By Lindsay Chappell, Crain News Service
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (Aug. 12, 2013) — Think the auto industry pros have America's massive rising Gen Y youth market all figured out?
Sometimes it becomes painfully apparent that you don't know what you don't know.
A band of grad students from Clemson University's automotive engineering school were tasked a couple of years ago with designing a bona fide Mazda concept car that they have just delivered. What they unearthed along the way may be a little uncomfortable for auto makers for the next few years.
The Clemson students spent two years asking the question, "What do young car buyers really want?" No—what do they really want?
The answer they got back is a car segment that doesn't exist yet. And worse, it isn't even clear yet how engineers might make it exist.
The Gen Y crowd wants a car that is sporty on the outside, but roomy on the inside, the Clemson team said. But more specifically, they want to be able to drive around with their friends—many friends—all together in the same car, like a big social event.
A five-seater isn't good enough. And a seven-seater tends to translate to a frumpy minivan—which they expressly don't want—or a crossover/SUV, which they also don't want.
They simply want a small car that can carry six people comfortably.
The Clemson group responded to this by creating a 3 + 3, a traditional two-row sedan, but with three seats in the front. An old-school front bench seat wouldn't work, they knew, because it wouldn't allow for air bag safety for the passenger in the center. So their Mazda concept features a third front bucket added between the driver and the right-hand passenger seat.
This solution also isn't perfect, they admit. Side-impact regulators might blanche at the idea of a center passenger moving sideways into his neighbor without a side airbag. But the problem has at least been laid on the table now.
Discovery No. 2 might also give industry planners some discomfort.
According to the Clemson research, young and not-so-wealthy Gen Y consumers don't really like entry-level cars. They don't want bottom-of the-line. They want a more expensive car.
But they can't necessarily afford it.
"This young generation is really a difficult market," said Paul Venhovens, the Clemson professor and former BMW executive who supervised the student project. "They don't really gravitate to econo-boxes. They seem to want what they can't afford."
Consider that a challenge from one generation of auto engineers to the next.
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.