• Nov 4th 2010 at 12:00AM
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Vehicles like the 2011 Chevy Equinox are attracting you... Vehicles like the 2011 Chevy Equinox are attracting young buyers back to the domestic automakers. Click on the image for more photos and information (GM).

At long last, Detroit seems to be getting some respect. In the most recent results of an ongoing study, domestic and foreign brands are roughly neck and neck when it comes to how they’re seen by 18- to 30-year-old buyers. According to CNW Marketing Research of Bandon, Oregon, young buyers crucial to the U.S. auto industry’s future are starting to give domestic models the same consideration as imports, potentially signaling a broad-based shift in consumer preferences. Even customers with foggy memories of what it was like to be 30 are paying more attention to the Detroit Three as they shop for new vehicles, analysts say. 

Climbing Consideration

That’s a dramatic improvement for Detroit over a decade ago, and a reversal for foreign brands. The study measures “consideration," the first, crucial stage in buying a vehicle.  Too often, it has been the missing piece of the puzzle for the Detroit Three, say analysts.

Detroit saw a staggering loss of “consideration” from 1995-2005, according to the research firm. In 1995, only 19 percent of what it called “young intenders” would not consider buying a domestic vehicle. But that number climbed to 39 percent by 2000. The low point came in 2005, according to the research firm, when a full 41 percent of young car shoppers had ruled out buying a Ford, General Motors or Chrysler product. 

It’s no surprise then that Mercury vainly pursued “consideration” in its advertising -- “You’ve got to put Mercury on your list” -- as it tried to pull out of its nosedive over the last few years, one that eventually led to its demise this year.

But the percentages of buyers that would never consider a domestic brand began to decline as the past decade wore on, while the share of buyers that would never consider imports began to rise. The percentage of young buyers willing to consider either a domestic or an import brand has risen from 32 to 35 percent between 2005 and 2010. Given Detroit’s fall from grace during the 1990s, this can be viewed as a gain for the domestics.

This graph shows the consideration lent to domestic and foreign brands by 18-30 year-old new vehicle intenders (CNW Research).

Detroit Fights Back

The reversal of Detroit’s fortunes comes largely from improved quality and more exciting products, say analysts.

David Sargent, vice president of global vehicle research at J.D. Power & Associates, credits Ford and GM’s recent wave of new products, along with their newfound enthusiasm for the imports’ traditional turf, the midsize and compact segments. Vehicles like the Ford Fusion, the Chevy Malibu and Equinox, and the Cadillac SRX have helped make the difference, he said.

"A large part is that the Detroit Three are coming out with cars that are more appealing to consumers than they were previously," he said. “They are increasingly competitive in midsized vehicles, and we are likely to start seeing that happen with small vehicles like the new Ford Fiesta.”

Analysts agree that vehicle quality – or at least the perception of it – drives consumer consideration. But quality doesn’t simply mean reliability. Consumers also pay attention to quality in design, performance and technology. "It's always the sheet metal at the auto shows," said George Pipas, sales analyst at Ford. "But consumers are extremely value conscious. That doesn't mean a low price. It means they consider the total value equation for product because it is such a big ticket item."

Still, it has been an uphill battle for Detroit. Perceptions lagged even as its quality edged upward, Sargent said. “They take a long time to change, particularly when they are negative.”

In some cases, models advanced in the quality rankings without creating much of a stir. No one really notices when a car model rises from 25th to 22nd in the rankings, for example. “But when you move from eighth to fifth, suddenly people get very excited,” Sargent said.

The same was true for fuel efficiency. The most fuel-efficient cars from Detroit have gone head-to-head against their counterparts from Toyota and other Japanese brand for several years, with highway miles per gallon usually in the low thirties for midsized cars and low- to mid-thirties for compacts. But imports enjoyed a reputation for greater fuel efficiency, at least until now. Since gas prices soared in 2008, automakers are more likely to advertise fuel economy, and customers are more likely to pay attention to it, analysts say.?
Pipas argues that Ford vehicles’ quality ratings and fuel economy are part and parcel of their appeal. “There's no question that this message is getting out,” he said. “Most consumers look at fuel efficiency as a proxy for quality. If it's fuel-efficient, then that means that care has been taken throughout the design and the engineering of the vehicle.”

