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Cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta are intended for younger... Cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta are intended for younger buyers. However, a poor economy is keeping sales sluggish within that demographic (Ford).

Talk to almost any auto executive today with a marketing title, and the conversation will come around to "reaching younger buyers." Carmakers have an ever-expanding lineup of products aimed at youth: Nissan's Cube and new Juke, the Ford Fiesta, Chevy's Cruze and forthcoming Spark, and Toyota's new Scion tC, among others.

But high unemployment rates among younger car buyers combined with the slowly recovering economy means that many of these vehicles will not be purchased by so-called "Millennial" buyers, those kids who don't know what an LP record is and wouldn't recognize a rotary phone.

Fiesta Only Fourth

If there is one new vehicle on the market these days that embodies the "youth car," it is the new Ford Fiesta. Ford used social media outreach to engage Millennials for 18 months before the first cars rolled into dealerships. The work paid off, achieving product awareness among 18-to-34-year-olds that was north of 40 percent before the first TV ad ran for the car.

The Fiesta has been on sale for a few months, but the car isn't setting the sales world on fire, and the rest of the small-car segment isn't hot either. The Fiesta was only the fourth-best-selling subcompact in November at 3,473 units, behind the Nissan Versa (6,724), Hyundai Accent (4,052) and the Honda Fit (4,052).

Ford's head of sales analysis George Pipas says the sluggish sales are primarily caused by young people staying out of the new car market. Fifty-percent of first-time car buyers opt for small cars.

Younger Buyers Edged Out

Young consumers have been forced to the sidelines because of high unemployment, under-employment and the need to repay student loans and credit cards. Unemployment is nearly 15 percent for those aged 20-24, more than 50 percent higher than the national average. Unemployment is 10 percent for those 25-34. No wonder nearly half of young adults aged 18-24 were living with their parents in 2009.

In a sign of the times, one of the earliest pieces of the 2010 healthcare reform legislation to be enacted was the ability of families to keep their adult, post-college "kids" on their health-insurance policies, because so many recent college graduates can find neither jobs, nor afford their own healthcare insurance.

The average cumulative debt among graduating seniors in 2009 was about $22,500, according to FinAid.org, a Web site that specializes in financial aid. But keep in mind, this is an average, which means many are graduating with much more debt. Even among those with jobs there are a large numbers who are under-employed, which usually means deferring a new car purchase for years.

Joseph Allanwood, 24, of Naperville, Ill., still has over $35,000 in student loans to pay off. A social worker, his $34,000-a-year job means he won't be buying a new car for a while, and he says none of his friends have been buying new cars either.

"I have a 2006 Chevy Impala my parents gave me when I graduated -- it was their car -- and it only has 60,000 miles on it," he said. "It's the best kind of car I know, which is paid for."

Boomers Still Spending

According Ford's data, the biggest drop in new car buyers in the last three years has been in the 18-34 segment, as annual sales have fallen from near 17 million a year to around 12 million this year. However, "there has been virtually no drop-off in buyers in the baby boom bracket," says Ford's Pipas.

So the market for these smaller, less expensive "youth" vehicles remains the boomers. The average age of new-vehicle buyers today is about 48, up from 43 just two years ago. The number didn't shoot up so much because of an aging population, but rather because younger buyers have stayed out of the market since the economic collapse of 2008.

These boomer buyers tend to fall into two camps. The first are those of the "forever young" mentality looking to buy a youth vehicle, while the other comprises those forced into an early retirement, those who saw their investments hammered in 2008, or, sadly, those dealing with both financial realities.

Take Robert Jefferson, a 51-year old engineering consultant based in West Orange, N.J. Jefferson was forced out of a job at a large corporation earlier this year, and needs to buy a car because he no longer has a company car to rely on. "I was driving an Acura leased through the company, but I'm aiming lower with my own money," says the father of two. "In new, I have been scouting the Scion xB, Hyundai Elantra and Ford Fiesta, but I'm also looking at used."

Searching For The Fountain

Earlier this year, Jack Hollis, the Toyota executive in charge of the Scion brand, used the site of Oakland University in suburban Detroit to launch the new tC coupe to the media. The college setting was used to remind reporters that Scion is a youth-targeted brand.

The 2011 tC, starting at just under $19,000, is important to Toyota to reach younger buyers and keep new blood coming into Toyota dealerships, which also sell Scions in their own unique showroom space. The average age of Toyota buyers is 57, while the average age of tC buyers is roughly 30 years younger. In addition, 70 percent of Scion buyers have said in surveys they would not consider buying any other vehicle sold by Toyota. But the company wants to drive that percentage down.

