It started as an underground movement among teen-agers and young men who purchase auto aftermarket parts to boost the performance of their subcompact import cars -- particularly Hondas. It is now a $1 billion market with U.S. carmakers eager to get in on it.
But the fast-growing hot import market, largely created and driven by ethnic groups, requires a lot of marketing savvy to reach these consumers who see themselves as trend-starters, not trend-followers, say marketing executives close to it.
"Historically, this was a very Asian phenomenon that has gone Hispanic, gone African-American, and it's going mainstream now. They've made it their own thing. We want to support it, but [the enthusiasts] are leading the movement," says Jim Jordan, West Coast merchandising manager for Mazda North American Operations. "It's a market created by young people, and you can't lead it. You can embrace it, support it and follow where it's going next with products, but no one can dictate to these kids."
An American Honda Motor Co. spokesman says the marketer has also identified the trend, but adds targeting this audience is risky. "We walk a fine line with how hard we want to market to the hot import crowd. It's fashion, and the best way to reach them is by providing great performance cars and making genuine and prototype parts."
The movement started in about 1992 when young Asian-Americans began altering affordable, reliable cars -- mostly Honda Civics and other small import coupes -- to perform like modern-day hot rods.
Next the fad spread to include Hispanics in the Southwest, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans in the East and in Florida. Automotive marketing executives say the hot import scene is now being embraced by young and Caucasian mainstream consumers in the Midwest and Southern cities such as Atlanta, where it is catching on fast.
The hot import car market centers on young consumers who spend less than $20,000 on a new car but then invest another $15,000 to $25,000 with performance-enhancing parts and accessories including wheels, exhaust manifolds, competition camshafts, superchargers, spoilers, wireless-enabled on-board personal computers and high-end car stereos.
The National Import Racing Association pegs the core audience for hot import cars as mostly male (87%) and under the age of 24 with some enthusiasts buying cars they can't even drive at the age of 14. Typical consumers come from households with a median income of $57,000.
"These are kids who are in school and have jobs. They live at home and put all their spare money into their car and into enhancing their car in any possible way to make it faster and more unique than the next guy," says Larry Saavedra, editor in chief of Sport Compact Car, a fast-growing monthly from Primedia's McMullen Argus Publishing division. The magazine started as a 96-page every-other-monthly in 1992 and now tops 300 pages each month. Its 330-page October issue had 180 pages of advertising, says Mr. Saavedra, who races a Nissan 300Z on the side. Advertisers include mostly automotive aftermarket marketers along with the U.S. Army and Air Force.
McMullen also launched Import Tuner last year as a monthly newsstand magazine targeting the hardcore import enthusiasts aged 16 to 24.
Attendance at NIRA races is up 40% this year over last year and race sponsorship has quadrupled. More mainstream marketers are starting to knock on NIRA's door for next year's races, says Craig Lieberman, the organization's executive director.
FOCUS GETS A LOOK
Ford Motor Co. last year discovered its subcompact Focus model was gaining a following in the hot import scene and responded with a line of performance-enhancing parts. An ironic announcement came in December when the Focus became the "official car" of NIRA.
"Parts have become a real profit opportunity for Ford and we're watching this market closely. We hope to become a bigger part of it," says Tom Berkery, dealer channel sales manager for Ford Racing Technology operation. Ford is also sponsoring import car racing teams, including the AEBS Racing Team.
Car shows are a big part of the import scene. Vision Entertainment began hosting "Hot Import Nights" events in 1998 with two shows a year; now there are 12 shows slated for next year including one in Atlanta, where hot import cars are becoming a phenomenon across all ethnic groups.
The car shows' sponsors are still mostly makers of cars and accessories including Web sites such as carparts.com and speedoptions.com, but Kenwood Car & Home Audio has become a big sponsor, and videogame makers are laying plans to sponsor shows in 2001.
"We're expecting to see our sponsorships explode next year and open up new categories of consumer product marketers and apparel," says John Russell,Vision director of marketing.
Mazda dispatched a team that included its top design engineer to observe the scene at an import nights event this year in San Bernardino, Calif.
To encourage hot import enthusiasts to concentrate their passions on Mazdas, the company paid the entry fees of any Mazda drivers in the car show, sponsored a stage displaying souped-up Mazdas and added prize money to the event.
"Unfortunately for us, the car this segment has embraced is the RX7, which we no longer make, but at shows we're displaying the Protege and the Miata in hopes that some [enthusiasts] might come over to it," says Jim Jordan, Mazda's merchandising manager for the Western region. Mazda is also backing a line of Protege performance parts.
Ford observes the hot import movement growing to include more mainstream youths in the last year.
"There's definitely a big Asian influence on the West Coast and a strong Hispanic influence on the East Coast, but we're seeing a real mix of ethnic groups and nationalities and more young women getting involved too," says Mr. Berkery.