28th February, 2012
It’s now official; the majority of my generation — Generation Y — has a deep-rooted dislike for the automobile. Unlike our parents from the Baby Boomer and Generation X age brackets, we no longer associate cars with our own independence. Instead, smartphones and laptops have become symbols of autonomy in my generation.
I’ll admit that it didn’t exactly make sense to me when I first caught wind of it.
I’m a ripe 21 years-old, which almost puts me smack dab in the middle of Generation Y, and I personally love cars. It’s always been that way since I discovered the ability to talk and walk. As a boy, I grew up flipping through old issues of Car and Driver and admiring photos of all the sheetmetal; I grew up traveling 70 miles one way between home and relatives about once every month. I grew up hanging out before and after school in the Chrysler service department where my mother once worked before the dealer was shut down for warranty fraud; I also grew up looking forward to my sixteenth birthday and getting my driver’s permit I also love driving, especially when I have an open stretch of road mostly to myself.
I know it sounds like I’m just another massive petrol head, and that may be so. I’ll certainly never deny it. What I couldn’t understand was how I suddenly became a generational oddity overnight, someone who still viewed the car as one of the few ultimate forms of personal liberation.
Along with the initial confusion came worry as well. There are around 76 million people that make up my generation, about three times the size of the preceding Generation X and pretty much the same size as the Baby Boomer generation. We make up a fourth of the U.S. population. The thought of well over half of my generation in total discord with the automobile could effectively mean that my hopes of a career in auto journalism would all be for naught. After all, our time as the leading generation is rapidly approaching and when the majority of the leading generation doesn’t bother with cars, that means no one will want to read or hear about them. That means I might as well hang it up.
This news bothered me so much that, for the first time in a little while, I had to really sit down and examine the bigger picture, think in a new context. How did we go from personal transportation all the way down to personal electronics?
(Cont. page 2)
Sure, I own an iPhone and I can see how the level of peer-to-peer connectivity — contact anyone, anytime, anywhere either through a voice call, text message, or a social networking website — and information connectivity it offers on the fly would be hard to live without. I can also see how life without a computer would be hard to deal with. At the moment, having a personal laptop with internet access is essential to achieving my own career goals and its absence would make things difficult.
On the other hand, talking over the phone or through Facebook wall comments are nothing like interacting with other people in the real world. On top of that, the increased and easily accessible connectivity those devices offer can sometimes lead to a decrease in privacy that ironically limits your freedom. When you have a device that anyone can reach you at all hours of the day in a billion different ways, there’s no denying you’re going to have days where people are constantly bombarding you and you’ll grow sick of it.
At the end of the day, the only way you can really interact with friends and family is on a face-to-face basis in the real world, hopefully on your own terms. And what takes you into the real word from place to place on your own time and terms is none other than a car.
Okay, yes I know only $60 will buy you an all-day city bus pass every day for a month in some places. Yes, that’s cheaper than paying for gas and insurance for a car that you don’t have a bank lien on. Yes, it can take you beyond your four walls and out into the real world the same way a car can. But taking the bus presents hassles in having to plan your entire day around a bus schedule and putting up with a big number of obnoxious morons who’d rather fight you than talk to you. And what if you live in a rural town? There typically isn’t any sort of mass transit to speak of and there’s a good chance it’ll probably never appear. Folks are usually too busy to let you hitch a ride somewhere, too.
From there, I eventually reached an epiphany of sorts: it isn’t that anyone would rather stay at home and twiddle on Twitter constantly with their Droid. It isn’t that anyone would honestly rather take the bus. No, it’s really all about the concept of ownership as well as what you have to show for your money.
I know the so-called analysts will tell you us Millennials (slang for Gen-Y) have what’s called a “fluid concept of ownership” — whatever the hell that means — and we care more about having access to something than owning it. Hmmm … you know, I don’t think that’s exactly right.
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Which is better? The Toyota Corolla or a smartphone?
Okay, sure we bog down our hard drives, smartphones, and iPods with music that we have no physical copies of and access what songs we don’t already have through free, ad-based internet radio services like Pandora and Last.fm. Yeah, we’d rather chuck out $10 a month to have Netflix instead of having to pay big bucks to clog a bookshelf up with BluRays and only have a fraction of the content to show for it. So what? I don’t think any of us would disagree that actually owning physical copies of our favorite albums and movies would be much more rewarding, but who can afford it especially when there are cheaper alternatives that are instantaneous and almost as reliable? The interactive experience of CD packaging simply isn’t worth the additional cost.
That’s just entertainment, though; it’s an extra expense. If you’re basing our concept of ownership solely on that, well, you’re just a clueless, old bastard aren’t you? We still care about having something to call our own; it’s just that we’re very value conscious and prefer stretching our money. I’m actually starting to think it’s understandable we’ve latched onto smartphones and laptops as a majority. I mean, what gives you more bang-for-your-buck? An umpteen-thousand dollar Toyota Yaris or Corolla that looks like rubbish, drives like rubbish, and does absolutely nothing right? Or a few-hundred dollar hi-tech smartphone that can reliably call your girlfriend, order you pizza, and play your favorite song in the background all at the same time while you sit on the john?
As much as it shocks and pains me to say it, you can put the latter on my credit card anytime, thanks. The smartphone certainly has more substance than a Toyota. It’s also safe to say by now it’s the more involving device and obviously cooler. You can say to someone with pride that you own an iPhone or a Droid RZR. You can’t do that with some cheap Toyota, or any other cheap small car for that matter.
