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Losing the Youth Market

I could hardly believe what the young woman filling out the rental car forms was telling me about the problems she was having with her lease car.

I could hardly believe what the young woman filling out the rental car forms was telling me about the problems she was having with her lease car. The 2003 Pontiac Grand Am had numerous problems, and the selling dealer was unresponsive. GM, she claimed, deferred everything back to the dealer. And her attorney discovered the car had been damaged and repaired before it was leased to her. A lawsuit might follow. But that wasn’t the bad news.

“I won’t buy a domestic brand ever again if I can help it,” Sara said. This from a woman just 25 years-old, who will probably lease or buy more than 12 new vehicles over the next 50 years. And here she was, less than 10 years after getting her driver’s license, emphatically telling me she would never buy another domestic car. And the reason went beyond the problems with her Grand Am.

Previously, she had rented cars at one of the largest Ford dealers in Michigan. “I got to see how the dealer treats his customers,” she explained. Though a perfect candidate for a Focus, its warranty concerns cooled her ardor. But it was the way the dealer treated his customers that decided it for Sara. Cars in for extended service went back to their owners dirty and without so much as a nod from the service manager. New cars were washed on-site, and the buyers given the cook’s tour. “All they cared about was the sale,” she remarked. “I want to be remembered after the check clears.”

Curious, I asked her what cars were of interest, expecting her to immediately name three or four Japanese models. “I like the new Saab 93,” she said, adding that the incentives and zero-down financing brought this car—something that otherwise would be well out of her comfort zone—within reach. “But my dad thinks I should look at the Mini Cooper.” This despite the fact that my Mini had just been towed in due to a fault in the wiring harness for the electronic throttle. It was the reason I was sitting across from her. “The car’s really cool, fun-to-drive, and the company and dealer take care of you,” she said. I wasn’t feeling especially chipper, despite the free rental, but the view from behind her desk was much more pragmatic: Cars can break. Things go wrong. Who will stand by me?

Inspired, I spoke with several friends and acquaintances in the 25 to 35 year-old demographic, and heard similar stories. Nearly 100% of the time domestic automakers came out on the short end. And more than a few foreign vehicles were sold when the attitude of the dealer staff rubbed these folks the wrong way. Even though I discovered that no dealer was perfect, and that more than a few of the dealers handling Japanese cars were jerks as well, they chose to buy the foreign car or truck anyway. A superior quality reputation, they felt, meant their time in the service area would be minimized. And that often was enough to sway their thinking. Plus, European and Japanese vehicles had an acceptable image with their peer group. Domestics did not.

You might want to remember this the next time Marketing pushes performance parts as a way to reach the youth market, or the folks from Dealer Relations say there’s little they can do to help the situation. You won’t even get considered if you haven’t got the product, or don’t act like your reputation rides on the hood of each and every vehicle you produce. There are a lot of young men and women like Sara out there, and it’s apparent that with them you only get a couple of chances—at most.

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