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How the Auto Industry Completely Lost the Millennials

A veteran auto writer looks at how the world’s automakers got this generation so wrong.
 
 
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Photo Credit: sasa.mutic

 

It’s been a quiet revolution. You might not have noticed (or maybe you have). If you have kids born between 1990 and 1996, there’s a strong likelihood that they -- or at least a lot of their friends -- aren’t driving yet, and aren’t especially anxious to start. The parents get to skate (at least for a while) on things like another car payment, higher fuel bills and an insurance agent who won’t wipe that effing grin off her face as she plans her next kitchen remodel from the commission on the recently engorged premium.

More money in the bank. No worries about the kinds of trouble even good kids can get into behind the wheel. (137 miles per hour in a friend’s ’69 Camaro? Who, me?) More parents sleeping soundly. From where we sit, it's all good.

But this very same phenomenon is keeping the suits awake nights in Motor City. In fact, in motor cities around the globe -- not just Detroit, but Frankfurt, Seoul and Tokyo, too -- all of them were counting on a seamless and continual new crop of freshly minted U.S. drivers who, six or seven years later, would become new car buyers...and then return customers every six to 10 years after that.

I noticed before the economy went south -- and I mean, like seven or eight years ago -- that my kids and their friends weren't terribly interested in getting their licenses. Both now grudgingly say they're going to take the test and start driving. But my daughter is also saying she wants to move to Seattle, bike and take public transport, while my son considers scholarship opportunities at schools in cities where owning a car is simply not practical.

Why has the apple fallen so far from the tree? Not only have I been a car guy since birth; as an auto writer for the last 15 years, there’s been a constant parade of new cars every week for me to drive and review. Beetles to Bentleys, Priuses to Porsches and everything in between. Two a week -- 104 new cars a year. If this had been my dad’s job, I’d have moved my bed into the driveway just so I could look and drool and dream of the day I’d be twisting the key in the ignition. And just about every guy I knew (and half the girls) would be finding excuses to drop by just to check out this week’s rides.

My son thought the Dodge Viper was cool until we had to refill the tank after 70 miles. My daughter demanded to be dropped off two blocks from school rather than be seen arriving in the Rolls-Royce Phantom. They applaud the Prius’ intentions, but find it boring. They worry about making it home in the Nissan Leaf (the car that believes 80 miles on the range indicator minus 19 miles of driving equals 37 miles left to a dead battery) and they want to know why the Chevy Volt costs $40,000 before tax credits. 

Just my opinion, but it's a mixture of things, all coming together in a perfect storm. Even in the Boomer generation, the percentage of true gearheads was small. Most of us wanted cars simply to explore our world and connect with friends. The devices we carry in our pockets now can satisfy a big chunk of that. But they don’t mix with driving.

The gearheads are largely extinct, because today you hot-rod a car by swapping out a computer chip or two. And if you're into the tech side of computers, you know they can do so many better, more interesting things than make a car go fast (make that “faster”...a 2012 Toyota Camry V6 goes from 0-60 a full second quicker than a 1972 Corvette with a 454 V8).

 
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