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Parallel universes? Young car buyers weigh technology against cost

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It’s not always clear how closely our industry parallels the automobile industry in terms of trends, technology and other leanings. Sometimes we’re on the same highway headed in the same general direction, and sometimes we’re not.

A recent story in The New York Times — “Makers Pack New Cars With Technology, but Younger Buyers Shrug” — is interesting because it raises questions that we’re also dealing with: young buyers, the cost of ownership, the risks in new vehicle development, and technology or “contenting.”

Here are some highlights you might find interesting:

The story begins with a potential car buyer described as “young, educated and upwardly mobile,” just the demographic automakers are trying to reach. The setting is the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The 24-year-old drives a Chevy Cobalt that is nearly 10 years old, which she wants to replace. She’s also technology-oriented — she’d like a car with hands-free calling.

Although she’s at the show looking at new vehicles, the young woman tells the reporter: “I’ll probably buy used. I have to go back to school, so I have to keep that in mind.”

The article says the much-sought-after youth market has proved elusive for the auto industry and that despite changes in styling and contenting, particularly dashboard technology, the two biggest factors still influencing purchases by young people are cost and fuel economy.

Cost is a subject our industry continues to discuss and wrestle with.

Fuel efficiency, on the other hand, is an area where boatbuilders and engine manufacturers continue to make nice gains through design, weight reduction and technology.

On the docks and at the shows, I don’t hear a lot of chatter about fuel consumption being a deterrent to use or purchase, but I am not talking to very many 25-year-old would-be boat buyers. Rising fuel costs during the past decade certainly made efficiency more of a top-of-the-mind issue with everyone on the water, but I’m not sure it was a significant reason that someone chose to swallow the anchor.

I do suspect fuel burn will be more of an issue — even a hurdle in some cases — with younger buyers who grew up driving cars getting 40 mpg than it is with established boaters. If you’re selling boats, would you rather see a young person, a potential first-time buyer, pull into your dealership in a Ford F-150 or a Prius?

Why is the youth market so important to automakers? The answer isn’t much different than it is in our field. The Times article says automakers see it as an “opportunity to replace the aging baby boom generation with a new group of loyal customers.” Sounds familiar.

The story also touches briefly on the way long lead times in car development only make it more difficult to determine what a young buyer will want down the road.

“I’ve got to guess today what you’ll want in a car 10 years from now,” James E. Lentz, chief executive at Toyota North America, told the paper. “Today I’ve got to decide what is going in a car in 2018, and that model will likely be sold until 2024.”

The story cites a survey saying young buyers want more technology in their cars, but interviews with potential buyers suggest that cost is a more important factor.

Fuel for thought.

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