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What Drives Millennials?

Editor's Letter

The 18-34 set has always been the target age range for companies pitching goods and services. The thinking goes that if you hook 'em early, you'll reel 'em in for life. Automakers have been offering entry-level four-wheeled bait for decades, with the goal of ensnaring young buyers for model years to come.

Today's fresh catch is the millennial generation, some 75 million strong who represent roughly a quarter of the U.S. population and have the participation medals from youth soccer to prove it. Born from about 1981 to 1997, they're shaping buying habits and defining trends. As the automotive industry braces for driverless cars powered by hydrogen fuel and controlled from an app, it will increasingly look to millennials for direction.

If you believe the stereotype, this generation is more interested in tooling around with iPhones in the back of an UberX than sliding behind a steering wheel. But two recently published studies show just the opposite. Not only do millennials want to drive, but they'd also like their cars to say something about them. That's great news for carmakers; that is, if they can figure out what the heck these coveted customers really want.

The Portia/UCLA Millennials and Cars Study is a unique collaboration between Portia Consulting and the University of California at Los Angeles Anderson School of Management that profiled 806 respondents (60 percent millennials/
40 percent 35-plus). "We wanted to crack this millennial code about cars," said Jane Nakagawa, Portia's managing director and the study's lead investigator. After gathering and analyzing the data, five specific subgroups emerged:

Purposeful Patrons: The largest group, they're also the oldest (30-34) and most affluent. Luxury, ecofriendliness, connectivity (and seat warmers!) are all high on their list. This set leans toward Tesla, Lexus, and Audi.

Ambitious Trendsetters: The enthusiasts of the bunch, this group of 25- to 29-year-olds is on the move, upwardly mobile, and looking for fun in all the right places. Excitement, sportiness, technology, and power are their automotive priorities.

Unplugged Dreamers: These 20- to 24-year-olds would often rather connect with the outdoors than to a network. Point-A-to-B, fuel-efficiency types, they're also more inclined to customize their cars to suit their outgoing personalities. Subaru and Kia skew higher as brands of interest.

Mindful Mainstreamers: These folks (25-29) are more in line with the millennial stereotype: They are environmentally aware and open to alternative fuel options, and they view the car as an appliance. They're the change-the-world types. They want seat warmers, too. (Apparently you can't change the world without them.) Also, Mitsubishi (?!) is highest on their current brand index.

Practical Greensters: The youngest (18-19) crowd is not quite out of the nest, so, not surprisingly, cost considerations are highest here. But they're also ecofriendly in mind-set.

MTV's Millennials Have Cars study takes a different tack but is equally as intriguing. It surveyed 3,610 millennials (age 18-34), 403 baby boomers, and 400 Generation Xers, tracking how each generation felt about several car-related questions. The study busts some myths about the way millennials view cars. Among them:

They don't like cars. Not only do they like cars, they're more passionate about driving than both boomers and Gen Xers. Some six in 10 also said being without a car makes them "feel like losers" among their peers.

They aren't interested in getting a license.

Additional restrictions placed on young drivers are making it harder to get a license. But this study indicates that despite the barriers, millennials still want driver's licenses just as badly as I did back in 1986, when I took off in my 1973 Plymouth Satellite the day I turned 16.

They don't drive. Not only do they overwhelmingly drive to get around (80 percent, with walking and public transport tied for second at 8 percent), they also drive far more in a week than boomers and Gen Xers.

Cars can't compete with their smartphones.

Millennials do love their phones, but 92 percent of them said it doesn't replace the need for a car. Additionally, 76 percent would give up social media for a day as opposed to their car, and 72 percent said they would rather have their car for a week and forgo texting. And much like several groups in the Portia/UCLA study, 73 percent say it's important for their cars to reflect who they are.

So while Uber and driverless cars might be the way of the future, they won't be the only way. If automakers actually listen to what millennials want, the evidence suggests they'll continue to drive and love their cars just as much as the generations who came before them.