Scott Cohen  /  AP
University of Washington student David Fotheringham, 24, poses with his 2004 Scion XB in Bellevue Wash. on Friday. "It falls somewhere between function and style, and it's actually a good balance," he said.
updated 1/8/2006 4:01:19 PM ET 2006-01-08T21:01:19

When it came to buying his Scion xB two years ago, David Fotheringham didn't exactly check out a few dealerships and kick the tires.

The University of Washington student first test-drove the boxy vehicle during an auto show in Seattle and later contacted a dealer in California over the Internet. There was no haggling on the Web and the tuning enthusiast loved the potential for customizing the car.

Plus, the reaction from his first spin through a nightclub district in Seattle left him wanting more.

"People freaked out when they saw the car," he said. "It put a big grin on your face. It was an easy selling point."

Fotheringham, 24, is part of the large batch of twentysomething motorists increasingly courted by automakers offering compact, affordable vehicles that don't scrimp on technology and give owners plenty of ways of making them their own. U.S. sales for the Scion xB were up 16 percent in 2005, compared to a 1 percent increase for the market as a whole, according to Autodata Corp.

Automakers are desperate to reach the Generation Y market of about 70 million people to build a base of loyal customers. Several are expected to showcase a range of smaller models aimed at young buyers during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, which began media previews Sunday and opens to the public on Saturday.

The lineup includes the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris and Dodge Caliber compact cars, the MINI Traveller concept wagon and concept vehicles by Mazda and Ford.

In the past, economy cars offered little styling or extras beyond great gas mileage. But in recent years automakers have sought to make cars more fun to drive and offered compatibility for MP3 players and iPods for tech-savvy consumers.

About 2.4 million compact cars were sold in 2005 and represented about 14.4 percent of the market share in the United States, according to J.D. Power and Associates. The sales and market share of the vehicles have dropped slightly since 2000, but U.S. manufacturers say the segment could become an opportunity.

"As some Asian and European brands have shown, buyers are looking for more than just the small, fuel-efficient vehicles patterned after the ubiquitous econo-boxes of the 1970s and '80s," said Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, in a speech last week at the Greater Los Angeles Auto Show.

"But no company today is putting an American stamp on the small car segment ... Ford plans to seize it."

For automakers battling it out in the ultra-competitive North American market, the small vehicles could be a way to build brand loyalty. Someone driving a Yaris might buy a Camry one day, or the owner of a Chevrolet Aveo could eventually move into a TrailBlazer.

"I think it has to be looked upon as a play to get new buyers in the franchise," said Daniel Gorrell, vice president of automotive studies at the marketing research firm Strategic Vision.

The vehicles may also attract buyers wary of rising fuel prices. The redesigned 2007 Aveo, unveiled in Los Angeles, gets about 35 mpg on highways. Ed Peper, Chevrolet's general manager, said the Aveo has attracted more non-GM buyers to the automaker than any other vehicle. Aveo sales rose 21 percent in 2005, according to Autodata.

For Fotheringham, the xB was affordable _ current models start at $14,520. His silver-and-green two-toned xB gets good fuel mileage for his daily commute and can fit into tight parking spaces in the city.

To meet the consumers, automakers have veered away from the traditional advertising outlet of television and instead sought to publicize their vehicles on the street _ at concerts, nightclubs and on the Internet.

Corey Hogan, 25, a television production assistant in Los Angeles, said a big part of the appeal is customization. His Scion xB is decked out with a Seibon carbon fiber hood, Anzo headlights with custom green halos and a Kenwood CD/DVD player with satellite radio.

"Everyone always wants what's new, what's on the cutting edge," Hogan said. "The younger generation always wants to separate themselves from everyone else."

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