BOOMERS UNIFORM, SEEK THE THRIFTY VEHICLE; MORE UTILITY, LESS NEED FOR HIGHWAY STATUS SYMBOL, SURVEY SAYS

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The more the automotive industry changes, the more baby boomers stay the same.

In the last 15 years, gas guzzlers became passe; pickup trucks left the farm for the suburbs; imports gained market share and then let it slip and sport-utility vehicles entered the mainstream.

Despite the industry's stops and starts, baby boomers' basic preferences for cars has changed little since 1981.

FOCUS FROM MIDPOINT

The year 1981 was chosen as a benchmark because boomers then were approaching their mid-30s. The aim is to assess whether car purchasing habits of boomers have changed dramatically between these two demographic milestones.

The answer: they haven't.

According to an exclusive Advertising Age/Automotive News survey of baby boomers, 68.7% of respondents drove domestic cars in 1981, 38.7% of which were made by General Motors Corp. The primary vehicle driven by that same group of people today: 72.5% domestic nameplates, 32.7% of which are marketed by GM.

The telephone survey of 524 Americans age 41 to 52 was conducted Feb. 12-14 and Feb. 16-18 by Market Facts, a research company celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The data have a margin of error of 3%.

WEST LIKES FOREIGN MAKES

The number of respondents driving foreign nameplates as their primary vehicle has increased only slightly in the last 15 years-from 20.4% in 1981 to 22.8% in 1996. Domestics have the strongest hold in the Midwest, where 81.1% of these baby boomers drive U.S.-made vehicles. Foreign nameplates are most popular in the West, where 32.1% of this group drive foreign vehicles (see related story on Page S-18).

"The incidence of domestic vs. import as the primary vehicle shows domestics are holding their own," says Tom Mularz, VP-manager of Telenation, the survey arm of Market Facts.

But domestics don't have a hold on tomorrow's market. The survey found that 57.6% of respondents said their next vehicle most likely would be a domestic; 20.8% said it would most likely be an import; and 20.1% said they were undecided.

SAME VALUES 15 YEARS LATER

Even though the lifestyles of the leading-edge boomers have changed drastically since 1981, boomers still look for the same things in the vehicles they drive. According to the survey, the most important attributes both then and now are, in order, reliability/-dependability, price/affordability and fuel economy.

A vehicle's reliability/dependability has become most important to slightly more people today compared with 1981. The survey found 18% of baby boomers felt reliability/dependability was the most important attribute in a vehicle in 1981; today, 25.8% cited that attribute.

And more men than women said reliability/dependability was the single most important attribute in a vehicle both today and 15 years ago: 20.4% of men in 1981 vs. 15.5% of women, and 28.4% of men in 1996 vs. 23.2% of women.

Another important aspect of the survey data is that fewer people today consider their vehicles to be status symbols compared with '81. According to the survey, 7.1% of respondents said that 15 years ago, status/image/style was the single most important attribute; today, just 3.3% of respondents cited that attribute.

"The more frivolous aspects are less important," says Mr. Mularz, "probably because with the movement of women into the workforce, vehicles are often used for more utilitarian reasons."

CHEVY PREFERRED

Chevrolet was the nameplate driven by the largest group of baby boomers in 1981-20.8%. Today, it's second to Ford vehicles: 13.7% of respondents today drive Chevys as their primary vehicle, compared with 20.5% who said they drive Ford vehicles.

Although BMW became synonymous with the vast yuppie movement in the 1980s, that auto brand in 1981 was driven by only 0.9% of surveyed baby boomers in 1981, whereas today 2.0% of baby boomers drive BMWs as their primary vehicle.

The survey also found that more than any other type, the sport-utility vehicle has grown substantially in the past 15 years. In 1981, 2% of respondents were driving sport-utility vehicles; 10% said they were driving those vehicles today. When asked about the type of their next vehicle purchase, 11.8% said they were most likely to buy a SUV.

Minivans also have grown in popularity with this group of baby boomers. In 1981, 1.4% of respondents drove minivans; in 1996, 6.1% drive minivans as their primary vehicle, and 6.7% said they would likely purchase a minivan as their next vehicle.

Nearly half of these baby boomers were driving cars in 1981-48%. Today, 53.6% are driving cars. Pickup trucks were driven by 9.7% of this group in 1981 and are the primary vehicle for 12.4% of respondents in 1996.

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