January 30, 2011

Confession #19: Most people my age couldn't care less about cars

I’ve known something was wrong for a few years now. I felt like a car addiction was something to be closeted because people would start squirming away from me.

And if I met “Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser in a bar and started talking to him about turbochargers and Mercedes’ new AMG models, his eyes might roll back into his skull.

This means I wasn’t at all surprised by a recent report suggesting my generation, the Millennials – those born roughly between 1980 and 1995 – have dwindling interest in the car.

For automakers, especially the Detroit Three, this is damning information. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler already lost the Millenials’ parents, the Baby Boomers, to European and Japanese carmakers and that’s where they’ve stayed for the most part.

There’s one thing the Millennials don’t want and that’s to be their parents. A recent housing survey suggests the generation coming out of college and entering the workplace don’t see themselves working 9-to-5 jobs in an office park and going home to a house in the suburbs. They don’t want lawns to mow and don’t mind paying more for a smaller apartment or condo – especially if they can use public transportation.

For anyone who’s driven though a major city, they know it’s a hassle. There are far too many cars on the road, cab drivers that cut you off without a care, parking garages that charge an arm, leg and kidney and a desperate lack of gas stations. Driving a car in the city really isn’t much fun. So much so that public transportation, for all of its misgivings (in Los Angeles for example, the subway doesn’t actually go anywhere and won’t until well into the next decade), looks like a reasonable enough compromise to live with in order to benefit from urban living.

That puts Toyota’s Scion, and countless other brands, in slightly shaky predicaments. Toyota’s proud their youth brand’s average buyer is in his or her mid-40s, a nice change from the typical Toyota buyer, who is approaching 60.

There’s a theory that this car loathing is a regional thing. I wrote an essay a couple months ago about this topic and threw some thoughts around with automotive columnist Ezra Dyer. Even though he calls the Boston area home he’s a native of rural Maine, where a car is a necessity if you want to have fun as a teenager. Or even eat.

Dyer, a brave soul who had the gumption to have a Camaro IROC-Z as his first car, told me how he could understand someone who grew up in a metro area and not being used to needing a car. But he didn’t seem exactly worried there’s an emerging generation who won’t be buying cars.

It’s not like a car is a statement of wealth anymore – it’s pretty much on par with a pair of jeans or hoodie. Everyone knows you can spend $50 on clothes that look like they cost $50, or you can spend four times that amount on clothes that pretty much look the same but have a label that’s seemingly worth its weight in gold.

And one must take into account the kids of cars people around my age have been exposed to. These are cars from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the 2000s. Many of them were unimaginative little boxes. Others were just horrifically built. And most are riddled with NASA-grade electronics that constrict tuning and modification, unlike something from the 1960s or 1970s. It takes either a brave soul or deep pockets to tune something like a BMW 3-series.

Of course, I’ve never really been interested in tuning my cars. The few car fanatic friends I have can change their oil or brake pads. I pretty much know where my oil dipstick and coolant reservoir are. And I’m pretty sure I can only find those things on a Saab with a 2.0-liter engine.

But hey, at least I know how to drive stick.

So what if I’m a dwindling part of the population? Maybe there are enough Baby Boomers to last automakers until the Gen-Xers and Millennials reach an age when they can no longer live without some shiny new metal (or carbon fiber, perhaps) in the driveway. Or parking garage or … whatever.