Motorsport fan mags of late have been clogged with traumatic screeds aimed at young people who do not evince the enthusiasm for cars deemed appropriate and necessary by preceding generations. Statistics back up these expressions of angst. For teens, obtaining a driver’s license is evidently no longer the huge rite of passage and object of lust it has been since – since driver’s licenses were invented. Many teens and young adults don’t have a driver’s license and don’t particularly see a need for one – ever.
This creates “worry” (the word to use when “panic” seems too much) among people who make their living manufacturing cars, selling cars, or writing about cars and the people who sell and race them.
And I think I know why.
Cars are boring. So are the magazines.
There are exceptions. The finest car magazines, to my mind, are Evo and Octane, both British and published, I believe, by the same company. Terrific writing, pictures that are really fine art, and great depth of content, but at $10 or so a pop they’re a rare guilty pleasure not expected to become a habit for the uncommitted young. American mags are OK, but stifled by the boring nature of most of the cars I could afford, and the stupidity of the fantasy cars I cannot afford. More on that in a minute.
It was a shock last week when I realized that the magazine I look forward to the most of the half dozen I subscribe to is Hot Rod! When I was a teen, the arrival of a new Road and Track was a seminal event each month, the initial perusal reserved for Dad. Later, I would read every word and often return for a second helping. Moto gluttony. Hot Rod was the occasional cruise to the wrong side of the tracks as an appetizer. Today Hot Rod is fun and intriguing, while Road and Track has established itself as the definition of “banal.” Again, it is the cars that create the content. If the cars suck, so will the content. Road and Track has the treat of whatever topic Peter Eagan chooses for pontification, but Hot Rod has more interesting and unusual to weird cars and people in one issue than the others can offer in a year.
What has happened? Ironically, the root cause is that cars have become nearly perfect products in terms of fit, finish and reliability. All to the good, but the effect over time is to reduce involvement in car care and feeding.
We’ve owned a Fiat 500 Sport for two years, and in that time have checked the oil and water levels – never. The total time spent on minor repairs is zero seconds. Dealer visits; two. One for a free oil change and one for the fitment of the only recall – a trivial matter involving a shift knob that lost the shift pattern logo inset. This from a company that fled the US in shame decades ago because of reliability issues.
I did have adventures having a scratch that appeared between purchase and delivery addressed, but that was an anomaly and eventually resolved to my complete satisfaction.
When my daughter was 17 she decided she needed to know how to change the oil on a car. I agreed, so we purchased the necessary items and set about the task on our little Suzuki SUV. As I taught her how to check oil and water levels and complete assorted non-technical maintenance tasks, those limited lessons that a person of my amoebic mechanical level could impart, I was chagrined to realize that I had not done any of these tasks myself in two years.
Our current Honda CR-V has 70,000 miles and will be due for its first tune-up… in another 30,000. Imagine!
With these examples in mind, how do you make your product stand out if you’re a designer or marketer?
Gadgets and geegaws. If all of the products use similar power trains, such as an in-line four for small cars, a V6 or V8 for the middle models, and large V8s with turbos or superchargers for the heavy hitters, and if they’re all reliable and get similar mpg and so forth, to separate your product from others you add farkles – instrument lighting that change colors, GPS systems, stereos, different “modes” for engine and suspension characteristics, phone synching capability, and on and on.
This in turn creates the next problem. Stylists, designers, and marketers attend the same professional meetings and conventions, thereafter unleashing a whirlwind of incestuous copying and keeping up with the other boys and girls.
There’s a creeping upward line of what is expected in a new car that is not based on logic or need but merely what we’ve become used to. At one time power windows were an expensive option. Today you’d be shocked if your new car had hand cranked windows, even though you surely have the musculature to handle the task. We “expect” our new car to have a sunroof, an AM/FM stereo with a multitude of speakers, multiple instrument read-outs, traction control, mode switches, air conditioning, very long intervals between any service needs, and the ability to adapt to and synch with all sorts of personal communication devices.
