Here's One Thing That Has To Happen To Get Gen Y To Buy Cars

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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.
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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.

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Illustration for article titled Here's One Thing That Has To Happen To Get Gen Y To Buy Cars

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Illustration for article titled Here's One Thing That Has To Happen To Get Gen Y To Buy Cars
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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.

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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.

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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.

DISCUSSION

Torch, as a member of Gen Y myself, I personally want nothing to do with a boxy car or a van. I already have one, and not because I dream of it. The problem with automotive manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan, etc. is that they think we all want some variation of a box on wheels, which they label as "lifestyle vehicles."

The problem is that they are full of shit. A "lifestyle vehicle" is something that an individual with a buttload of cash chooses to buy and drive on no pretense other than it's what they want to buy and drive. They take nothing into consideration other than an emotional, or the very least non-pragmatic, approach to buying a vehicle. These are vehicles that you buy when you already have other vehicles to do what fuck-all boring duties you have. These are toy vehicles that you drive for no other reason than the fact that you enjoy driving them.

Corvettes, Porsches, Aston Martins, and even BMWs, Audis, etc. are "lifestyle vehicles."

For the rest of us poor Gen Y schmucks who are flat fucking broke because of our parents and grandparents and the mess they've left our generation in, a vehicle is something that we need, and more often than not, an expression not of our "lifestyle," but of what we can realistically afford. True, we have bought things like a cookie-cutter box-on-wheels in droves; but that sure as shit isn't because we wanted them. It's because we needed them. We need to buy things that actually stretch what little money we have as far as possible. As you suggest, there is perhaps no better type of vehicle for that than a cookie-cutter box-on-wheels.

But make no mistake - we don't buy them because we love them. We don't buy them because we think they are cool. We don't buy them because we like to spend a fuckton of money on bullshit wheel and paint add-ons that some old, gray-haired suit sitting in a 50th-story corner window office in Tokyo thinks are cool.

We buy them because that's all we can realistically afford. We cannot afford "lifestyle vehicles." We can barely scrape the money we need to "necessity vehicles."

If automakers want to encourage us to buy more new vehicles, here's what they need to do:

1) Make it inexpensive.

Note that I said "inexpensive" and not "cheap." You assholes make such a massive profit margin on your luxury vehicles and the gadget add-ons that you sell that you can afford to subsidize some nicer materials in your bottom-rung cars. God forbid that you should actually do something to improve your products; truly, having a 10% annual profit margin instead of an 11% annual profit margin would just be way too much of a sacrifice for you dick canoes.

2) Make it simple and modular.

And by "modular," I don't mean fold-down seats; although, to be fair, fold-down seats are indeed a requirement. I mean mechanically modular. As in, I should be able to take a part off of one car and pop it right on another. There should be as much parts commonality as possible with multiple other vehicle lines, so that the prices of parts come down considerably. They should be simple and inexpensive to repair on our own. Seriously, if there's been one massive shortfall in terms of automotive ergonomic development, it's been with regards to the mechanicals of the cars. Try coming up with powertrains and other mechanicals that are friendlier for non-gearheads to learn to work on.

3) Make it versatile and flexible.

Most of us are poor as fuck with massive debts to pay off in the worst job market in living memory. We cannot, and probably will not, be able to afford a "lifestyle vehicle" for a really long fucking time. Oh, and that's thanks to you old, gray-haired suits and your general fiscal irresponsibility. Thanks, assholes. Enjoy reaping the consequences of having shot yourselves in the foot due to your own arrogant lack of insight. Again.

As such, a car needs to be flexible and versatile. I need to be able to configure it to do anything from carrying my toddler nephews around town to hauling my cousin's college shit to her dorm room. And I should be able to do that in a matter of minutes. I should be able to unbolt and remove the entire backseat from the vehicle if I need those extra inches for something.

4) Make it durable.

Seriously, spend the extra fifty cents for more durable materials, both mechanically and non-mechanically. We may never love the box-on-wheels that we are stuck buying for practical reasons, but if they are durable and last for a long time, we might actually like you for making us such a vehicle. And when (or if) we can finally afford one of those "lifestyle vehicle" things, we'll be more likely to buy from a manufacturer that we like.

5) Quit fucking patronizing us.

You guys are fucking assholes in this regard. Sure, the Kia hamster commercial and the Scion commercials were mildly amusing at first glance, but underneath it all was a subtle, yet notable attitude of contempt for us. You cynically tried to stick a bunch of random crap on a box and then throw in some dubstep or whatever the fuck else you thought "those kids" like without doing a goddamn bit of marketing research about what might actually be useful for us.

And then, when we laughed half-heartedly at your dumbass commercials and then went and bought used cars because they were simpler, cheaper, and more durable, you blamed it on us not being interested in buying cars.

We are interested in buying cars. We need cars. We can't live without them. We just aren't interested in buying the cheap, cynical crap that you've been trying to foist upon us.

At the end of the day, what general category the vehicle takes (sedan, coupe, hatchback, etc.) is less important to us than the above. Cut the cynical contempt, do your homework, and make an effort to produce something of quality, and we'll come in droves. Until then, you'll find us driving old, used, mostly Japanese cars because that's what we can afford and that's what we can fix comparatively easily.