing about what is to be done about the troubles selling vehicles to those oh-so-fickle and tricky Millennials, the neo-Baby Boom that occurred between 1982 and 2004 and which will make up the core of the new-car market in the decades to come - and who have as a group shown about as much interest in cars as they do in full-sized stereo gear or skilled-trade careers.

Taking a pass on this issue is maybe tolerable right now as the market situation continues to stabilize, but reckoning is soon due. And it's going to be a very interesting reckoning because the problem is both sociologically complex and has been allowed to fester for a very long time.

As I see it the Millennial car debacle exists on two levels. Yes, there's the perennial issue of selling a specific product in a competitive market, but there's also a really scary subtext here: Most teens and twentysomethings think cars are boring.

Not that single specific cars are boring. Cars in general are boring.

I don't blame them, even though that sounds terrifically wrong. I think that a lot of us who are so emotionally invested in speed culture usually don't appreciate how the "normals" relate to vehicles or the ways in which understandings about wheels develop for 95% of the population.

Think about what a typical kid has been through, vehicle-wise, over the past few decades. Representations of cars in the outside world seem to cluster under three headings: status symbols for ballers and reality-show stars (common if distant), antisocial drift machines for a suicidal lunatic fringe (marginal but noisy), and most immediately the everyday tasks of the modern family (inescapable). Maybe the neighborhood weirdo down the street had a crusty old MGB in the garage, but lots of bad vibes accompany that whole zone. 

The "everyday tasks" one is the important one. A car to most people is a way to facilitate the perennial dullness of adult responsibilities. It's a commuter pod, something designed to sit in the slow crawl of traffic along major intracity arteries on the way to an office job or discount-shopping supercenter or other menial destination of some sort. Some are flashier, but all pursue the same essential ends.

So you tangentially associate "car" with "dreary office existence" or "family management chores". And what makes up most of the traffic in between the places where that stuff happens? If you're in your teens or twenties, the only vehicles you've likely ever known are deathly boring creations. The family hauler was likely a crossover or SUV, which is almost by definition ponderous and numb and not much fun to drive. If it wasn't an Explorer or a Highlander or a Tahoe, it was something like a Camry or Taurus. Maybe the car Dad drove to work was smaller, but it was still usually pretty bland.

So a lot of kids were never directly exposed to machinery that was at all compelling, and so missed out on a lot of potential enthusiasm. But: Internet! Video games! Whatever magazines are still left for the kids who know where to find a bookstore! (Dorks.) And internet!

Fair up to a point, But you can't drive a Web page. Even the best video games are incapable of simulating even a comfortable afternoon cruise in the ways that your inner ear and soul appreciates. The experience - basically the whole real point - is missed completely.
Not a car. Illustration: Wikimedia.org
Then there's what gets featured in those pixelated representations in the first place: Paganis, Koenigseggs, this week's Lamborghini Gallardo variant, Nissan GT-Rs and Porsche GT3s. The unobtainable. The exclusive-in-the-bad-sense. Stuff that should require an FIA license and does require a race track to drive at anything approaching their physics-class limits. And which does nothing to promote cars as anything more than a fantasy adolescent interest that should soon get put away with other childish things, if that.

So, big umbrella task for the car companies: convince kids and young adults that cars aren't boring. More importantly, convince these people that cars can be both fun in and of themselves and a very valuable complement to other kinds of fun, that the world cannot truly be known through a DSL line and engagement and involvement and immersion is thrilling and valuable. By the way, private transportation is absolutely great for doing this.

How to change a broadly held opinion? Basic human sociology stuff, mostly. Be positive and outgoing and agreeable. Don't pander to a group whose respect you want to earn, don't condescend their developing attitudes. And please don't depend on marketing and lifestyle-study teams to make up what isn't there.

Because there isn't a lot there right now, which is the second part of the problem.

Millennials think cars are boring because all they ever see in real life are boring cars designed to do boring things. It's a product problem. It's not about marketing what's there, it's not about PR and sponsorships, it's about making cars that are innately appealing to twentysomethings. And that's where the huge disconnect has happened.

And the worst part for car companies is that this is not a new thing. This is a strategic decision that was all but specifically made long ago and never corrected. Automakers don't know what to do with millennials not just because they're a bit inscrutable, but because they've regularly dismissed the youth market for, literally, decades.

