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In Detroit, older drivers take a back seat

Automakers, eager to project a youthful image and attract as broad a customer base as possible, say they have no interest in marketing directly to older car buyers despite an aging U.S. population.
The Buick Enclave concept car is present
The Buick Enclave concept car is presented Sunday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The average age of Buick buyers is in the upper 60s.Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: Reuters

Automakers, eager to project a youthful image and attract as broad a customer base as possible, say they have no interest in marketing directly to older car buyers despite an aging U.S. population.

But the vehicles themselves are starting to reflect that demographic shift as manufacturers pay more attention to features that may appeal to older drivers, executives said at the North American International Auto Show this week.

"We will not design a vehicle for old people specifically," said Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler Group's sales and marketing director, adding that the post-World War II generation doesn't think of itself as old.

"It might be the first generation that will die young," he joked.

Design principles, like legible readouts and the ease of getting in and out, are aimed at all users, he said.

The average age of General Motors Corp.'s Buick buyers is in the upper 60s.

"We were always the old person's car," said Doug Osterhoff, marketing manager for Buick passenger cars. "We know that. It's nothing that we hide from."

The company, figuring its dealer network has its traditional customers well in hand, is trying to attract a younger demographic.

Its advertising targets buyers in their 40s and up. "For the lifeblood of the channel, we need to bring in these younger buyers," Osterhoff said.

Buick models like the Lucerne feature "universal design" conveniences like heated windshield wiper fluid and seats that warm or cool passengers depending on the weather.

Cadillac, whose average buyer is 60 years old, is also aiming young. An iPod connection is standard in the DTS model. Its television spots are set to Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll."

Other brands are confident they don't need to win customers who are already on board.

Tom Purves, chief executive of BMW North America , said BMW avoids marketing to specific demographic groups, focusing instead on measures like income.

"We're one of the first brands where young Americans want to drive their dad's car," he said. "For us, that's more important than the baby boomers, because the baby boomers we already have."

Staying or switching?
Advertisers have traditionally pitched their products to younger buyers, partly because they believe older ones stick to tried-and-true brands.

But older adults are just as likely as their children and grandchildren to switch, according to the Boomertising consultancy.

The group estimates some 81 million U.S. baby boomers -- the United States' biggest demographic segment -- control two-thirds of the nation's wealth. Some 100 million Americans will be over age 50 by 2009.

Many are drawn to foreign makes.

Cars from Toyota Motor Corp., like the Scion and Prius, as well as the Honda Motor Co. Element, have been big sellers among over-50 car buyers, according to the Boomer Project.

"Those cars have boomer sensibilities in how they're designed," said Matt Thornhill, president of the Richmond, Virginia-based research and consulting company.

The Prius hybrid, for example, appeals to boomers who came of age in the 1960s and who now see the car as an opportunity to help change the way Americans consume energy.

"Boomers have been mass-marketed to since they were five years old, and they're always interested in what's next," Thornhill said, adding that this group is as diverse as the broader population, hardly a discrete, easily-defined block.

As for universal design, one can expect easier door handles and bigger read-outs to accommodate boomers. "But it won't be positioned that way at all," he said.

Older buyers want more convenience and a softer ride and are often turned off by complicated technology, said Tom Libby, senior director of industry analysis at the Power Information Network, a division of J.D. Power and Associates.

"In general, there is no overall strategy to appeal to baby boomers," he said.

Such a pitch risks alienating younger buyers. Carmakers won't take that chance because it's less expensive to keep a buyer than to win one in the first place.

The industry should look more closely at the effect an aging population will have on the market, Brad Bradshaw, vice president and general manager of Nissan Motor Corp.'s division in North America, told Reuters at the show.

"Their attitude, though, is not like anything we've seen in the past," he said. "They don't think of themselves as old. That means that we're not going to be building big sedans where people are sitting on the couch as they drive."