So, we’ve fallen out of favor with the car not because we hate them, it’s because there isn’t one single affordable new car out that’s compelling enough for us to try and go into debt for one and pay for the extra costs that comes along with it. We’re a generation that cares about specifications and most if not all affordable cars are unwholesomely boring and offer nothing of interest, not a single redeeming quality. As evidenced by a recent Edmunds article, some of us still yearn for top-drawer sports cars like Porsche 911s because anyone can see plain as day what it has to put on the table: good styling, great performance and hardware, and lust-worthy recognition.
A $10,000 dollar Nissan Versa, which looks like a piglet with elephantitis and has about the same fuel economy and performance characteristics, is an obvious burlap sack in comparison. Like I said, my generation doesn’t pay good money for stupid junk with dismal hardware. We’d rather do things right the first time and put mere pennies aside and walk until retirement age to buy the 911 rather than have to drive the dumb little Versa.
What I think or rather know would get my generation looking at cars again are small cars that can be had for a few thousand below the average small car price of $18,000 (that includes tax and other fees), something that you can pay $200 a month on, tops. It also has to have evocative styling and a big-dog attitude. It has to consume fuel at a dismal pace and be dead reliable. It has to be reasonably quick and great to drive. It has to be cheap as dirt to insure. This really isn’t asking for too much.
Which small car out there ticks off all those boxes? I can’t think of a single one. And here’s what’s really worrisome — automakers know what they’ve gotta build to get us into showrooms but they aren’t building it.
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Chevrolet Code130R concept
At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, GM rolled out two small Chevrolet concept coupes with our generation set dead in their sights — the Code130R and Tru140S. The Code130R was designed as a modern day, American BMW 2002 for a buyer on a budget. It was also an awesome concept on paper spec-wise; low curb weight, rear-wheel drive, 40 mpg highway, six-speed auto or manual gearbox, and some decent utility.
The Tru140S was designed to deliver the same visual experience as what you get from an Italian supercar and, arguably, it won more fans for its styling than the Code130R did. It too was very fuel efficient and had promised decent performance, never mind it was based on the Chevy Cruze. And because both concepts were powered by small four-cylinder engines, that would make them cheap to insure.
These two concepts show that GM knows that our generation cares about hardware, about specs, and about good styling. More importantly, those two concepts are proof that the small car market is going to have to move beyond using the standard Civrolla template to attract buyers my age. With that said, the Chevys had a major shortfall — GM said that either car could come to market under $25,000 dollars. Never mind the cheap fuel costs and insurance premiums; the target price automatically makes them unobtainable.
Let’s forget the Chevy fantasy-mobiles then. As cool as they might have been, they weren’t the first concept cars that targeted my age group. Instead, that distinction goes to Chrysler ten years ago and they managed to do things a little bit better.
Chevrolet Tru140S concept
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Dodge M80 concept pickup
At the 2002 Detroit Auto Show, ChryCo rolled out two concepts cars, the Dodge M80 and Dodge Razor. The Dodge M80 was a small pickup truck. With its tough-looking exterior inspired by old Dodge Power Wagons, there’s no denying it looked seriously cool. It was also lightweight at just 2,500 pounds, which meant that, although it was equipped with a V6 engine good for 210 horsepower and sub-eight second zero to sixty times, it would prove to be economical. It was also designed to use off-the-shelf parts and cheap but durable materials to keep the price way, way down. It was also full of innovative storage and design features like side cargo box storage and a center console that doubled as a portable cooler.
The same mentality was evident in the Dodge Razor, a small two-seater coupe. Again, the car used off-the-shelf parts and engines but that didn’t mean it was some hodge-podge of junk. The turbo-four engine came out of the old Neon SRT-4 and was good for 250 horsepower and sub-six second zero to sixty times. It was also a proper rear-drive car with a six-speed manual gearbox. Like the M80, it had a low curb weight of 2,500 pounds, which meant that along with the four-banger engine economy would prove to promising. The styling was sharp-edged and had more than its share of Viper DNA, seriously cool. The price for all of this economy and performance? Dodge had a target of $14,500 in mind if a production version were to appear two years later in 2004. Adjust that price for inflation and it still only checks in at around $16,000 bucks.
Why Chrysler didn’t choose to build the both of them is something I can’t quite figure out. They both offered great styling, performance, and economy and the M80 had great utility. The fact they both used proven, off-the-shelf parts meant that they were reliable and cheap to maintain. Sure, the M80’s four-wheel drive and the Razor’s two seats would’ve made the insurance premiums a little bit silly, but it’s easy to fix that. You just offer the M80 with two-wheel drive and bill the Razor as a commuter car — like Pontiac did with the Fiero — and give the base model a naturally aspirated engine (that would also drop the base price well below $16 grand). Problem solved.
However, if vehicles like the Dodge Razor and Chevy Code130R concepts are evidence the small car market has to move beyond building stuff around the bland, tiresome Civrolla template to get us into showrooms, putting the two on a production line would only be the beginning. I understand not all of us want coupes, so that’s why automakers must build a small SUV or wagon and a small sedan — which would all showcase the same thinking behind the four Gen Y concepts — to compliment their versions of the Tru140S and M80.
So to Chrysler I say dust off, revise, and build the Razor and M80 and to GM I say build the Code130R and Tru140S, just as long as you take a note from Chrysler and keep the prices cheap. Don’t ask questions, just get to work on them. If you start building cool, excellent-looking cheap small cars with outstanding hardware and specifications, I can guarantee my generation will finally find it's itself on the path to falling in love with cars. Not to mention we'll buy the living hell out of each one you offer.
Dodge Razor concept