Blame The Boomers

There are other explanations for the change, as well. One is a generational shift in the market, said Sean McAlinden, chief economics and vice president for research at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Many baby boomers had given up on Detroit’s vehicles, but now, McAlinden says, the post-baby boom generations are giving U.S. manufacturers a fresh start.

“It was the baby boomers who were most loyal to Japanese makes and made the big switch from Detroit,” he said. “They are beginning to fade now in the market and have been labeled by Detroit executives as the ‘lost generation.’ Many Detroit execs felt they could never make a comeback with that generation and their memories of bad Detroit quality, and that they could only make a comeback with entirely new generations of buyers.”

Not Just Toyota

If you’re thinking that Toyota’s recent misfortunes is the root cause of this, understand that the trend can be traced back at least five years, long before Toyota's recall debacle. Analysts agree that Toyota gave the Detroit Three a boost earlier this year, but it should not be overstated. "People have started to move away from Toyota a little, but that may be a short-term phenomenon," Sargent said. “Consumers are still giving the quality edge to Japanese automakers,” he said.

So Detroit still has a fight on its hands, as do the import brands. And consumers are likely to emerge as the real winners.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      Baby Boomers were the beiginning of the Me generation. They are a narcissistic self absorbed generation. They have no brand loyaly. They merely want to be noticed driving somthing that is the "In" thing to be driving. Those making decisions in the American auto industries were a part of that generation and so they pushed for developement of vehicles to match every whim that came along. There can be only so many little two seaters sold in this country. This country is still a f-150 country, Too much out of the box thinking and we end up with lots full of used vehicles no one wants. Bring back a nice mid and full size sedan and coupe platform and then create the options for them. Why does every automaker have to have a grand SUV? I'm tired of drivng behind them. It's like driving behing a Semi or a brick wall, you can't see ahead for crap.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I'm no baby boomer, but I have always purchased an American Car, I don't wan't to hear ********* not a " 100% made in America" but the fact is all, if not most of the money stay's in the USA, and as far as quality goes, I have never had any issues with my Chevy Cars and trucks that I have owned through the years. I also have a Ford E250 Company van that I use for work and It also has never let me down, If you have ever watched That British show Top Gear you will see the lies that the world is spewing about American made Cars. I believe we as American should support our country before it is to late.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I have always bought 'American'' vehicles and have always been satisfied. However, since the Obama take over of several of the automakers - I will not purchase from those companies. Ford did not take the federal money and for that reason I will support them.
      • 8 Months Ago
      It`s encouraging news for Detroit, (and America). My wife bought a new Chevy Eqinox, and she gets nothing but compliments on it. Now the women she works with who drive imports want one.
      • 8 Months Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      American autos in the 1970's and early 80's were shop queens.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I own a 2008- 60th Anniversary Ford F150 Crew Cab...Guess what... That truck is KING! The best made truck for a pick-up on the road today. Hey it's American and a FORD! Also, I just bought a new Corvette...Guess what again, there is no sports car made today that can touch it, especially for the price category. Again, America made and CHEVY! You counld'nt pay me to buy a Japanese car! lastly, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep a extremely nice as well. American's can are making great cars...END OF STORY!
      • 8 Months Ago
      herm5236, The domestic brands cost the same or less than Japanese brands, and they have done a great job with interiors lately. You need to get out to dealerships and compare.
      • 8 Months Ago
      ctryroads, I went on YouTube, and watched a Jeep Wrangler club in Hawaii. I was blown away in what those vehicles can do in the mountains. I drove Jeeps in the military, and they would get through tank trails better than the tanks.
      • 8 Months Ago
      I would have let them fail. I also would have let the banks fail, too.
      • 8 Months Ago
      Amen, beth. We bash a union member for making $50,000 per year, but we think it's okay for a CEO to make 431 times the average worker. And, now the big 3 are paying new hires at $14 per hour with no pensions. No wonder wages are going backwards. The problem is we should have never traded with poorer nations and let so many illegals into this country. It's driven wages back to pre-1980's levels. When the middle class does well, the country and public services benefits.
      • 8 Months Ago
      herbro -- maybe because 2 out of the 3 US auto companies won't be around anymore by 2020??
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