I don't think it's an intentional attempt to deprive the market of fun cars. Part of this is sociology, part is accidents of history. Obviously the collected numbers and spending power of the Baby Boomers still loom large in every automaker planning session even as that much-heralded group dodders off to retirement homes and the great beyond. The demographic gulf that follows - me and my fellow Gen Xers - didn't warrant as much attention, and really still don't by those criteria. And we suffered neglect as a result. Simultaneously, the multiple effects of the Malaise - not just the choked engines but the general attitude of driving as something less than socially conscientious - punched a huge hole in auto enthusiasm in the '70s, and correction was a long time coming.

Personal testimony: I grew up in the Eighties in the Midwest - Illinois, Minnesota, even suburban Detroit. Cars were great for scooting around our suburban wasteland existences, but deep-seated gearhead attitudes were scarce. The smart and ambitious kids gravitated towards rapidly-developing computers, the mechanical heads towards Reagan-era advanced military gear, the antiestablishment types towards postpunk rock.

Which makes some sense. I started really getting into cars around model-year 1985 as a sort of outgrowth of my fondness for military aircraft, helped immeasurably by a healthy stack of Road & Track magazines lying around my granfather's house. (My Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment is still probably the August 1984 cover with the new Ferrari GTO.) But what was available in 1985 to someone of average means who had no clue or care about family responsibilities? Honda had just released the CRX. Porsche's brilliant 944 was marginally within reach. The Mustang was on the comeback trail after years in a sort of funk. Hot hatches were a burgeoning field, taking basic platforms and boosting them to near-respectability.

But a lot of the magic was gone. Convertibles verged on extinction. (Alfa Romeo ran ads calling the Spider the "Last of the Red Hot Sports Cars.") Serious engines would redevelop as computerized fuel injection improved, but that was a slow process. The shift to front-wheel-drive gave handling feel a big dose of Novacaine. Something had shifted.

Fast-forward about twelve years. Assume that you're a graduate of a good college, class of 1995. You scored a decent job in a somewhat soft economy. After a year as a junior account manager or the best saleperson at the microbrew supply company or something, things were looking good and it was time to upgrade from the old Buick Century that your great aunt had passed along as a graduation gift and get some fun wheels. What's out there for someone who enjoyed driving with a budget of about $25K in model-year 1997?

Honda had the revised Prelude; corporate sibling Acura had the Integra. Nissan's 240SX had just changed to its grumpy Kouki face. The Ford Probe and Mazda MX-6 twins were still out there; you had to deal with the name on the first one and know the second even existed. Ponycars? The Mustang GT was in a bit of a boring phase with the Crown Vic modular V8, the Camaro/Firebird was excessive if exciting. The Diamond-Star Talon and Eclipse were compelling despite a rep for being a bit shoddy.
Photo: SarahNaomi
That was about it. It's not a long or varied list. Some of the stalwarts were missing or had undesirable replacements: The Civic Si was on retreat, and the del Sol was hard to take seriously. Volkswagen was having a serious identity crisis and the contemporary GTI was lackluster, BMW's 318ti was fun to drive but remarkably unattractive, and everything else from Germany was out of reach. Toyota's Celica was a nice car in desperate need of another 50 or so horsepower. I'm about ready to say that the Miata doesn't even register as a "youth" car given how it was and is mostly driven by British sports car vets with gray hair around their ears and Beatles vinyl in their basements.

Even more telling: go back to that rundown. Those were not new cars. Each had at least one preceding iteration in its history, usually dating back to the late Eighties. And more importantly, many - the Prelude, the 240SX, the Probe - would soon be cancelled. This was not a sector full of ambitions for carmakers.

As profits from SUVs and upmarket sedans began to light up sales reports, the sports-coupe/GT/fun car sector suffered neglect. Sure, you want to put the effort towards the paths that will lead to the greatest rewards, but a bit of long-term thinking and broader market consideration is never a bad thing. That's why the traditional Japanese makers continued to develop their small and midsized sedans as Detroit was seduced by SUV profits, and that's how they weathered the late-2000s storm much better than Detroit.

Another consideration: It's not that our enthusiast in 1997 was truly deprived of options, either; they just tended to be old. Any number of seriously good, vivacious, compelling vintage machines were available back then for well under that $25,000 limit: 356s and longhood 911s, Alfa GTVs, Sixties Mustangs, Alpine A110s. What you lost in somewhat reduced comfort and increased maintenance requirements you gained back in style, feel, and a certain attitude.

