50-plus and king of the road

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While automakers scramble to figure out the next Generation X and Y hot-button vehicle, they see more predictable opportunities in serving the aging baby boomer.

As more people live longer, it is likely that they will drive longer.

Over-50 car buyers generally purchase more expensive vehicles, ranging from high-end midsize cars to top-of-the-line luxury automobiles and premium sport-utility vehicles, according to a 1999 study conducted by market researcher J.D. Powers & Associates.

The study, which included 35,000 people aged 50 and older who recently had purchased a vehicle, examines what people like about their new cars and trucks and what kinds of features they order.


Auto marketers want to know if those buying habits are going to change as the consumers get older.

"Where do they go from luxury cars and sport utilities? Will they go back to cars? Will they search for the next sport utility? The jury's still out on that one," says Jacques daCosta, senior manager of product research at J.D. Powers.

Auto marketers and their suppliers have formed teams to conduct surveys and consumer clinics to find out what features aging buyers want in their vehicles.

General Motors Corp.'s Paragon Team, a group of engineers and designers, studies the needs of aging car buyers, many of whom face physical disabilities, such as arthritis.

Ford Motor Co. has developed the Third Age Suit, an outfit designers don to simulate movements of an aging person.

Johnson Controls, supplier of seats and interior components, conducted consumer clinics comprised of over-50 buyers. The findings lead to developments of new and easier ways to board the higher-riding trucks and sport utilities. A seat that has a side bolster for the thigh that folds down when the driver gets out is one idea that could show up on future vehicles.

Lear Corp., supplier of seats and interior components, developed a racing-style seatbelt that buckles in front instead of on the side, swivel seats and a movable steering wheel in a concept vehicle to demonstrate features for aging buyers. Also part of that package was a flat floor that requires no leg lifting over a door sill and a drawer-like rear storage tray for golf clubs that slides out instead of requiring the person to lean into the vehicle and pull.

In fact, research by the car companies and their suppliers show the items aging buyers want -- large knobs and switches for controls, high-contrast numbers and letters on gauges, large door openings and high-positioned seats -- have advantages for young people as well.


At Mazda North American Operations, designers invited drivers aged 55 to 75 into a studio to design their own car interior. The result was a design that suited the seniors, but also had youthful appeal.

The seniors told Mazda designers they wanted the front seats positioned higher than in regular cars to make it easier to enter and exit. They asked for large knobs for the climate control and radio. On the radio, they requested large graphics that are easy to read. They also suggested a position for the instrument panel that made it easier for them to read the gauges from the driver's seat.

"The exercise was like designing a pair of scissors for a person with arthritis," says Truman Pollard, chief designer for Mazda. "It ended up becoming a better way to cut paper even for an 18 year old. We came up with a universal design, ideal for a senior, but it doesn't look like an old person's car."

The challenge facing automakers is how to convey the changes appealingly in advertising. The auto category traditionally attempts to evoke feelings of youthfulness and hipness in its advertising. Consumers won't want to feel old in the vehicle they select, even though they require features specially tailored to them because they are aging. Agency and auto execs are reluctant to project how such marketing will take shape.

"The thought of selling an older person a younger person's car is as alive today as much as it has ever been, and maybe even more," says Jay Kuhnie, director of Chrysler Global Brand Communications, who turns 50 this year.


Indeed, the way to an aging boomer's heart, say automotive marketers, is to build vehicles that have features attractive to them and that fit their lifestyle, clearly communicate those product features in advertising and market it with contemporary flair. But don't focus on age.

"Nobody wants to have a vehicle or see marketing that ages them and makes them feel old," Mr. Kuhnie says.

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