More high school students driving nicer, bigger cars
March 4, 2003
BY JOHN HIGGINS
Knight Ridder Newspapers
AKRON, Ohio -- No one at Jackson High School has a Hummer like LeBron James', although one senior had one last year.
Still, one of every eight Jackson student cars there is a 2000 or newer model. At least 40 percent of the driving-age students walk out of Jackson High School to their own cars, trucks and SUVs.
Student parking tags hang in everything from a 1973 Nova (high school wheels for a quarter-century) to a 2003 Mitsubishi Eclipse (newer than what most parents drive).
Rich kids driving expensive cars is not unusual. What's remarkable is how many nice, grownup-looking cars are showing up in school parking lots as carmakers set their sights on the younger market.
The percentage of driving-age teens (age 15-20) with their own vehicle nearly doubled nationwide from 22 percent in 1985 to 42 percent last year, according to CNW Marketing Research.
The data come from both weekly surveys and annual youth and teen market surveys. All CNW's information relates to primary drivers in cases where ownership is not allowed.
While $50,000-plus vehicles are more common in the private schools of the nation's wealthiest enclaves, automakers increasingly are reaching for youth of more modest income.
Buyers 20 and younger accounted for almost 539,000 new car sales in 2002, up from 402,000 in 1996.
"It is a number that inches up all the time," said CNW President Art Spinella.
Even carmakers once considered off limits to the tender of age and light of wallet, such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz, are meeting teens halfway with more affordable starter cars in hopes of grooming future consumers for their more expensive models.
They belong to the baby bounce generation, the 60 million children of the postwar baby boomers -- born between 1979 and 1994 -- who are just now entering the car market in force.
But pity the marketer who tries to lump an entire generation together under one trendy umbrella.
Tastes vary from the new Volkswagen Beetles that practically scream teen-ager to Jeep Wranglers and Honda Civics -- yes, Honda Civics, which lend themselves to expensive customization after the sale.
Parents increasingly are making the full car payment for their teens, up from 17 percent in 1985 to almost 26 percent last year. Parents also are footing more of the insurance costs. In 1985, 61 percent of teens paid for their own insurance. Last year, only 44 percent did, according to CNW.
Adding a teen-age driver to a policy can easily double a family's auto insurance premium, according to the Ohio Insurance Institute. It recommends that if parents purchase a vehicle for a teen, they should choose an intermediate-size car or sedan instead of high-performance vehicles such as sports cars, SUVs or pickup trucks. Small, sporty vehicles usually carry higher insurance premiums and have higher death and theft rates, according to the institute. But usually, junior is calling the shots on the showroom floor, just as he did when he was younger and got to pick the fast-food restaurant.
"The children really drive the parents," said Adam Huff, general manager of Fred Martin Superstores said. "It's just like buying lunch. The same thing happens in automobiles."
Manufacturers figure if they can reach a kid at 15, they'll have him when he's 50. Some kids are exposed to car brands before they can walk.
Kolcraft makes a line of rockers and strollers boasting Jeep's trademarked brand that include: Baby's First Jeep Rocker, the Jeep Cherokee Stroller, the Jeep Wagoneer Tandem Double Stroller and the Jeep Liberty Urban Terrain 3-Wheel Stroller.
From there, it's an easy step to recognizing marque status symbols like the three-pointed Mercedes star hood ornament.
"If you speak with children as young as 5, they know car brands. They're starting to differentiate cars," said David Morrison, president of Twentysomething Inc., a Philadelphia-area firm that analyzes teen trends.
Traditionally, automakers such as BMW and Mercedes have focused on older, wealthier clients commemorating rising incomes and prestige with an appropriate symbol of their advancement.
The typical teen-ager may not be able to afford BMW's 3-series, but the 2003 MINI Cooper -- BMW's version of a popular British cult car from the 1960s -- starts at $16,975, according to BMW's Mini Web site.
Mercedes has a 2003 two-door sport coupe that starts at about $25,000.
Most teen-agers who stroll among the shiny Porsches at Cascade Auto Group in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, want to drive one home. A couple times a year, one of them does.
"It happens more than you would imagine," said Pat Primm. Porsche's entry-level car, the Boxster, starts at about $50,000.
"Sometimes it's their first car. Most often it's Christmas or a birthday present," he said. "What good parent, if they had the ability, wouldn't do that for their kid?"
Usually mom and dad arrange the financing or sometimes simply cut a check, Primm said.
"We do get the rare instance where the kid, through trust funds or a bank account, can write the check themselves," he said.
Jackson senior Joe Bernstein isn't driving a Porsche ... yet. His father drives one though, and has passed down a taste for high-performance automobiles to his son, who drives a 1991 Audi 200 20-valve Turbo-Quattro Sedan.
"It was actually my dad's and he gave it to me," Bernstein said.
The real fun came after he got the car. He spent about $1,000 on a conversion kit to install Porsche Boxster brakes. He also installed imported European headlights, lowered the suspension and fiddled with the springs so the car would handle better. He competes about once a month during the summer in races organized by a local car club.
Customizing vehicles after the sale became popular after the release of "The Fast and the Furious," basically a hot rod movie for the 21st century that glamorized, of all cars, the tame, dependable Honda Civic.
"They put mufflers on their cars, tint. Big speakers are popular, neon (lights) on the bottom," Bernstein said. "I'm unusual at the high school level because I do more performance modifications than show modifications. High school is all show."
But he didn't drive the Audi to the Detroit Auto Show a few weeks ago; he took mom's minivan. He had friends to transport, which is why SUVs remain popular among teen-agers. They tend to go for the smaller, sportier SUVs that don't remind them too much of parents.
"The SUV allows you to take your entire posse, the entire crowd you hang out with, from A to B," Morrison of Twentysomething said.
Transporting the whole posse actually may cancel out any safety benefits because of the distractions.
Teen drivers have the highest crash risk of any age group. Per mile traveled, they have the highest involvement rates in all types of crashes, from those involving only property damage to those that are fatal, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
A standby for parents who wanted to justify buying their kid a fancy European car has been the Saab Sedan with hatchback. Parents have always liked it because of its high safety reputation, and the hatchback provided extra cramming room when their kids left home for college.
This year, however, Saab has redesigned the 9/3 Sedan, dropping the hatchback in favor of a sportier look that starts at about $26,000.
"One of the things they did was drop the price $2,000 from the (2002 model) and added leather interior standard," said Dave Towell of Towell Cadillac-Saab in Akron. "If you're going to get the younger people, you have to get with it."
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....