Think about those vehicles. Realize that the original Mustang is still the quintessential youth-market car: it looked good, it drove pretty well, it was passably practical. (Famously, the fraternity brothers that Ford invited to its clinics insisted that the rear seat be big enough for comfortable make-out sessions with dates. It was.) It may not have been an E-Type, but it did the two things that its Baby Boomer prospective customers most appreciated: It was good in iteself, and it made it possible to do more fun things.

That's not an age-specific preference. That's why they were still compelling in the face of blander modern machines in 1997 - and why they still are today, although in many cases prices have appreciated beyond reach or reason. And there is no reason why those same lessons can't be recognized and applied to modern cars.

What do modern carmakers need to do to attract young buyers? Simple: Make a car that is fun to drive and easy to own. Period.

Yes, the modern emphasis on connectivity must be served somehow. That's probably the easiest and most obvious part of the whole process. More important is finding a way to escape from the endemic seriousness and self-restraint and bourgeois stuffiness that afflicts the entire new car market.
What makes a car fun? It's not just styling, because otherwise the Hyundai Elantra would be the perfect twentysomething-mobile. It's not practicality and frugality, or else the crown would go to any number of Toyotas.

This is not a call for a new Scion. Toyota's youth-oriented brand is an interesting though ultimately incomplete effort. It seems to rely more on fad-chasing and trendy options than in making lively cars. Underneath the appliques and stereos they're still bland. The tC could have been the next BMW 2002; instead, it seems like it's trying to be the baby 328i Modern Line, all businesslike and reserved and subdued in spite of itself. A youth-market car needs to be more than that, even if Scion does share rights to the one truest example of the idea available today.

It has to be something innate, something essential. You don't add "youthfulness" to a car; if anything, you take stuff away until you get there. A good fun car something that facilitates experience and enjoyment, and it doesn't do that so well with a hundred pounds of soundproofing and blind-spot sensors.
A real youth-market car is a Mustang or an original Mini or an original Golf/Rabbit GTI or an Integra GS-R. Or the FR-S/BRZ, which in its reasonable price and moderate power and everyday usability and exceptional handling completely nails the idea. Those are your youth-car templates. Those are what this is all about. Nothing exotic, nothing magic, nothing unknown. Yes, directness and feel might be compromised a bit at first in these DSC and SRS and EPS days, but those can be sorted out and overcome with enough attention. The automakers just have to want to do this, and keep wanting to do it long enough to make up for a long drought.

A great youth-market car is not one with a "like" button; it's one that people like.


  1. This brings up a ton of good points that all are extremely valid and applicable to the market today. I was born in 1995 and am growing up currently driving daily a toyota highlander hybrid and sometimes my dad's commuter 6mt Jetta Diesel. So I guess here's my impression of the situation, as the whole so called "millennial culture" is something that I came of age on and will continue to subsist on for perceived relevancy. There needs to be a large cultural shift and a change of attitudes amongst teens and twentysomethings about what it means to like a car. Too often I see that people my age who are into cars are stigmatized as passionate yet shallow at best, and uncaring and ignorant about the earth's problems at worst. However, the general population of young people, irrespective of geography, seem to have a mild interest in cars, at least more of an interest than the recent article in Road & Track would have you believe. The automobile as a cultural object is still an alive concept, albeit horribly interpreted by most modern OEM's. Young people seem only to be emotionally connected to cars that can be easily mentally digested and compartmentalized, like a person. The more complicated a car and brand's image is, the less attachment the person has to it. If manufacturers want kids to grow up and buy cars en masse, they need more than just flashy marketing for a brand, they need an identifiable, iconic, pigeonholed product. This seems logical, yet the entire concept of "the car as a smartphone" that is so championed by companies as the new direction, runs completely contrary to this. A car can't be everything at once like a tablet, it needs to provide a singular, un cluttered experience. Car companies can use this to re ignite passion by advertising it as a tool to refocus our lives in our hectic schedules. Sell the car as a tool to live to the fullest extent, and you have your demographic in the bag.

  2. Ford Focus ST
    Ford Fiesta ST
    Subaru WRX
    Mitsubishi Evo
    Mazda Speed 3
    VW GTI
    Ford Mustang GT

    All of these fall into the same $25k in 1995 vs now range.

    I am a millennial and I just purchased one of these cars. I am, however, a car guy. There are however, cars designed and marketed towards the millennial. I know of three gals that purchased a Honda Fit, so they must be doing something right...


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