Young, educated and upwardly mobile, Kristin Winn represents the ideal target for automakers trying to reach young buyers. Ms. Winn, a 24-year-old technician for an ophthalmologist, says she plans to replace her nine-year-old Chevrolet Cobalt this year.
She says that she would like to buy a new car that has the latest technologies, like hands-free calling, but that it’s not likely to happen considering the cost.
“I’ll probably buy used,” said Ms. Winn, who is from Ann Arbor, Mich., as she admired the Mercedes and Cadillac exhibits at the North American International Auto Show last week. “I plan to go back to school, so I have to keep that in mind.”
Automakers have been in a race in recent years to woo the most coveted, if elusive, sector of the car market: younger buyers. They have restyled cars, creating sportier versions that are more environmentally friendly, and loaded them with the latest dashboard technology. But despite these efforts, young buyers like Ms. Winn still say that price and fuel economy are the most important factors in deciding what to purchase.
Since 2009, the percentage of new cars registered to buyers age 18 to 34 has remained flat, hovering between 10 percent and 13 percent, according to an IHS Automotive analysis of Polk data. And in a recent survey of buyers born between 1977 and 1994 conducted by the global consulting firm Deloitte, four out of five respondents said cost was the main barrier to owning or leasing a vehicle, even though they were attracted by the new features.
When the transmission on Adrian Jauregui’s 1994 Toyota Corolla died at an intersection in El Paso this month, he quickly found himself among the legions of younger buyers in the market for a car. But, like most younger buyers, he is limited by how much he can afford.
“I’m not so sure I’d get approved for financing” before starting a new job at a nursing home for veterans this month, said Mr. Jauregui, who is 20 and a nursing school graduate. He settled on a 2005 Honda Civic.
Karl Brauer, a senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said it was no surprise why cost remained paramount for younger buyers.
“The economy still isn’t supporting employment as well as it should, and this is particularly true for young people,” he said. “It’s possible that, as the economy improves, parents could play a larger role in helping get young buyers into cars.”
Still, the allure of younger buyers remains for automakers, who see an opportunity to replace the aging baby boom generation with a new group of loyal customers. The Deloitte survey found that three out of five young consumers expected to buy or lease a car, new or used, within the next three years, and nearly a quarter of them said they planned to make the purchase in the next 12 months.
But figuring out what they want is a challenge, said James E. Lentz, chief executive of Toyota North America.
“I think they want everything,” he said, adding that young buyers “are so used to trying new and different things, it’s really difficult to forecast what they want.”
The long lead times for product development in the automotive industry further complicate the task of deciding what younger buyers are looking for in a car.
“I’ve got to guess today what you’ll want in a car 10 years from now,” Mr. Lentz said. “Today I’ve got to decide what is going in a car in 2018, and that model will likely be sold until 2024.”
What they want, according to the Deloitte survey, is technology that serves a variety of purposes — to recognize the presence of other vehicles, alert drivers when they have surpassed the speed limit, entertain passengers and connect their smartphones to their vehicle’s dashboard interface.
But buyers say that a vehicle’s cost takes precedence over bells and whistles.
Dashboard technology “is not something I’d look for specifically,” David Campanella, a 24-year-old architect from Washington, said after stepping out of Cadillac’s new ATS coupe on display at the Detroit auto show on Saturday.
“I have so many gadgets,” he said. “Do I need another one in my car? No. Would it be nice to have? Yes.”
Younger buyers like Mr. Campanella are showing a more pragmatic streak. Last year, he bought a 2010 Volkswagen Tiguan sport utility vehicle because he liked its 2.0-liter turbo engine and its storage space.
Fuel economy is critical, Josh Pettrey said, as he browsed Ford’s display of Fiesta subcompacts at the show. Mr. Pettrey, a 26-year-old HVAC technician from Bedford, Mich., said that his 2005 Ford 500 sedan gets 23 to 28 miles to the gallon but that he would prefer something closer to 30.
“Gas prices are up and down,” Mr. Pettrey said, “and I don’t have a ton of money that I can throw out on gas.”
For luxury brands, the task for automakers is to convince younger buyers with more disposable income that there is value in an upscale trim line at an entry-level price. From the new BMW 4-series and the Mercedes CLA sedan to Audi’s coming A3 sedan and Q3 compact crossover, some automakers are banking on smaller luxury models that will convert young buyers into lifetime customers.
“I think we’ve got to do it all,” said David Caldwell, a spokesman for Cadillac, which introduced its ATS coupe at the auto show. “I think it’s wrong to assume that the younger buyer, by definition, is a whole lot different in what they want in a car.”
One out of every five buyers of Cadillac’s ATS sedan, which had its debut in 2012, is under 35, and the automaker expects that rate to rise for the sportier coupe version.
“There’s younger buyers who are into connectivity,” Mr. Caldwell said. “There’s younger buyers who are into performance. I think it goes to the point that they don’t want a compromise.”
But no matter the budget, technology that has become basic in newer cars remains desirable for younger buyers.
Ms. Winn, the ophthalmic technician, said she looked forward one day to upgrading to hands-free technology that is missing in her Cobalt.
“There are some counties in Michigan where you can’t even talk on the phone” while driving if you’re holding a handset, she said, “and that’s the only time I talk to my mom, when I’m driving home from work.”