Karen Crehel recently bought a new car for her daughter Kiersten’s 16th birthday and wound up shocked — in a good way.
“She had already gone on the Internet and learned about what she wanted. She had really done her homework,” says Crehel, who purchased a 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt for her daughter.
Crehel, a resident of the Kansas City suburb of Olathe, Kan., was initially apprehensive about the Cobalt her daughter chose and wanted to shop around a little more.
But Kiersten knew exactly what she wanted and was ready to argue her case. “She told us the safety ratings and the gas mileage, she was really pushing for the Cobalt and knew all about the car,” Crehel says. She also saved up for a down payment while working at a local telecommunications company.
“We told her we would match whatever she had saved. Little did we know she would save $4,000,” Crehel says. The money Kiersten had socked away while working for a local telecommunications company, combined with Crehel’s matching funds, amounted to more than half of the Cobalt’s retail price of around $15,000.
Parents who plan to buy a car for their teen, perhaps as a graduation gift for one of the 3.2 million kids the College Board says will finish high school this spring, should take note: Today’s teens possess an unprecedented level of automotive knowledge. They are surprisingly savvy when it comes to automotive matters and are well positioned to make smart choices about what kinds of vehicles best suit their needs and values — rather than their desires.
“What I find great about teens is that the current generation is very reasonable,” says Chris Moujaes, president of Moujaes, a marketing firm based in Austin, Texas. “They look at the options they have and the current economic conditions and figure out what’s right for them as a young person starting out in the adult world.”
But teens still need help in buying their first car.
Parents can play an important role in helping to close a fair deal at the dealership, making sure the vehicle has the right mix of safety features, and helping kids realize that a car’s total expense isn’t limited to its sticker price, features and fuel consumption.
But the days when parents simply give a car of their choosing to their teenagers — the way many parents might have received their own first set of wheels — are gone. The Web-savvy generation of youth raised on MySpace, blogs and online forums is often very passionate about specific brands, models and features.
“This demographic has to be given more credit,” Moujaes says. “They have lots of access to information that was never available before, and they know how to use it.”
Issa Sawabini, a partner at Fuse, a Burlington, Vt.-based youth marketing agency specializing in 12- to 24-year-olds, says the Internet is the great enabler for teens’ vast automotive knowledge. Teens are avid readers of auto blogs, newsgroups, forums, online reviews and other online automotive editorial content.
“You can post on places like MySpace.com. If you’re a fan of Toyota or Volkswagen or Honda, you can share that,” Sawabini says. Bad experiences with cars and car dealers also get passed around online: “You can share that opinion with your peers in the Internet and read the opinions of others," he says.
Cars teens want most
A recent survey on teen automotive preferences by TRU, a Northbrook, Ill.-based subsidiary of Research International USA, which specializes in the buying behavior of teens and 20-somethings, found that given the choice, teens buy cars that are, for the most part, reasonable for their age and needs.
Nine of the top cars on TRU’s list have starting prices below $20,000. Seven of the vehicles on the list have highway gas mileage at or near 30 miles per gallon, as estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
The percentages are low for the top 10 models — no car garnered more than 10 percent of survey respondents’ votes. But it’s worth noting that the teens who participated in the survey were not given a list of cars to choose from — they had to name their own personal preference unaided.
The Ford Mustang ranks at the top of the list, with 8.56 percent of respondents citing it as their car of choice. The Honda Civic and Honda Accord round out the top three, garnering 5.28 percent and 4.28 percent of survey respondents, respectively.
To give an idea of how pragmatic today’s teens are when it comes to choosing vehicles, the model with highest base price on the list is the $22,400 Chevrolet Impala.
It’s by no means an extravagant vehicle. On the contrary, the Impala sedan, tied for seventh place, and two of its direct competitors — the previously mentioned Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry — are about as staid as cars come.
"It's not surprising that they would pick these cars," says Mike Wood, a vice president at TRU. He attributes the popularity of some mid-sized sedans among youth to a recent focus on a level of utility not found in smaller cars.
But Wood anticipates that future versions of the survey will likely include more small cars, given the nation's increasing focus on fuel economy. "With so much more attention being paid to gas prices, we're starting to see more of a buzz around the idea of looking for smaller cars," he says.
Playing it cool
Kids still want to be cool, of course, but they’re formulating shopping lists based on research and at least a moderate dose of economic reality. Teens know that before they hit the dealer lot, they must first pass muster with their parents.
