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Cars for the Young Take a Detour

Honda's Element, Toyota's Scion and the like were aimed at those in their 20s. But baby boomers are buying too.

January 02, 2006|Adam Geller | Associated Press

It wasn't until Jim Tudor got his new Honda Element that he noticed a quirk in its design. Why was the boxy vehicle's sunroof over the empty back seat instead of his spot up front?

"I found out that it's supposed to be for my surfboard," said Tudor, 56, who is the grandfather of two and never surfs anywhere but the Internet. "It was really only after the fact, when I started doing a little reading on the car, that I found out I wasn't supposed to be the one driving it."

It turns out many of the people buying the Element -- which looks like a cross between a minivan and a Hummer -- aren't the young surfers and mountain bikers Honda Motor Co. expected. It's the same for many buyers of Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion models.

Those vehicles were designed and pitched by automakers to capture the hearts and dollars of buyers in their 20s or even younger.

But a funny thing happened on the cars' way to the youth market -- people in their 40s, 50s, or 60s found that the vehicles suited their lifestyles too.

Honda was "hoping to get parents to buy it for their kids. It didn't work out that way," said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research, which tracks consumer spending. "The parents who bought it decided they wanted it. The whole car got hijacked by the baby boomers."

The demand for these cars from older buyers has thrown a small curve to Honda, Toyota and others trying to broaden their appeal and build allegiance with customers who will be key to their future business. Automakers are hardly upset that boomers are buying their youth-themed cars. On the contrary, they are happy to sell cars to whoever wants one, manufacturers say.

But the embrace by drivers across the age spectrum of models such as the Element, the Scion xB and the Vibe from General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac brand reveals some of the unpredictable features of the marketplace. Mainly, that in this age of highly targeted marketing and myriad product choices, customers will often make purchases that fit their lifestyles and self-image, even if it's not exactly what the manufacturer had in mind.

Take Tudor, who lives in Newborn, Ga., and drives 40,000 miles a year for his job running a state trade association. He never opens the sunroof on his Element. He has no intention of sleeping in the vehicle, although the seats are designed to fold back for exactly that purpose.

But he loves the car because it has loads of room to fit all the stuff he carts around for work. Tudor, who frequently drinks coffee or eats French fries while behind the wheel, also likes the upholstery and flooring that's easy to clean.

"It just met my needs," he said.

Those needs are quite different from the ones Honda created the Element to fit.

The automaker designed the vehicle for college-age men who participate in lots of active, outdoor sports, said Chris Naughton, a Honda spokesman.

"We also had a name for it during its creation -- that it was a dorm room on wheels," he said.

Toyota had similar thoughts when it created its Scion brand.

"There are 142 million people in the U.S. who are less than 30 years old," said Mark Templin, vice president of Scion. "They grew up in a different era. There are things going on around them that we didn't grow up with. It's important for Toyota's future to understand those people."

The cars are also marketed at younger buyers. The website for Scion thumps out a rap beat. The Element's site offers a link to an online mountain-biking game.

The strategy has, in many ways, succeeded. Toyota and its sister Lexus brand traditionally sell to older customers. But Scion's average age is the lowest of any brand, analysts say.

Not as young as Toyota expected. By one calculation, the average Scion buyer is about 39, according to the Power Information Network, a subsidiary of automotive market research firm J.D. Power & Associates. For the Element, it's 43.

Many older buyers of the vehicles were probably drawn to them by their prices. Some were probably buying for their children. Still others were buying because they think the cars make them look or feel younger, said Tom Libby, a Power Information Network analyst.

Other automakers are looking to follow suit with their own stylish compact cars, as a way to bring in new buyers regardless of age, he said.

Jack Dear of San Antonio, a longtime Ford owner, bought an Element this year, partly to save on gas. But Dear, 55, also was attracted to the vehicle because it reminded him of the Volkswagen Microbus he and a friend piloted to California in 1971. They drove it right onto the beach and slept in the back until a police officer chased them away. The Element taps into a self-image that hasn't changed all that much since then, he said.

"I think a lot of us never grew up," Dear said. "We cut our hair, but we never grew up."

Tudor has already moved on to his second Element, this one bright red. Driving a car whose shape makes it stand out in traffic, he and other Element owners have been quick to spot one another, exchanging honks and friendly waves of solidarity.

"Then I noticed that everybody I was waving at was my own age," Tudor said. "That's why my kids call it the Elder-ment."

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