Recently, the auto industry has taken up a side hobby of collectively moaning about how the Gen Y kids just don't care about cars. Article after article whines about how Gen Y isn't interested in cars, isn't buying cars, isn't even thinking about cars.
Sure, companies are trying to make things to appeal to what they think Gen Y likes, but so far that just seems to be slightly edgier styling, more color/graphics options, and better iPhone synchronization. It's pretty clear they don't really know what to do.
So, a lot of expensive automotive thinkers are at this moment getting paid to tell companies they need to think outside the box. I couldn't disagree more — In fact, the answer is the box.
And by box, I mean a wheeled box. A van.
Let's think about what the main issues are with getting Gen Y to buy cars, based on the common refrains brought up in these articles:
- Thanks to Facebook and Twitter and texting and whatever, they feel plenty connected virtually, and don't feel as great a need to actually go places or see people.
- They're generally more environmentally conscious, and as such, have some prejudices against cars.
- They love personalization and the ability to create their own environments, digital or otherwise.
- The economy's rough, and they can't really afford cars. In fact, many in Gen Y are still forced to live at home.
- Oh, but they don't mind living at home so much, since they tend to get along better with their parents, and as such don't feel as strong an urge to get the hell out of the house. I've even talked about this one before.
Now, that is, of course, a list of generalizations (other than the economic one, which is absolutely the truth), and there will absolutely be gearhead exceptions to these rules, and for that I thank the Big Mechanic in the sky. Still, that's a pretty brutal list if you're trying to sell cars. But what if you're selling something else? What if you're selling a room?
You have to think about it this way: A car— any car, except maybe a taxi— spends the vast majority of its life stationary. Parked, unmoving, immobile. To get to Gen Y interested in buying a vehicle, this is the part of car ownership that's untapped and needs to be exploited. If someone doesn't care much about driving or speed or freedom of mobility, I can't sell them a car. But I sure as hell can sell someone who lives either with their parents or a crapload of roommates in a big city apartment a bit of personal space.
Vans have been popular before among youth for this very reason. Why do you think Hippies loved the VW Microbuses so much? If it was just the tough, noisy air-cooled mechanicals they liked, they could have had a Porsche 356 or a Karmann Ghia or a Corvair. It was the fact that a Bus meant everywhere you went, you had your own little room, that you could fill with as much patcholi stink as you want, that you could smoke pot and fuck in and write your inane manifesto to your heart's content.
Youth and vans continued their affair into the 70s, when a genuine van craze was happening. This time it was more American Iron, with Chevy vans and Econolines getting Iron Cross bubble windows and shag interiors and potent small-block V8s. The aesthetic was different, they drove very differently, but in the end these were still wheeled rooms. Popular culture tends to focus on the more lurid sex-and-drugs side of this, and while that certainly was a factor, it wasn't all of it.
The sorts of vans that will appeal to Gen Y aren't going to look like a 70s Shaggin' Wagon or an old Microbus. And they sure as hell can't look like the archetypal white molester's van. If anything, they should draw most heavily from the many Japanese (and other) concept cars that have been skirting around this concept for years. In a dense, crowded city like Tokyo, the idea of a small car as your personal urban retreat has been explored for a while, and the Japanese do make some terrific tiny vans, like the Subaru Sambar and the Honda Life Step Van.
These little Kei vans and the concept cars, while varying wildly in looks, share a basic plan that's all about maximizing the available space. European vans of the 60s, like the DKW Schnellaster did the same thing. The goal is to give as much of the wheelbase/overall length to the interior, which usually means a box on small wheels. In my ideal layout, this would be a mid-engine type of setup, something like a scaled-down Previa, or any number of other small vans made in Japan for years. For a US market vehicle, it would need to be bigger than a Kei car, but not too big. The overall length should be close to a Honda Fit or maybe a Civic.
The interiors of these vans would be the key, and as such would need to be innovative, novel, and useful. Captain's chairs could make a comeback, and as much of the interior space should be as reconfigurable as possible. Cars like the Stout Scarab pioneered this decades ago, with foldable tables and movable seating. The materials will also need to be novel. This is a new kind of car, so no more seas of black and grey carpet. It's time to try bamboo flooring, headliners with optional graphics, interesting LED lighting, reconfigurable seats, anchors for aftermarket interior fittings. The interior should work as well for scenarios as varied as driving five people to work or three friends lounging and watching a movie, or one person stealing WiFi and using the car as a small mobile office.
Exteriors need to take risks, too. And, as much as I love the JDM Kei van subculture of making their tiny vans look like old Chevys or Dodges or VWs, I don't think the retro looks will resonante with the younger market, I'd suggest risky, forward-looking exterior design. Lots of interesting things have been done already with concept cars with similar form factors, and I think this is one of those times where a bit of risk could pay off.
Drivetrain-wise, I think these will need to be hybrids to assuage the eco-guilt of many of the target market, and that's fine. A small 1-1.5L Atkinson-cycle engine with a coupled electric motor and some manner of CVT seems a reasonable likelihood. Battery packs would essentially make up the floor of the little van, keeping weight as low as possible in what could be a top-heavy vehicle otherwise. I bet handling and performance won't be stellar, but possibly more fun than expected, especially if the mid engine/rear drive configuration is chosen.
The end result is more than just a car— it's a small, very personal volume of space that you can both use to get you to a destination, or is a destination unto itself. It's a radically different way of looking at entry-level cars for young people, but I think for this to work it has to be radically different to get anyone interested. Currently, vans, at least in the US market, are only thought of in terms of large family transport or strict commercial/cargo use. Even when companies try something more radical, like Volkswagen did on two separate occasions with their new Microbus-inspired concepts, they always end up getting cold feet.
Case in point, Volkswagen showed most recently the Bulli concept— something very close to what I'm thinking of— and instead we get stuck with the useful but insomnia-curing Routan. Nissan has attempted this with the Cube which, sadly, fell apart on execution. Still, props to Nissan for attempting it.
We're not going to magically make Gen Y appreciate cars the way previous generations have, especially when they can't afford them. There will always be a core group of people who love cars for what they are, and that's us. But to get the companies to build those cars for car lovers, everyone else needs to buy cars. And I think this new class (for the US market, at least) of small, highly flexible, radically designed small hybrid van-type vehicles will be the key. Plus, I think these could end up being fun in their own right, even after all the pandering to a tricky group of youths.
Of course, this is just my advice, and no one has to listen to me. But, just for the record, you know who else never consulted me about automotive advice? Tucker. Packard. Plymouth. DeLorean. Maybach. Need I go on?
I'm curious to see what everyone thinks in the comments; it's always fun to be called an idiot in new, exciting ways.