Carmakers think style; young buyers look at price first

A Toyota advertisement that ran in Teen Vogue magazine encourages teenagers to “make a pledge to be safe, be fabulous, and always arrive in style.”
A Toyota advertisement that ran in Teen Vogue magazine encourages teenagers to “make a pledge to be safe, be fabulous, and always arrive in style.”

DETROIT — Young, educated, and upwardly mobile, Kristin Winn represents the ideal target for automakers trying to reach young buyers. Winn, a 24-year-old technician for an ophthalmologist, says she plans to replace her 9-year-old Chevrolet Cobalt this year.

She says that she would like to buy a new car that has the latest technologies, like hands-free calling, but that it’s not likely to happen, considering the cost.

“I’ll probably buy used,” said Winn, who is from Ann Arbor, Mich., as she admired the Mercedes and Cadillac exhibits at the North American International Auto Show last week. “I plan to go back to school, so I have to keep that in mind.”


Automakers have been in a race in recent years to woo the most coveted, if elusive, sector of the car market: younger buyers. They have restyled cars, creating sportier versions that are more environmentally friendly, and loaded them with the latest dashboard technology. But despite these efforts, young buyers like Winn say that price and fuel economy are still the most important factors in deciding what to purchase.

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Since 2009, the percentage of new cars registered to buyers ages 18 to 34 has remained flat, hovering between 10 and 13 percent, according to an IHS Automotive analysis of Polk data. And in a recent survey of buyers born between 1977 and 1994 conducted by the global consulting firm Deloitte, 4 out of 5 respondents said cost was the main barrier to owning or leasing a vehicle, even though they were attracted by the new features.

When the transmission on Adrian Jauregui’s 1994 Toyota Corolla died at an intersection in El Paso this month, he quickly found himself among the legions of younger buyers in the market for a car. But, like most younger buyers, he is limited by how much he can afford.

“I’m not so sure I’d get approved for financing” before starting a new job at a nursing home for veterans this month, said Jauregui, who is 20 and a nursing school graduate. He settled on a 2005 Honda Civic.

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said it was no surprise why cost remained paramount for younger buyers.


“The economy still isn’t supporting employment as well as it should, and this is particularly true for young people,” he said. “It’s possible that, as the economy improves, parents could play a larger role in helping get young buyers into cars.”

Still, the allure of younger buyers remains for automakers, who see an opportunity to replace the aging baby boom generation with a new group of loyal customers. The Deloitte survey found that 3 out of 5 young consumers expected to buy or lease a car, new or used, within three years, and nearly a quarter of them said they planned to make the purchase in the next 12 months.

But figuring out what they want is a challenge, said James E. Lentz, chief executive of Toyota North America.

“I think they want everything,” he said, adding that young buyers “are so used to trying new and different things, it’s really difficult to forecast what they want.”

Fuel economy is critical, Josh Pettrey said, as he browsed Ford’s display of Fiesta subcompacts at the show. Pettrey, a 26-year-old HVAC technician from Bedford, Mich., said that his 2005 Ford 500 sedan gets 23 to 28 miles per gallon, but that he would prefer something closer to 30.


“Gas prices are up and down,” Pettrey said, “and I don’t have a ton of money that I can throw out on gas.”