Image: GM dealership
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SUVs are offered for sale at the Grossinger GM dealership May 13, 2009, in Lincolnwood, Ill. If Detroit is going to gain U.S. market share, it needs to convince Gen Y consumers that the quality of their vehicles has risen.
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updated 5/29/2009 7:29:54 PM ET 2009-05-29T23:29:54

As Chrysler emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and as General Motors in all likelihood heads into the same process, the toughest and most important obstacle facing those companies will be young consumers like Joseph Molinari.

Molinari, a 24-year-old recent graduate of the University of Michigan's Graduate School of Social Work, is in the heart of the so-called Generation Y, consumers between the ages of 22 and 32, whose parents are baby boomers. Armed with his degree and in a new job in Pinetop, Ariz., Molinari is driving a nine-year-old Honda Accord that he got while in college, purchased with help from his parents off a used-car lot. The car has a glitchy transmission, and the prospect of snowy mountain driving in months ahead has Molinari thinking about new wheels. But so far he is not very intrigued by the amazing deals to be had on Fords, Chevrolets and Dodges. The car he is most interested in checking out is a Subaru Outback, because of its high marks for reliability and a tough all-wheel-drive system.

"I go with what the research tells me, and then I look at price," says Molinari.

Settling for a low price
There's the rub for GM and Chrysler, and to a lesser extent Ford. At least two generations of Americans have grown up thinking that U.S. brands are not the preferred option for passenger cars. In any one category for the past decade or so, the best-selling cars in America have been of Japanese origin — Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. Ford's F Series pickup has been the best-selling vehicle overall, but truck buying is very different from car buying. Chevy has actually been the leading brand among Gen Y, according to researcher AutoPacific, but there's even bad news in that: Sales have been driven overwhelmingly by the brand's lower pricing and cheaper subcompact and compact offerings, not by preference. "They settle for Chevy, but aspire to imports mostly when they get a bit of money," says AutoPacific's Deborah Grieb.

It's well established that Detroit automakers lost ground in the 1970s and '80s with baby boomers. Rebellious and independent when they were buying their first cars, boomers did not want "their father's Oldsmobile." They flocked to Asian makes like Toyota and Honda just as those companies began setting the industry pace for quality and reliability, which Detroit has been chasing ever since.

The bad news for Detroit is that so far, at least, children of the boomers aren't showing a similar streak of auto-brand independence. Fifty-one percent of Gen Y say they are considering Toyotas, according to AutoPacific, while Chevy scores with only 34 percent, Ford 32 percent and Chrysler 10 percent. It's a trend that GM, Chrysler and Ford need to reverse if they're going to regain traction in the U.S. market.

"Gen Y is much more apt to be aligned with their parents' brand choices than those boomer parents were with theirs," says John Wolkonowicz, director of special projects at IHS Global Insight's automotive practice. American carmakers "simply must do much better with Gen Y than they did with their parents, or the comeback we keep hearing about may not happen."

Rejection by Gen Y
Reliability and reputation matter a great deal to consumers, but especially those in Gen Y. In J.D. Power & Associates' "Avoider" research, which surveys car buyers on why they avoided certain brands, around 30 percent of boomers, Gen Xers (those aged 33-45), and Gen Yers said they were "concerned about reliability." Nineteen percent mentioned "bad reputation of manufacturer." And in both those categories of rejection, Gen Y had the highest level. For example, in the J.D. Power survey 24 percent of Gen Y survey takers cited "bad reputation," while just 18 percent of their boomer parents did.

So, it's a double whammy for Detroit. Not only is Gen Y larger than the Gen X group, but its rejection rates are higher as well. "In areas like fuel economy, the U.S. manufacturers are doing much better and can penetrate the market with that information," says David Sargent, vice-president for research at J.D. Power. "But changing overall attitudes and perceptions about quality and reliability takes longer."

Trouble is, these younger consumers are slaves to Internet research. And when the leading third-party arbiters — such as J.D. Power (a unit, like BusinessWeek, of The McGraw-Hill Companies) and Consumer Reports — put GM well behind the likes of Toyota, Honda, and the Europeans, it makes it tough for rational consumers with little "Buy American" sentiment to choose a U.S. brand unless they are bowled over by a particular vehicle's design or price. Consumer Reports recommends no Chrysler products this year. GM only had 19 percent of its vehicles on the recommended list. Meantime, Ford had more than 70 percent of its vehicles recommended, about the same as the Toyota brand (not including Lexus and Scion).