The automatic transmission was once an expensive option. Today you may have to pay more for a stick shift, and in high end sports cars a stick shift is not offered at all, even as an option. This is terrible!
The end result is a vast sea of cars that all, to the uninitiated and even some of the initiated, look the same. This tidal wave of sameness makes it even more difficult for a new and different idea to stand out, due to the economies of mass production and marketing. It also defeats the initial purpose of the designers and marketers to stand out, because now everything shares all of these new technologies and everything turns to a mush of grey porridge, albeit very capable porridge.
You can see this in the magazine road test comparisons of similarly marketed niche cars. If you are trying to sort out a clear winner of a comparison contest among 5 four doors sedans in the $30-35,000 range you will have to split hairs to the point of inanity. “The Bucolic V6 wins because the rear seat took 2 pounds less force to fold down.” In most cases these days, the offerings in a particular marketing niche are near as dammit identical.
You can still ferret out a car that appeals to you from most manufacturers by doing a lot of research and study, but if you’re not into cars in the first place would you bother?
As a result of these and many other factors, current efforts to appeal to young buyers are, for the most part, backwards. Manufacturers keep offering more and more in-car access to music and social media and twitter accounts, while the solution is to go the other way.
It takes a long time for a car to morph from the gestation of an idea through design work, prototyping, and product testing; eventually crawling into the sunlight as a new product. Even a mid-cycle “refresh” will take more than a year. Young people tend to be new adopters of emerging social media technologies and electronic gadgets, so whatever technology you design into your car to appeal to young buyers will have been superseded by something better that a young buyer may already own when he or she wants to buy your car. You have to charge for all of this stuff you built in, so now you’re asking a market that has less money to spend to pay more for technology they view as passé. No wonder they’re not into cars.
Some of what is being added now gilds the lily to the point it falls over. Do I really need a lane departure system? Autonomous braking systems to keep me from hitting the car in front? Vibrating and heated seats? Heated steering wheels and rear mirrors? The Kia Soul has speaker surrounds that vibrate with glowing colors that change as the music plays. The salesman thought these were a tremendous feature. I thought he was a bit off plumb. These things all work, but do I really need them?
Higher end cars are even more ridiculous. More and more performance and less and less capability on actual roads in real traffic. Go ahead, try and back up your Lamborghini – who needs to see where you are going? The quest for higher top speeds and better Nurburgring times lays windshields back on cars so low you cannot see out of them and would be horrified if you could. The Bugatti Veyron just set a record as the fastest production convertible. Of what value is such a record? To create a performance sound track, many modern cars pump engine noise through the windshield pillars and into the cabin. Why don’t we just take 100 pounds of sound deadener out of the car? Heaven forbid you want to actually drive your mega-buck sportster like an actual car. To do so would be to cast yourself as a star of a continual horror movie where the monsters are ordinary pot holes, speed bumps, and angled driveways. Driving around doing some chores yesterday I was struck by how many places on my list would simply be inaccessible in many ultra expensive sports cars due to clearance issues. Those of a sarcastic nature could point out that if I could afford such a car I’d probably be shopping at different places or not shopping at all – allowing “my people” do take care of such mundanity.
Examples of such design follies are many, and the more expensive the car the more you think you’re the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
The solution? Go the other way. Offer young people a car that forces them to be involved in driving, and they may discover the simple (or complex) joy of operating a car again, as most of us we did in our teens. Subaru and Toyota have led the charge here with very similar sports coupes that appear to offer (I’ve not driven either) great driving fun.
But they do not go far enough.
This won’t be easy. There are a lot of technologies that have to be included due to legislation. You’ll have to have an engine that is “clean” and uses relatively little fuel. You’ll need excellent bumpers, seat belts, crush zones, ABS brakes in all probability, and many other features of modern cars that cannot be eliminated without incurring greater costs, which is the opposite of the intent.
There are limits to what we can do to change things. All new cars must have electronic stability controls, for example, so we need to keep that, but it’s still legal to provide the option of turning them off. Let’s do.