Mercedes-Benz executives are similarly worried about the fact that their average buyer is above 60 now. To better attract younger buyers to the prestige brand, Mercedes began running an online community called Generation Benz in 2008, intended to bring younger consumers into the brand while giving Mercedes insights about the 20-somethings. The site, at www.GenerationBenz.com is an invitation-only forum by which the company mines the Gen-Y attitudes, lifestyle and brand preferences.

Among the insights to date, Mercedes dealers were treating younger people who came into the showrooms like they had bed-bugs, especially if they didn't have their shirts tucked in. The company has dialed in better communication and customer handling skills into dealer and sales-associate training.

Does all this mean that automakers are wrong to obsess over younger buyers. "Not at all," says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "The economy is doing a slow climb, and those people will come in to the market. Besides, you can always sell a so-called 'young car' to an older buyer, but the only way a young person wants an 'old' person's car is if their parents give it to them for free."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 4 Months Ago
      Nobody can afford them, they are very expensive, Hyundai whips them on price ! Seems like USA makes good stuff but is expensive, so younger buyers look at used or Hyundai !
      • 4 Months Ago
      People don't want small care. They want 500HP plus Muatangs, Camaros and Challangers. Just ask them. Buy American !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
      • 4 Months Ago
      fire350669: Pieces of crap? Wow! My hubby is 6'1'' and fit in my 2007 Nissan Sentra just fine. te2rys: My Nissan Sentra is very safe and I had a smaller 4 door car before that my dad gave to me. I got into two accidents with that car and came out of it unharmed.
      • 4 Months Ago
      I like the look of the Fiesta but I'm a tall man and would prefer a 3-door hatch instead of the 5-door hatch they offer. It would make ingress and egress much easier for me. I don't drive 4 adults around so I don't need 4 doors. I would prefer 2 larger doors instead (and a longer track on the front seats for better legroom in the front.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Its a Ford. No matter what they do unless they come out under a different name who wants one. I would be embarrassed to drive a Ford car. Everyone I know would say the same. You are not hip unless you drive a Nissan or Honda. Ford has the worst logo on the planet.
      • 4 Months Ago
      I had one as a rental, and it is DEFINATELY a car for the young. It's sporty, it's cute, it has all the bells and whistles, but for a 40+ year old, I prefer comfort over sporty and cute! Before I rented it, the only other time I had seen one was on T.V., and I live in SouthEast GA.
      • 4 Months Ago
      They can't reach the youth if they won't build the only thing young guys want: a $15k, 2-door, RWD, turbo V6, 300+ HP, manual-transmission drift machine with 275-width tires, and pre-wired for aftermarket audio, but NO luxury features. The closest anyone ever got was the '87 Mustang LX 5.0 / T5 notch-back with back seat delete, A/C delete and radio delete. Those sold well. The youth are buying up used Nissan 240SXs, and similar rides. I bought my first car at age 14: A used V8 Camaro. Now I'm mid-30s, and have a '95 Ford Probe GT with 5-speed manual and turbocharger, an '85 Nissan 300ZX with '01 Corvette engine swapped in, 27 mpg hwy, an '89 Mustang LX 5.0 now twin turbocharged, 29 mpg hwy, an '84 Trans Am WS6 with 5.7L engine swap, 27 mpg highway, and an '88 Fiero Formula WS6 with supercharged 3.8L V6 and 6-speed-manual swapped in, 34 mpg hwy. Under $4k invested in each, each over 300 RWHP. And every one can drift at the local sanctioned autocross meets.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Nissan Leaf for the win. This is a great vehicle for all ages, including youth.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Type of buyer that isn't showing up? The smart one!
      • 4 Months Ago
      It has the same issues as Prius - can't see with the small, tapering windows. And it makes the car seem smaller. Let the sun shine in.
      • 4 Months Ago
      Amazing euro world car. Drives better ...literally ... than ANYTHING japanese. Handles on rails and comfy. HUGE back seat tho doesn't look it. Mileage is best in class AND QUALITY is JD Powers #1 at Ford. The only reason the younger buyers are not buying is Obama an Pelosi haven't done JACK to put people back to work.... and the 18 to 18 year segment is the HARDEST hit. Sooooooooo.... no jobs?...cannot buy a new car? This isn't rocket science. NOTHING wrong with the product...in fact spot on. Just a despot and henchmen who thiny they know what is best for us all..... and obviously they do not. GO FORD.... do not care where it gets built as long as the profits stay in the US Industrial base.... not Korea's or Japan's. Buy Quality... but American again. Cheers B
      Lee Stevens
      • 4 Months Ago
      They have so over inflated the car market they really think a 300.00 a month car payment is a good deal that doesn't even get into the organized parts and repair rip offs.For way too long we need true consumer protection across the board covering things like plastic timing chains that are bound to fail and gouging on proprietary parts that are unnecessary.
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