x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Detroit motor show goes hi-tech and social as brands woo young drivers

Neil Vorano visits Detroit for the North American International Auto Show and finds that everyone is out to impress the social-networking generation.

The BMW i8 Concept, centre, on display at the BMW exhibit during the first day of press previews at the North American International Auto Show. The cars on the left are the 335i and on the right is the 228i.
The BMW i8 Concept, centre, on display at the BMW exhibit during the first day of press previews at the North American International Auto Show. The cars on the left are the 335i and on the right is the 228i.

As the once-powerful baby boomer generation begins retiring, their children are quickly taking their place in the workforce and doing the same thing their parents did - climbing the corporate ladder, in some form or another. There's a new world order on the horizon, a paradigm shift, of sorts, that is being led by a younger generation, those who have grown up in a digital and media-friendly world; those who have a hard time remembering life before Facebook; those who now have a disposable income. People are noticing, not the least of which are car companies.

Many car makers are already targeting a youthful, more tech-orientated crowd, plainly visible this week on the floors of the Cobo Center at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit: Mini has its Mini Connected system that allows users to link their smartphones and download music and get Twitter feeds from the internet. Hyundai's Veloster is a sharp, three-door, sports car with a relatively low price and youthful appeal. In fact, the stands here are full of small, inexpensive yet stylish and tech-laden compact cars aimed at entry-level buyers, from Kia to Toyota to Nissan. But some car makers are looking at this market with a bit more focus. They see a potential that is too large to ignore and too lucrative to get wrong. So instead of designing a car and foisting it on the public in desperate hope it will catch on, some are now first asking the question "what is it that you really want?"

Chevrolet has been asking a lot of questions, and it's no wonder; its research shows there are more than 80 million people in the US alone that fall into the "Millennium" range, those people between 11 and 30 years old - current and near-future buyers. That's 40 per cent of the US car market today, and it's estimated that this age group contributes more than US$1 trillion towards the economy. The numbers here in the Middle East show an even larger age bias. According to John Stadwick, head of GM Middle East, more than 60 per cent of the population here is under the age of 30. Currently, Chevrolet has three cars that are already gaining popularity with a younger crowd: the Spark, the Sonic and the Cruze saloon.

But in an effort to gain more insight into the needs and wants of this group for future products, GM interviewed and liaised with more than 9,000 Millenniums last year, both face-to-face and using that forum so intrinsically linked with the younger generation: social media. And the result of this legwork appeared for the first time on the Chevrolet stand at the motor show: the Tru 140S and the Code 130R concepts.

The Tru 140S is based on a front-drive platform from the Cruze, while the Code 130R is a rear-drive car based on the Cadillac ATS platform. Both are two-door, four-passenger designs, a layout that proved popular with the target market. Both are also intended to have a 1.4L turbocharged engine to help keep costs down to around the US$20,000 (Dh73,500) range, another important stipulation gleaned from GM's dialogue.

"We came from research knowing the kind of styles of cars that young people wanted," says Nick David, the lead designer on the Tru 140S. "They liked having a sporty, two-door car but it was also important that they could bring their friends along with them."

The interiors and features also reflect the tastes and interests of Millenniums, too, with a level of technology that research showed was highly important to them. The cars are loaded - conceptually, at this stage - with a system called MyLink that will allow users to connect their smartphones and access the internet; basically, to stay in touch with their friends and keep up with a virtual world.

"We're trying to cram the cars with technology, but not with what people don't want," says David. "Too much technology can be overwhelming, and so we wanted to find out what was important."

So far, the two cars are just concepts and there are no plans for production. But over on the Chrysler stand, Dodge has something a bit more immediate. Its big news is the Dodge Dart, a compact, four-door saloon that will go on sale later this summer and start at US$15,999. But it's hardly a basic econobox: based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta chassis, not only will it come with a choice of three engines (a base 160hp, 2.0L and optional 160hp, turbocharged 1.4L or 184hp, 2.4L; the latter two featuring MultiAir technology from Fiat) and three gearboxes (manual, automatic and dual-clutch DSG), it will also sport an interior with an advanced TFT screen for the gauges and a centre-mounted, eight-inch touch-screen. The largest in its class, the touch-screen will control an infotainment system packed with features, including the ability to link a smartphone that will bring the internet into the car. It's clearly aimed at a younger, more tech-savvy crowd, and that was no accident, according to Reid Bigland, the head of Chrysler's US sales and the Dodge brand overall.

"We had a lot of input and a lot of market research. In fact, with the Dart, we had a study with the Miami University in Ohio where we brought the students in and they gave us a lot of very valuable input. Things like how to position the car, things that a younger age demographic look for - in fact, the ones that had the best ideas are here today for the reveal. So, we've had a lot of insight from youths in respect of the design of the car, the technology of the car, the development of the car, even the launch of the car."

Ironically, the Dart gets the latest technical innovations that will eventually be filtered up to other models in the brand; usually it works the other way around. That's another indication of how important car makers view the compact segment and its younger buyers.

The beauty of all of this social networking and crowd-sourcing for the car companies is the same attraction that it has for the people who use it - the ability to communicate with a large group of people at the same time, without the need for travel, expensive equipment or intricate logistics and schedules. Just as it is for the general public, it's even easier today for companies in this digital world to have a dialogue with people to find the information they seek.

"We'll be taking input from all around the world in terms of what people would like to see for making those cars operational," says Tim Lee, the president of GM International Operations. "And as long as we take that information in a virtual way, the cost is very low. So we can look for the best ideas from around the world, and you'll see us reacting to the demands of our customers."

But Chevrolet won't just be logging on to Facebook. The company says it will bring both of these cars on the road to gauge customer interest and listen to opinions and suggestions. While the two concepts will invariably hit major international auto shows, they will also appear at other, less likely venues: the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, for example. "We're taking them to the kinds of places with people that wouldn't normally go to a motor show," says David, "which I think is great for us because we want feedback from car lovers but also from those people who aren't. At the end of 12 months we'll be in a very strong position to see whether one or both cars will see production."

Taylor Langhals, a fourth year design student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, definitely falls into the Millennium category. The 22-year-old future car designer applauds the gathering of information from potential customers before designing a car, but warns it's too simplistic to just ask someone directly what they want in a car - it can be difficult for someone to look past what the car has been and realise what a car could be for them.

"I think feedback is important. You can't just do something because you want to do it; everyone has their own opinion," he says. "But I think you need to dig through that feedback to see the real importance. Sometimes someone will say something because that's what they think you want to hear. It's important to ask the right questions. If you do that, I think you'll find the answers.

"Obviously, we're going to be the next ones that are buying cars. But I think there's a trend; I look for something that gets me excited, something that looks like it's fun to drive. I think there should be a connection with the person, something that shows off your personality."

Chevrolet and, indeed, just about every other large car company, are looking for that elusive connection, but they are also looking past just the initial sale of that entry-level car. The key is if you make a buyer connect with that car, chances are they'll connect with the brand, and continue to do so throughout their life. Chevrolet research also shows the Millennium group is very brand-orientated and extremely loyal to names such as Apple, Nike and Google, but far less so with cars, and that's something every manufacturer wants to change.

"Alfred P Sloan, one of the founding fathers of this company, came up with the idea of 'customers for life'," says Lee. "And, unless we have attractive, entry-level vehicles for young buyers, so we can trade them up during the course of their lifetime to GMC or Cadillac, then keeping them will be a challenge."