Let’s come out with a “stripper” model. The about to be released Chevy Camaro SR has the simplest radio they could get away with, because the OnStar system needs it to talk to the driver. Our new car will not need even that. It will have no radio or speakers at all, because the intended purchasers carry all that on their person all the time. OK, we may need a port for them to plug into and two speakers. More speakers can be offered as an option if you twist my arm. A 5 speed manual transmission will be the only one offered. Two doors and two seats only. Young people who need more seats can use public transportation or borrow or rent a van on the few occasions where multiple seats are needed.
No moveable powered wings and spoilers – just a trunk lip spoiler with perhaps a removable “Gurney” flap for excitement. A strip of hard rubber that slides into a groove will not cost much at all.
Four wheel disc brakes because that would be the cheapest way to go, and relatively wide wheels front and aft because we want this car to be able to create enormous G loads in the corners for young people who think a computer racing game is realistic. It is not.
Eighteen inch simple “mag” style wheels.
Manually adjustable seats.
A bottle of inflation goo for a spare time.
The availability of only three colors, and none of them white, black, or silver. My own studies have shown that 67% of the cars on the road are white black, or silver. I want this new car to stand out, so it will come in candy orange, intense green, and candy burgundy the first year. Each year three new colors will be offered.
Air conditioning will be there only if a ventilation and defrost system is not available that does not have it.
No “modes” of any kind for the suspension or engine.
A console only if it is cheaper, and two cup holders, and then only if you insist.
A glove box.
A dash board with as few gauges and idiot lights as possible.
Some of this has been done in the past for higher end models. Porsche has been teased for decades (all the way to the bank) for taking a 911 or Boxster, removing a lot of content, and then charging more for the “lightweight” end result – a car for more money with less in it. I don’t think the young are as stupid as the (mostly) men who are purchasing a fantasy car to pursue a talent they never had, so a new design for young drivers will have to succeed on its merits alone.
The pedals will be placed to allow heel and toe downshifting, and we will delete any technology to match the revs to the lower gear. We want the driver to be able to experience the wonder of a smoothly done downshift, and the clumsiness of a botched one. We want driving to become, to the young, a skill worth developing.
We shall call this new car “The Stripper.” Cue the music for the TV commercial. Do we dare to hint at sex as a sales technique? Yes, we do! Certainly the most popular ad theme of all time, but it could be done in a fun way that young people would find amusing. Might work with others as well.
To appease the pencil necks in corporate accounting, the same car could also be offered with the full list of the “usual” options for buyers who are older, have more money, or both. Options normally have a greater mark-up than the standard items, so everyone would be happy.
This is not a new idea. The Camaro Z28 was originally am option package available only with a 4 speed stick shift, and it grew and grew into a separate line that got not only an automatic as an option but heavier and more and more laden with farkles until it sank under the weight of its own excess. It came back in 2010 and is now heading down the same profitable but eventually fatal path. The Camaro, while not expensive for the performance offered, is out of the economic reach of most of the younger market. In 1969 a new Chevy Z 28 Camaro, in butternut yellow with black stripes, cost about $3,500. My first year’s teaching salary was $7,200. I was going to buy one, but chose instead to bury the nose of my motorcycle in a ditch at 60mph, break my shoulder, and spend the summer with my arm in a sling. No Camaro. Today a first year teacher will make from $25 – 30k, so a Camaro Z28 has retained its ratio compared to a teacher’s salary. You easily get into an apple and oranges deal here. A beginning teacher today probably has a Masters Degree, and I did not. A 2013 Camaro is in all functional respects a vastly superior product to the 1969. For those with lower incomes, sticking to the same brand, the Chevy Sonic has potential, if you removed about 300 pounds and $3000 worth of technology from it.
The way to appeal to young people is to offer a driving experience that is more involving and more fun than a computer game. So involving they will want a pure driving experience undiluted by ear buds! Inexpensive enough they can get into the car while just out of high school with a long term loan.
By the time they pay it off they may want to trade for a model with more available options, but by that time they will be enthusiasts and their demands make force the market back towards driver enjoyment.
I’m rooting for their success.
Copyright 2013 David Preston