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Generation “Why?”

What’s cool today is out of favor tomorrow, and chasing after this chimera is the road to ruin without the proper tools.

Call me a cynic. I can’t help but think that this rush to capture the Gen Y dollar reminds me of the Nasser era at Ford when it was thought that the Internet was the center of the universe and would radically change the auto industry as we knew it. Yesterday’s news, Gen X, was the Internet generation, and we all needed to “know” this potential auto sales goldmine in order to survive. Yet I defy anyone to show me solid examples of how the automotive world was radically altered by this concentration.

True, some brands and car lines made inroads with the post-Baby Boomer buyers, but this is nothing new. Their parents had a similar, if truncated, effect on the post-WW II car market. Baby Boomers affected the market through sheer numbers, and Detroit automakers chased them with clones of winning vehicles. It didn’t take long for the automakers to react and slice into the opposition’s market share as the so-called “Greatest Generation” chased the most self-important.

What did change, however, was the growing influence of imports. Before the Boomers, imported cars were an anomaly, not a market force. Yet the rebelliousness of this generation combined with the specter of Vietnam to produce an antipathy toward America and—by extension—to American corporations and their products. This was the era when no one over 30 could be trusted, the military-industrial complex was seen as some sort of Orwellian shadow government, and youngsters were embarrassed to be American.

(Reflexively, many still are. “Diversity” is their mantra, and a way to express their dissatisfaction with the—I love this term—“dominant power structure.”)

What’s forgotten in all of this is that a good number of the cars designed for youthful Baby Boomers were bought by their parents. Not for their kids, but for themselves. And the design and performance cues of these vehicles made their way through the market to varying degrees. This was followed by an acceptance of imported vehicles by Depression-era buyers, though that process took longer to gel.

The same thing is happening today. Honda’s Element appeals to 40-somethings with kids as well as kids in their 20s. As it rolls out across the country, we’ll see the Scion brand attract youth as well as their elders. The radical xB—which I believe is not a design statement for a generation but rather a vehicle that fulfills the transient need to stand apart of a population segment stuck between adolescence and adulthood—is a blank canvas for yet-to-mature youth, and a go-getter vehicle for suburban moms. The mechanically identical xA has “suburban tool” written all over it, while the tC will cut across demographics. This doesn’t appear to be a Gen Y-exclusive enclave by any means.

What’s cool today is out of favor tomorrow, and chasing after this chimera is the road to ruin without the proper tools. Toyota has done well with flexible plants and a raft of solid pieces on the shelf to create vehicles with high quality and short shelf lives that will get youngsters thinking differently about their products. That is, if Toyota magically becomes hip enough through marketing osmosis to move them into its mainstream product as they age. But the age-old adage, “You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man,” sticks in my mind. Could it be that the real answer is for all automakers to rethink the generational differences and concentrate on reviving mainstream appeal?

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