But there are people working to change Detroit's fortunes who see hope, especially as GM and Chrysler get rid of models and brands that have dragged down their reputations and quality scores. Eric Hirshberg, president of ad agency Deutsch/LA, which has handled advertising assignments for GM as well as its Saturn unit, says he believes GM in particular has a fresh opportunity with Gen Y.

Lots of also-rans
"GM is at its lowest right now, and it is being forced to focus its operations on its best and core products and brands, which are quite good," says Hirshberg. He believes that if you get GM down to its 15 or 16 best products, it is a "lineup Toyota would be envious of." Chevy Malibu was a "North American Car of the Year." The Cadillac CTS luxury sedan has been widely accepted as a worthy alternative to German sedans. And Chevy Impala and HHR are both Consumer Reports recommended.

The trouble, Hirshberg notes, is that GM has maintained dozens of vehicles over the years that were past their "sell-by" date. The company stretched its resources too thin, leaving a lot of chances to score poorly on the quality surveys.

Indeed, GM is expected to whittle down its brands in the U.S. from eight to four, concentrating on Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC. Chrysler likely will eliminate the Chrysler brand and replace it in showrooms with Fiat. The Italian automaker will own a large stake in Chrysler and run the operations as it comes out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "Could be that when Fiat and Fiat-inspired vehicles begin showing up in the showrooms, young people get drawn in out of curiosity," says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene. "That's what happened when New Beetle showed up at Volkswagen stores — that car sold a lot of Jettas and Passats because the Beetle got people to the door."

Another wild card that could work in the favor of U.S. carmakers is Barack Obama. The new President has already talked more about the U.S. auto industry in three months than the last two Presidents in their collective 16 years, and he is invested heavily in the success of the restructuring of the companies.

"A year or two of Obama emphasizing the restructured GM and Chrysler, which he has staked his reputation and taxpayer money on, and you could start to see Gen Y take a lot more interest in these brands and looking at them in a new light," says Keene. Chrysler executives have already been playing that card. "President Obama thinks the new Chrysler is a good investment, and he is putting more than $4 billion into it," said Chrysler Vice-Chairman James Press when discussing the automaker's sales.

Potent cheerleader
An Obama commitment to cheerlead the industry could help not only with younger buyers but also in certain geographic regions. GM, Ford and Chrysler have very small shares of the passenger-car market in California, the Boston-Washington corridor, and Southeastern states. Ford, for example, says its market share in California is less than 2 percent after subtracting Ford pickup and Mustang sales. It's comparable for Chevy and worse for Dodge. In the first quarter of this year, Detroit as a whole held but 27.6 percent of California, compared with 51 percent nationally. Japanese brands held 53.3 percent of California new-car sales, versus 38.2 percent nationally.

In the Washington region, Ford holds around 5 percent of the passenger-car market. When GM conducted focus groups for perhaps its best car, the Chevy Malibu, among college-educated women in the Washington area, the results overwhelmingly showed the women scoring the car extremely high for design, styling and features. But when they were shown it was a "Chevy Malibu," acceptance "dropped off the table," said one GM executive who saw the results.

The U.S. industry will need the president boosting its image. Brands that are already popular with Gen Y are in expansion mode. Volkswagen is ramping up a big push with a new U.S. factory. Automakers in China and India are preparing to enter the U.S. And AutoPacific's study shows that 49 percent of Gen Y would gladly consider a Chinese vehicle, compared with just 21 percent of the country as a whole. Thirty-four percent will consider cars from India, versus just 14 percent of the country overall.

That's disconcerting, to say the least. If GM is going to bounce back, it is going to have to change some minds. The Chevy brand represents more than 13 percent of market share in the U.S., and about 65 percent of GM's sales today. That share will only rise after GM lops off its other brands. Chevy is going to be by far the most important brand for GM — whether it makes the company, or breaks it.

Copyright © 2012 Bloomberg L.P.All rights reserved.

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