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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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Their best efforts combining efficient size, contemporary design, competitive quality and connectivity (as in Bluetooth, USB, Pandora, Stitcher) unfailingly ring in at about $24,000. If this generation buys cars, that's this generation's third car ($10,000 used car, $17,000 new car five years later, $24,000 new car seven years after that). But that's 12 years from now. Their target 22-year-old will be 34, with different needs (more seats, fewer subwoofers).

Marketing is calling the same play it has for years: Make the kids want the car. How they pay for it is their problem. But Millennials seem, at least in my experience, to be a lot more level-headed about money and a lot less easily influenced by hype and image advertising. And they’re not engaged with the other side of the make-‘em-want-it coin: Car magazines. Go into a teenage boy’s bedroom in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and you’d find  Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Hot Rod on the desk, floor or bed (please don’t look between the box springs and the mattress…that’s for other magazines).

When cars sucked in the '70s and early '80s, a magazine editor named David E. Davis, Jr. kept millions of readers subscribed to Car and Driver by making the writing better than the subject. It worked because we still cared about cars; we still wanted to own good, even great ones; and these people got that and were with us. They sold us cars mere advertising couldn’t.

But that was 30 years ago. The Millennials aren't invested emotionally. The big magazines are much smaller now. David E. died a year ago in March at age 80 with everyone on the ladder beneath him still trying to be him. Apart from not caring about the subject matter, it's no wonder Millennials never picked up the car mag habit. Meantime, the big online car sites are either more of the same, but with pixels, or trying so hard to be hip that the pieces may as well be (and in one or two cases, have been) written by going to quickmeme.com.

Still, the automakers keep trying to connect with this generation (dismissively referred to as “Generation Why?”). They're now going to non-automotive bloggers and offering them vehicles to review and trips to preview events for upcoming models (including airfare, hotel and meals), hoping that the credibility of a relationship or tech blogger will somehow translate into car sales.

Will it work? P.T. Barnum might think so, but it's also possible we’ve hit the hype wall. Maybe we’ve arrived at the generation that needs a damn good reason to spend 44.9 cents every time they want to travel a single mile (AAA’s cost-of-ownership estimate for small sedans this year -- multiplied by 15,000 miles, that’s $6,735). Maybe we’ve arrived at the generation where a significant number of people don’t want to be in their own isolation tank an hour or more of every day, but want to be engaged and involved with the people and places around them.

People need cars. We’re a long way from being able to retire them. But until their prospects improve -- and the carmakers focus on their actual price and product requirements instead of PR -- it’ll be a tough sell convincing millions of young Americans they can’t live (for at least a few more years, anyway) without one.

 

Michael Hagerty, an automotive journalist since 1997, is publisher and editor of TireKicker ( http://tirekicker.blogspot.com),

 
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