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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 1, 2006

Boomers are hijacking 'youth' vehicles

By ADAM GELLER
Associated Press

Jim Tudor, 56, of Newborn, Ga., says his red Honda Element is the cat's meow. The boxy little car was designed for younger buyers, but it fits right into Tudor's needs for a practical, economical vehicle that he drives 40,000 miles a year as he runs a trade association.

RIC FELD | Associated Press

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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," says Tudor, who's 56, 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 expected. It's the same for many buyers of Toyota's similar-looking Scion models.

Those vehicles were designed and pitched by automakers to capture the hearts and dollars of consumers 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 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," says 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 consumers who will be key to their future business. Automakers are hardly upset that boomers are buying their youth-themed cars. On the contrary, they're happy to sell cars to whoever wants one, manufacturers say.

But the embrace of the Element, Scion's xB, Pontiac's Vibe and other cars by drivers across the age spectrum reveals some of the unpredictabilities of the marketplace. Mainly, that in this age of highly targeted marketing and myriad product choices, consumers will often make purchases that fit their lifestyles and self-image, even if it's not exactly what 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 says.

Those are very different needs than the ones Honda created the Element to fit.

The automaker designed the vehicle for college-aged 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 marketing clearly is aimed at younger consumers. The Web site for Scion thumps out a rap beat. 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 consumers. But Scion's average age is the youngest of any brand, analysts say.

But it's 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 likely drawn to them by their price. Others were probably buying for their children. Still others buy because they think the cars make them look or feel younger, said Tom Libby, a PIN 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, long a Ford owner, bought an Element this year, partly to save on gas. But Dear, 55, also was attracted to the vehicle because it reminds him of the VW 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 change all that much since then, he says.

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

Tudor has already moved on to his second Element, this one bright red. Driving cars whose shape make them 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 says. "That's why my kids call it the Elder-ment."