Chevrolet Researches What Young Americans Want—And It’s Not Hatchbacks

January 9, 2012
With the Chevrolet Spark, Sonic, and Cruze this year completing a full suite of small-car models, General Motors now has small cars covered in the U.S. Or so it would seem; the company also knows that simply offering ordinary hatchbacks and sedans, like the Spark, Sonic, and Cruze, won’t satisfy all of the most demanding 20-something (so-called Millennial) shoppers as they look for new cars.

That’s one of the points behind Chevrolet’s two small-car concepts being shown at the Detroit Auto Show this week. GM knows that striking a chord with the youngest generation of new-car shoppers—the under-30 crowd, or Millennials—is imperative for the brand’s future growth. That age group, of 80 million, represents 40 percent of the potential car-buying public—today—and $1 trillion in purchasing power. And that’s just in the U.S.

GM is serious about making Chevrolet a global small-car brand, yet it needs to study up on what motivates younger drivers, both here and abroad. For starters, driving isn’t thought of as the move toward greater personal independence that it once was; only 30 percent are getting drivers’ licenses right when they’re turning 16. And of older Millennials that are buying cars—even those who could potentially afford a new car—they’re largely staying in the used-car market.

According to John McFarland, GM’s senior manager, global strategic marketing, automakers need to capture the interest that some younger people have in vehicles, and give them back some of the qualities they want, in the form of a product that shows passion and understanding that these buyers won’t find in the used-car market.

“And when we look at this, we don’t really see any brands today that are doing it right,” said McFarland. Apple, Nike, Target, and Facebook all offer their products in a way that stirs passion and involvement from 20-somethings. But the auto industry, he says, “falls between disinterest and complacency.”

2012 Chevrolet Tru 140S Concept

2012 Chevrolet Tru 140S Concept

Tested at campuses…and high schools

To start, GM took some of its prospective small-car designs to high-school students and college campuses. Two consistent priorities that emerged were that younger new-car buyers didn’t want hatchbacks, and they didn’t want to be making excuses for the lack of back-seat space, refinement, or connectivity features.

Both of the California-designed concepts at Detroit—the best-received based on GM’s research—are coupes, and both look to evoke some of the passion of the Camaro or Corvette in a small, four-cylinder vehicle that costs just $19k-$24k.

The first concept, called the Tru 140S, was internally called the “affordable exotic,” and follows a design that looks fast and refined—a three-door coupe that’s along the lines of the Hyundai Veloster. “It’s design language is a little more sleek, polished,” said Clay Dean, GM's global design chief.

The second concept, the Code 130R, the team termed “functional muscle,” and has an upright, boxy look that could fit in alongside old E30 BMW 3-Series models and boxy Fiat and Datsun models of decades ago. “It was one of those ideas we threw in thinking no one would understand it, that they’d dismiss it almost right away,” said Dean, explaining that it then emerged as one of the best-received designs.

“There’s a pragmatic side to this car,” said Dean. “People would say…It kinda looks nostalgic, but it’s kinda luxurious, and a muscle car.”

According to Dean, one of the first steps was just sitting down and listening—and they found that no product-research team had really talked to high-school kids about cars—meaningful, considering the lead time of nearly five years in some cases from sketches to showroom product.

2012 Chevrolet Code 130R Concept

2012 Chevrolet Code 130R Concept

No splashy schemes or teddy-bear wheels

“We talked to them not about cars, but life issues,” explained Dean, and then they rolled into cars and what’s important. And it became apparent that their perception as adults of what they want versus what they want was very different: “What they wanted was something that would give them credibility, make them look grown-up.”

But some ideas related to the car today carry over from when we were 16—that’s the idea of a refuge, an escape. “As much as these kids are connecting, and moving, they like to breathe,” said Dean. “And the car is that to them.“

What’s the next step? Chevrolet and GM will take these concepts on the road, to 13-15 events over the next year, to judge the reaction from students in person and via social media. They’re also going to open a project for Chevrolet to discover what the youth and small-car market is globally.

Chevrolet designed four different interiors for two different cars—but as of yet, all of those interior designs are strictly 2D and ‘on the drawing board.’

Looking at the two concepts again and how different they are, Dean says that there’s no silver bullet, there’s no youth car.—in fact there’s more splintering and segmentation than they’ve seen before. “But because they want distinctiveness…and personalization, they [younger shoppers] just assume that’s how their life is going to be.”

“When you see these two cars, you couldn’t see more polar opposites,” Dean admits.

And he leaves the door open for both. According to Dean. Chevrolet design could diverge, potentially, if one region of the world wants one type of car, like high-shouldered hatchbacks, and another region takes a liking to another body style, such as low-shouldered two-door sedans…who knows?

In any cases, small cars are bound to get more exciting.

See our coverage of the Tru 140S and Code 130R for more details, and look for our live pictures of both cars from the Detroit auto show.

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