Whatever you do, don't call it a hobby.
When Mike Dea, a parts salesman at Diamond Bar Honda, sees projector headlights, exhaust systems and aftermarket intake manifolds fly off the shelves at the Diamond Bar dealership, he knows it's about more to his customers than just souping up a car.
``It's more than a hobby-it's a way of life,'' said Mr. Dea, 19, whose 2001 Honda Civic sports a turbocharger, nitrous tanks, 18-inch rims and a Dodge Viper Yellow paint job. ``It seems you're never done. When you're not at home working on your car, you're at your job trying to make money to buy things for your car.''
Mr. Dea fits into-or, rather, hangs out in-the demographic at the heart of the sport compact enthusiast market: 18- to 25-year olds with a tendency to snap up any accessories that will make their cars drive faster, look flashier and sound better.
Popular on Honda and Acura tuner shopping lists are exhausts that are larger and louder than factory units, colored intake manifolds that help an engine crank out five extra horsepower and springs that lower ride height. Turbochargers, superchargers and nitrous kits-anything to boost speed and horsepower-also are hot sellers at the Honda dealership.
``They want to make their cars look good and go faster,'' said Kelly Thomas, Mr. Dea's colleague, also 19.
Ms. Thomas has her own 2000 red Honda Civic that she has customized with new wheels, replacement bumpers, an exhaust system and a carbon fiber hood.
After all, nearly 18 percent of the tuner market is female, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), based in Diamond Bar.
``We have a youthful generation of sport compact car owners who have picked up where the traditional muscle car owners left off,'' said Brian Torres, president of aftermarket parts manufacturer American Products Co. in Corona, Calif. ``The truck market is a little bit older, but they can be 15 or 55 and still have as much enthusiasm.''
Truck and sport compact owners are looking for quick ways to identify their personality, Mr. Torres said.
They turn to wheels, taillights, high-intensity-discharge headlight bulbs, neon, light-emitting diode lights, strobes and decals.
Oscar Jackson, owner of Jackson Racing of Goleta, Calif., said wheels, tires, suspension pieces and exhausts are hot sellers because they are easy, affordable changes for young people. Sales of power-boosting products also are up, he said.
Aftermarket sales for the sport compact market in total are on the rise. The market is expected to expand 50 percent to $2.25 billion this year, SEMA said.
Exterior modifications such as wheels, tires, suspension modifications and lights are the largest product category in the sport compact aftermarket and account for about 48 percent of retail sales, according to SEMA.
Sales of engine-modifying products are the second most popular category, accounting for 32 percent of retail sales. Interior changes make up 19 percent of the market. Aftermarket electronics, such as DVD players, also are in demand.
Dan Capoferi, a salesman at a Pep Boys-Manny, Moe and Jack store in Eastpointe, Mich., said neon lights, fins and spoilers are favorites with the sport compact owners he sees.
His buyers are concerned more with making their vehicles look better than perform better, Mr. Capoferi said. The most popular vehicles with his customers, who are largely in their mid-20s, are Honda Civics, Acura Integras and Mitsubishi Eclipses.
Aftermarket accessories can be profitable for car dealers too, according to Craig Paisley, president of Paisley Automotive Ltd., an aftermarket parts distributor in Hempstead, N.Y. He said the hottest sellers for auto dealerships are large-diameter wheels and tires.
But Ray Lopez, 33, a 13-year veteran of Tustin Lexus in Tustin, Calif., said his sport compact customers are buying air induction systems, exhausts and suspension kits. Many are installed on Lexus IS 300s.
Even though tuner shops offer dealers too much competition for certain parts, such as wheels, Mr. Lopez said, an opportunity still exists for car dealers to profit in the aftermarket.
And as long as vehicles don't start rolling off assembly lines with unique personalities, the insatiable thirsts of tuners like Mr. Dea and Ms. Thomas to customize them could keep the aftermarket strong enough for dealers to wade in.
``You build a car for yourself,'' said Mr. Dea, who hopes to have the funds someday to drop an Acura RSX Type-S engine into his Civic. ``The satisfaction is in making it your own and knowing that nobody will ever have something that's the same.''
Joe Kohn in Los Angeles contributed to this Automotive News report.