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COMMENT: Designing for youth and unexpected consequences

By Graeme Roberts | 11 January 2012

Honda Element production ended in 2011 (this is a 2007) with the model little changed from launch in 2003. Designed to appeal to Californian surfers, it was a surprise hit with older buyers who valued its vast and flexible load carrying capacity and easy entry/exit

Honda Element production ended in 2011 (this is a 2007) with the model little changed from launch in 2003. Designed to appeal to Californian surfers, it was a surprise hit with older buyers who valued its vast and flexible load carrying capacity and easy entry/exit

General Motors executives from CEO Dan Akerson to global director of youth strategy, John McFarland, to Chevrolet marketing chief Chris Perry have all been consistently on-message this Detroit show - we are going to listen to young potential buyers, the 18-30 millennials, and we are going to engage them and develop the products that excite passion in them for cars again. Or words to that effect.

This is not the first time younger buyers have been targeted by a car company. Toyota developed the whole Scion brand - US only - to lure in younger buyers who wouldn't be seen dead in a Toyota like dad or grandma drives. Funkily styled boxy little hatchbacks, offered with few factory options to keep dealer inventories simple, but available with all sorts of bling as dealer-fit accessories, were joined by a stylish, sporty two-door coupe, a body style popular with millennials, as GM's own research has shown. Scion is still with us; the latest generation models at Detroit this week offering much the same line-up as at launch some years back. Media reviews I've seen have been mostly favourable, especially for the tC coupe.

What's interesting is that the boxy hatchbacks have also proved popular with people outside the millennial age range. I've seen lots of Scions on both the east and west coasts all sign-written up to advertise their professional owners' businesses. Chiropractor, dentist, florist, dog walker, you get the idea.

Back around the end of the 1990s, Honda North America decided to develop a funky car to attract more youthful buyers. Engineers and designers talked to young car buyers, including surfers at west coast beaches not far from the automaker's Torrance (LA) headquarters.

The eventual result was the Element, launched for the 2003 model year. Features included a rear load area that could be washed down to remove the sand and grit accumulated from surfboards and a huge sunroof over the rear seats (which folded up along the vehicle sides to create a van-like load area with flat floor) through which the boards could protrude for transport. With optional side window curtains, it was also suggested you could remove the sunroof and stand up inside the load area to use it as an impromptu changing room.

This great little car - I whizzed around Southern California in one for a few days in 2003, not long after its launch, and it attracted a lot of interest - did sell well enough to young buyers but it also, surprisingly, was a hit with older buyers and retirees.

Why, well, a high hip point and wide opening front doors allowed easy entrance and exit for those with ageing, arthritic joints, the 'suicide' rear-hinged rear side doors could only be opened after the front doors, preventing the grandkids from letting themselves out into the traffic, and the vast load area was ideal for transporting bulky cartons home from the big box store, sheets of plywood back from the DIY warehouse and huge plants from the garden centre - if they were too tall to fit you simply poked them out through that vast sunroof.

Result, as well as attracting younger buyers, Honda scored a hit with older folk who maybe would only have previously considered a Civic.

It will be interesting to see what GM eventually comes up with for Chevrolet's new youth-oriented coupes which won't necessarily be production versions of the two concepts shown here in Detroit this week. Glenn Brooks reckons the Tru 140 is a forerunner of the next Cruze coupe.

Chevrolet marketing chief Chris Perry told just-auto the company will now take the concepts out to show potential buyers, evaluate the feedback and make produce-or-come-up-with-something-else decisions in three or four months.

Whatever they eventually do decide to build, it'll be interesting to see if the appeal is just to younger buyers or if there is surprise interest from a completely unexpected demographic, as happened with the Element.