Ask Patrick Carr, a 25-year-old Warren, Mich., engineer, which feature he likes most about his new Dodge Caliber, and you'll get an interesting answer:
"Lighted cup holders," Carr said without hesitation. "That was very cool. I couldn't wait until it got dark so I could actually see them."
While lighted cup holders may seem insignificant, DaimlerChrysler, the maker of the Caliber, and a host of other automakers are packing everything they can into their compact cars to increase the "cool factor" and attract young buyers like Carr.
Honda Motor won 2006 North American Car of the Year honors with the redesigned Civic, which offers safety, style and performance in a car that starts at $14,560.
General Motors has a hit with the retro-styled Chevrolet HHR that starts at $15,890. And Toyota Motor offers extensive customization with its Scion line, which starts at $13,320 and allows buyers to choose everything from side-panel graphics to glowing interior foot-wells.
Now Dodge enters the fray with the Caliber, which starts at $13,985. A gadget-packed hatchback, the Caliber offers an iPod holder in the armrest, rear speakers that flip out when the tailgate is opened, a chilled storage bin in the glove compartment and a rear cargo light that pops out to serve as a rechargeable flashlight.
While the prices and profit margins may be low on these vehicles, the stakes are high because echo boomers -- a large generation that represents the children of baby boomers -- are entering their teens and 20s, prime age for getting into their first cars.
Toyota appears to be on the cutting edge of marketing to this youth segment with Scion, a set of affordable vehicles with eye-popping paint schemes, edgy body designs and slick interiors.
Scion sets itself apart by starting with a basic, affordable introductory model and then letting the buyer add individual options, said Scion corporate manager Steve Haag.
Introduced in California in 2003 and then the rest of the United States in 2004, the line has become so popular that Scion clubs are popping up around the country.
Chris Fera, 29, of Roseville, Mich., traded in his 1995 Ford Escort a year and half ago for a Scion xA, a snub-nosed hatchback. For around $16,000, Fera's Scion came with a car alarm, spoiler, glowing blue foot-wells and lighted cup holders that cycle through about 10 different colors. With an indigo ink pearl paint job, his Scion xA turns heads.
"At first, it was kind of weird," Fera said. "You didn't know how to take it. ... You'll go by some of these people. All of a sudden, they're speeding up, trying to catch up with you and check out your car."
Hoping to land first-time buyers of its own, Dodge will be going after the youth market with the launch of the Caliber. Chrysler -- which invested more than $400 million in the Belvidere, Ill., plant once thought to be a candidate for closure but now builds the Caliber -- soon will see just how much this clever design connects with buyers. Company executives won't disclose sales projections, but the vehicle is expected to easily top Neon sales of 113,000 last year.
Patrick Carr and his wife, Jesse, were early converts, buying one of the first Calibers after their Toyota Corolla was totaled in a wreck. The style and utility of the vehicle sold them, they said. They travel frequently to visit family. They also own three dogs -- a beagle, husky and boxer -- and often take in foster pets.
"I liked the look," Jesse Carr said of the vehicle. "It wasn't so carlike."
They probably don't need a rear cargo light that doubles as a flashlight or cup holders that light up, Carr said. "But for the value and price of the car, it was like 'This is pretty cool," he said.