April 22, 2012

Confession #43: Acura and Buick's new small cars are Millennial-chasers, but Baby Boomers will be doing the driving

2013 Acura ILX (Photo: Wikimedia/IFCAR)
A day doesn't go by when I don't come across some story about automakers dying to appeal to so-called Millennials, or the twentysomething crowd infatuated with Facebook and iPhones.

That's fine and whatever, but designers and product planners think it's a good idea to incorporate elements of these things into new cars, especially those they want to sell to people of my demographic (well, those of us who are gainfully employed). I like the ability to connect my iPhone through Bluetooth and Internet radio steaming through the speakers is cool. But I do not want to update my Facebook status while driving, or post something witty to Twitter. Product planners of the auto industry, listen up: that's not going to get more Millennials to buy your cars.

What might work is if these entry-level "premium" cars they're pitching didn't look like they're made for our parents. The latest case comes from Acura, in the form of the totally shrug-inducing ILX sedan.

Acuras were invented for Honda-loving yuppies in the '80s and were never much more than dolled-up Hondas. This worked when Hondas were really good and the company made stuff like the Legend and the original NSX. It was what made the original Integra so good. That was a Civic with a bigger engine, different styling and generally sportier.

Acura Integra three-door (Photo: Flickr/Grant.C)
The mid-to-late '90s version is one of my all-time favorite cars. While the fast GS-R and Type-R hatches are favorites among people who thought the "Fast and the Furious" movies were documentaries, remember who it was who bought the cheaper, low-power four-door versions: old people.

People who didn't want something quite as pedestrian as a Civic but wanted a posh-ish badge went for an Integra, and rightfully so. It was a nicer Civic that was just as economical but had nicer dealers.

Acura wants back in the economy end of the premium sector with the ILX. Their first thought must have been the old Integra, hence the name. But the L in the middle of that stupid set of letters must stand for luxury, and that's a worry. The ILX goes the "shrunken luxury" route to a small premium car, rather than "sport sedan with niceties." Sure, there's a 201-horsepower six-speed manual version. But even that one doesn't look exciting. Honestly, the ILX is no new Integra. Worse for Acura, it's nothing to get too excited over either.

Buick Verano (Photo: Flickr/Michelin Media)
The little Acura reminds me of a little Buick that recently went on sale, the Verano. Verano may mean summer in Spanish, but it's not an exciting name. To me, the car look like it should be called Skylark. Probably because it reminds me of something an aunt of mine used to drive, with its big, chrome grille and various brown shades.

Inside, it's nicely swathed in leather and bright trim and it actually feels really nice. Like the ILX, it also comes with push-button start, a smart sat nav, Bluetooth and ways to stream Pandora in the car. It would be desired by Millennials if it just didn't look so grown up. In fact, it'd be a perfect car for my mother.

The Acura and Buick would be perfect cars for parents of Millennials. Every mother and father who drove to pick up their kids (and their neighbors' kids) from my elementary school in their late-'90s Explorer or early-'90s Mercedes wagon now drives something much smaller.  If Hillary Clinton weren't busy being secretary of state right now (and didn't have Secret Service driving her and Bill around), either car would work for her. There are lots of Baby Boomers in this country trying to downsize from their minivans and big SUVs into things with fewer seats, since they're not doing carpool duty anymore.

Buick Regal Turbo (Flickr/2011BuickRegal)
And Millennials? Those of us who care about driving are certainly not driving something our parents would drive. I think the Verano is a nice car, and the upcoming Verano Turbo intrigues me. But would I buy one, with money? No. Buicks and Acuras are still grown-up brands and the outward appearance of the Verano and ILX reflect that. A Volkswagen Jetta or GLI is cheaper, an Audi A3 is more premium and has a hatch, which appeals more to the city dwellers that Millenials are.

Buick's best chance is to go after people downsizing from their big Lexuses or Cadillacs with the Verano, for fuel economy or different reasons. The Regal, which doesn't cost a whole lot more, looks sportier and more fun. Acura missed an opportunity to attract young people again with an athletic-looking, sporty small hatch and sedan. Instead, the ILX looks and, based on other journalist accounts, drives like a luxury Civic. For the life of me, I can't think of anyone who gets up in the morning and says, "Yes, that's exactly what I want."

Automakers just don't understand us.