U.S. automakers try to win a 'lost generation' of buyers

April 09, 1991|By New York Times

DETROIT -- When Sue Anderson passed her driver's exam 10 years ago, she inherited the family Mazda. After graduation from college, she bought her family's Saab.

Last year, the 26-year-old graphic designer from Grand Rapids, Mich., bought her first new car. It was a 1990 Mitsubishi Eclipse.

"I never really considered buying an American car, which is not to say I wouldn't," said Anderson, who aspires to buy another Saab. "I guess buying a foreign car has been kind of ingrained in me."

Anderson is part of the auto industry's "lost generation." A new wave of young drivers are shopping for their first new cars and trucks, and their biases spell deep trouble for the American auto industry.

In large part, they are the children of the drivers who first traded their Fords, Dodges and Chevrolets in the 1970s for Hondas, Toyotas and BMW's. As they were growing up, their family cars were typically foreign makes, and they knew mostly horror stories about Detroit's products. Shaped by their parents' tastes, these young adults rarely set foot in the Big Three's car dealerships.

In the last decade, the American auto industry has invested more than $100 billion to improve quality, develop new designs and make vehicles more appealing.

General Motors Corp.'s $3 billion Saturn project is only the latest example. Simply gaining the attention of what the industry calls "import committed" buyers is among the most intractable of Detroit's predicaments -- and among the most critical to reverse.

"If Detroit is not successful in getting these buyers back," warned Robert A. Lutz, president of the Chrysler Corp., "market share will experience further, gradual erosion."

Only last month, Lee A. Iacocca, chairman and chief executive of Chrysler, appealed to President Bush to suppress Japanese imports, warning that the weak No. 3 auto maker would be "gone" if Japanese automakers continued to gain market share.

The sea of change in American car-buying attitudes came about even before foreign models were being offered in significant numbers. Demographers detected a radical change in buying habits around the time of the Vietnam War.

Before the mid-1960s, children frequently embraced the brand of consumer products, including cars, that their parents used. Adults tended to be loyal to one brand, and their children followed suit.

But the phenomenon of "Chevy families" and "Ford families" faded when children of the baby boom after World War II reached car-buying age in the 1970s. "Baby boomers had more money and were better educated," said James Kornas, director of market assessment for GM's Cadillac division. "They also were rejecting their parents' values."

One value they rejected was loyalty to their parents' brands. "They could recognize the value and utility of imports," Kornas said. "This was the original BMW and Honda Accord crowd."

As more drivers tried foreign models and liked their fuel efficiency, reliability and comfort, even for smaller models, they spread the word. Good word of mouth, automotive marketers say, is by far the best advertising.

The baby boomers were not particularly loyal to individual import brands, only to the notion of avoiding domestic models. Even if they loved their Honda, they might be willing to try a Toyota next.

Many of the baby boomers' children -- today's car buyers -- have reverted to their parents' buying habits. Consider the Gribbin family's history of car ownership:

David J. Gribbin, 51, of Bethesda, Md., traded his 1978 Mustang II after just one year for a Honda Accord when the Mustang's transmission burned out, and after motor oil dripped down a cable and leaked through the --board.

"I watched my parents' experience when American cars hit rock bottom," said Gribbin, 27, who is a lobbyist in Washington. "It's one thing for a car to leak oil -- but through the --board? Foreign cars might be more expensive, but the upkeep is less."

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