“The teens realize that their parents are involved in these decisions,” Woods says. “They’re a very pragmatic generation. A car is a purchase that has to satisfy their needs and get their parents’ approval at the same time. It’s not like going out and buying a pair of jeans.”
Research firm J.D. Power and Associates estimates that only 1.2 percent of new-car buyers are under the age of 21. Thus, teens often act as an educated advocate in car-buying decisions.
“The kids are pretty informed about a wide array of issues,” says Gretchen Jammiggeh, an executive for McCarthy Chevrolet in Olathe, Kan. “They know exactly what they’re looking for when they come in the door. And they can relate that to how issues like the current economy and the environment connect to automotive choices."
Jammiggeh says her dealership has sold about a dozen Chevrolet Aveos, Cobalts and other affordable, fuel-efficient models over the past month to parents buying cars for their teenagers, mostly as birthday or graduation gifts.
For the most part, kids accompany their parents to the dealership, and the purchase is a collaborative effort. Surprisingly, selecting a more “reasonable” car is often the kid’s idea. “They already know about which cars are good gas savers, which are reliable and which are in their price range,” Jammiggeh says.
In response to intrepid young car buyers, some automakers, including Toyota, now include interactive games and the ability to “customize” a potential new car on online.
“We try to make it a lot of fun on the Web site,” says Denise Morrissey, a spokesperson for Toyota in Torrance, Calif. “We allow users to do things like create their own crests for the car as part of the Corolla ‘dream estate.’”
Cars that offer connections for iPods or MP3 players, including the Chevy Impala and Jeep Wrangler on TRU’s list, are popular with teenagers. “Music is an extension of your personality, and for the teen generation it will be a necessity for their cars,” says Jessica Hoy, a senior associate at Westin Rinehart, a marketing consultant in Washington, D.C.
But it’s important to note that some popular features might not be safe in the hands of teenagers. As popular as iPods and MP3 players are, Moujaes says, it might not be the best idea to have them in a car driven by a teenager. “You want to be aware of cars that are overly convenient, where you can plug in your iPod and fiddle with that while you’re on the road,” he says.
“A lot of the lessons that parents can teach come back around to money, responsibility and taking care of a car,” says Fuse’s Sawabini. “That’s one area where a teen’s knowledge of automotive matters doesn’t always translate into responsibility. You can walk into a customization shop, for example, and blow your savings. Parents have to make sure kids understand that.” Parents can help teens manage expectations around owning and maintaining their vehicle, too.
Negotiating a fair price is also an area where parents’ wisdom and experience are valuable. Most teens probably don’t have much practice negotiating, while many car salespeople have been at it since before teens were born. “Walking into a dealership and getting the best deal might not be in the teen’s abilities. So it’s helpful to be there to help them with that part of the process,” Sawabini says.
Other than the financial component, safety can be a concern that teens often overlook. “We would recommend checking the information that’s available on the Web sites about the crash worthiness of vehicles, whether there’s information about electronic stability controls, side airbags and how the cars rate in crash tests,” says Ann McCartt, senior vice president of research for the Insurance Insitute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.
Vehicles on TRU’s top 10 list have their share of safety equipment. The Jeep Wrangler, tied for eighth on the list, received a five-star crash rating from the government. The Chevy Impala includes a one-year subscription to OnStar, General Motors’ emergency communication system. And the Honda Accord features sophisticated stability control systems to prevent skidding.
Other than Jeep’s Wrangler, sport utility vehicles are conspicuously absent from TRU’s top 10 list — and that can be a good thing. Moujaes says it’s probably wise to avoid putting teens behind the wheel of large vehicles that can carry many occupants. “It’s dangerous to carry a bunch of kids,” he says.
Safety played a big role in Ron Farrell’s choice of a 2009 Cobalt for his 19-year-old son Andrew, who is starting college this fall at Cederville University near Dayton, Ohio.
“I didn’t want to put him in a vehicle that would break down out there,” says the elder Farrell, referring to the 11-hour trip on I-70 from Dayton to Kearny, Mo., where the Farrells live. “He has to make that trip four times next year, and I want to know that he’s as safe as possible.”
The car is a surprise gift, but Farrell says his son was still involved in determining what kind of car he ultimately would drive. “He was particularly interested in getting a four-door, believe it or not.”