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Here's Why Young People Don't Buy Cars Aimed at Young People

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author photo by Doug DeMuro March 2017

Throughout my experience observing the automotive industry, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon regarding car companies and young people. Namely, car companies consistently try to attract young people by aiming cars at young people -- and young people consistently stay away from these cars in large numbers.

The best example of this is, of course, the Scion xB: a car that was specifically designed for "young people" with an "active lifestyle" and blah blah blah, but really it was only purchased by older people who thought it was neat. Apparently, young people were turned off by the idea of driving around in a small car shaped like a box, while old people no longer cared what anyone thought of them, so they decided it was wonderful. Although xB owners have gotten younger as xBs have gotten cheaper, trust me: When the xB came out, more than half the people driving them were older.

It's the same story with the Chrysler PT Cruiser. As hard as it may be to believe, that thing was initially an attempt to gain some younger buyers -- a new shape, a hatchback design, a lower price tag. That was the intent. The reality, of course, was very, very different.

And so it has gone for virtually every single car I've ever seen that was "designed for young people." The Nissan Cube. To some extent, the FIAT 500 and Kia Soul. Every automaker wants to roll out these "young people cars" and capture the Millennial audience, and the Millennial audience isn't interested.

So I was pondering this topic the other day, and I came to the following conclusion: Young people don't buy cars that are aimed at young people. Young people buy cars that are cool.

Let me give you an example. The Jeep Wrangler is a well-known car that's primarily purchased by younger drivers. You know how Jeep snared the "Millennial" demographic? It wasn't by creating a vehicle that was designed for younger drivers. It was by creating a vehicle that is universally regarded as cool, which in itself draws the interest of younger drivers. Nobody at Jeep ever said "Hey, we can get younger buyers if we make a car that looks a certain way and has certain colors and includes certain features." They just said: "We're going to make a cool, off-roader SUV." And the young people followed.

I think this is also why the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI do so well with younger buyers. There's no specific aim toward young drivers for these cars, but they're good, competent vehicles with potent performance, so young people think they're cool and they buy them. There's no fuzzy carpeting on the dash, like in the Nissan Cube. There's just a good, practical car, with enticing performance, offered at a reasonable cost.

And it's largely the same story with every other car that appeals to young people. When Subaru was courting younger buyers, they didn't make a strange box on wheels and create commercials around the fact that their car has music player options that don't exist in other cars. They just jacked up the Impreza, priced it affordably and called it the Crosstrek. A success was born. Young people don't idolize the Range Rover, and Ferrari, and Lamborghini, and the Mercedes G-Wagen simply because they're "aimed at young people." Instead, young people idolize them because they're cool.

I think the key point here is that cool can't be created -- no matter how hard automakers try, or marketers try, or public relations departments try. "Cool" is something that develops naturally when you've made a good, desirable product -- not something you can convince people of. If Chrysler comes out with a retro-styled hatchback and the primary buyer base ends up being grandmothers, no amount of marketing in the world is going to change the belief that this product isn't cool.

And so, automakers, here's the lesson to take away from this: I'm not sure whether young car shoppers are too smart for advertising geared toward them, or simply unmoved by it -- but cars become popular with young drivers when they're good products, with good features, or good performance, not because they're aimed at young people. Create something inherently exciting, and an air of "cool" will follow. Try too hard, and all those young buyers you wanted will be off at the Jeep dealer, checking out a new Wrangler.

Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.

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Used 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek Touring Hybrid
Used 2015 Subaru XV Crosstrek
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New 2017 Ford Focus ST Hatchback
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New 2017 Ford Focus SEL Hatchback
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Here's Why Young People Don't Buy Cars Aimed at Young People - Autotrader