Tune in, trick out trend turns on carmakers

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Even before R.J. DeZera got his first car at 16, he spent virtually every dime he earned on custom parts. He didn't know what car he'd eventually get, but he ended up with his mom's Acura Integra. Now, at 26, he figures he spent between $15,000 and $20,000 customizing the car in the four years he had it.

Mr. DeZera is the kind of customer auto marketers crave. Known as tuners, they're young, auto-savvy trendsetters willing to spend money customizing or "tricking out" their cars. It's a "Fast and Furious" crowd, an urban, hip-hopping car culture with a contemporary twist on the baby boomers' muscle-car era of the 1960s that's inspired everything from specialized magazines to movies and video games.

"It's kids reinventing the hot-rod culture, building a social phenomenon," said Mr. DeZera, whose hobby has blossomed into a career customizing cars for major marketers such as Pepsi-Cola Co. and others marketing to this lucrative and influential audience.

it started in the west

Tuners, said Jim Jordan, motor sports and enthusiast manager at Mazda North American Operations, are "the people their buddies go to when they're buying a car."

The tuner craze started in California in the late 1980s with Gen Y Asian-Americans customizing compact, four-cylinder Japanese cars, said Jim Spoonhower, VP-market research of trade group Specialty Equipment Market Association. American Honda Motor Co. had dominated the tuner category, with 45% of the cars, mostly Civics. But SEMA said its share has dropped into the 30% range.

The movement spread to the East Coast and the Sun Belt and has started to drive into the heartland. SEMA research shows 42% of tuners are now Caucasians, but Asian-Americans are the second-largest group, at 28%. Roughly 74% of tuners are from 18 to 25 years old and as many as 20% are female, a turnabout from the muscle-car era when most female racers were passengers.

SEMA said consumer spending in the entire auto after-market skyrocketed from $295 million in 1997 to $2.3 billion last year. According to SEMA, nearly 34% of tuners spent up to $1,000 on parts last year, and the next-largest group, 27%, spent $5,000 or more. Nearly half, 48% of the total, went toward exterior modifications for small-car tuners, with engine changes next at 32% and interior customization smallest at 20%.

Tuners are lucrative, but hard to reach. In typical Gen Y fashion, they don't respond to advertising, said Ford Motor Co.'s Jan Valentic, VP-global marketing. They do respond to product placement, which is why Ford has deals in two upcoming movies featuring tricked-out Lincoln Navigators.

Mitsubishi Motors North America spent some $25 million to co-promote Universal's "2 Fast 2 Furious" and for product placement in the film. The movie's stars also appeared in Mitsubishi TV spots.

General Motors Corp., meanwhile, this year began a "Tuner Tour" that made stops at a 10-race circuit of National Hot Rod Association races, said Todd Christensen, sport-compact integration manager at the carmaker. GM brought in two tractor trailers featuring tricked-out small cars: the Saturn Ion, Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire. Consumers could win prizes in the simulated "Reaction Time" game, in which two "drivers" take off from the line when the light turns green. GM collected names and e-mails, which must be given before playing.

GM cars weren't always on the top of tuners' shopping lists, Mr. Christensen said. But GM hopes to turn that around by marketing its cars, parts and accessories to tuners at events, he said.

As many as 500 owners display their cars at the now-indoor tuner events, where marketers have booths and small giveaways. Each event attracts up to 18,000 attendees. "It's like a nightclub," GM's Mr. Christensen said of Hot Import Nights, where DJs spin music in various areas, overhead lights are off and neon mood lights on cars prevail.

just hanging out

Vision Entertainment's Hot Import Nights, begun in California by Vision Entertainment, was expanded to Detroit, Boston and Baltimore. Next year it will reach 16 cities, including Cleveland, Charlotte and Honolulu, said John Russell, VP-marketing of the Irvine, Calif., event organizer.

Other Hot Import Night sponsors are Nissan North America, Pepsi and Circuit City Stores, Mr. Russell said.

Mazda has been turned on to tuners from the start, sponsoring the Mazda Stage at Hot Import Nights. It features break dancing, live bands, laser light shows and car awards' announcements. "This is a very hard group to advertise to, so we just hang out with them. It's a very soft sell," said Mazda's Mr. Jordan.

The tuner culture is growing and includes movies, video games and magazines. In the early 1990s, there were just two tuner enthusiast magazines. Now there are 14, said Jerrod Strauss, ad manager of three of Primedia's nine tuner titles. Among Primedia's tuner magazines: Custom Rodder, Honda Tuning and Eurotuner. "There's room for all of them. Each magazine has its own niche."

Stay tuned for the next evolution, which originated in Japan: drifting. In drifting competitions, drivers are judged in a series of sideways skids on asphalt. More than 4,000 had to be turned away from the first U.S. event in August at California's Irwindale Speedway, said Adam Kobayashi, manager of client relationship for organizer Slip Stream Global.

The event marketer will stage the first American Championship next year. There are already several drifting video games in the works, he said.

A Sony Computer Entertainment spokesman said the 2004 Grand Turismo 4 will have drifting among the game's more than 50 courses. He declined to give details.

While the concept may evolve, tuning has become entrenched as a phenomenon. "Hot Import Nights has become a social outing," said tuner Mr. DeZera, "and your car becomes part of it."

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