Carmaker solicits younger viewpoint
By Anita Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
Lavell Riddle, 20, sits at the wheel, with Cinta Corbin, 22, in the passenger seat of the low-slung GT, a mid-engine two-seater with a supercharged 500-horse V-8.
A close-up of the interior of the new Ford GT. Automakers say they will do just about anything to get into the minds of Gen-Y- the next big crop of car buyers.
ALLEN PARK -- The brakes squeal on a blue-and-orange Ford GT prototype as it peels around the parking lot at the Ford Special Vehicle Team headquarters. The passenger door swings open and a smiling Joel Pierre Bond emerges to face GT chief engineer Neil Hannemann.
"This car is awesome," declared Bond, an 18-year-old senior at Dearborn's Henry Ford Academy. "It's a Ford, but it's not like my dad's Taurus."
Hannemann looks relieved.
"Thank goodness for that," said Hannemann, who leads the engineering team for the $140,000 sports car that will become Ford Motor Co.'s new flagship and most expensive car ever when it debuts early next year. "Is there anything that you would change?"
Ford engineers and designers let their own children critique the GT Thursday as part of national Take Your Kids To Work Day. The Ford crew also spent part of the morning with Bond and the rest of the 12- to 23-year-old members of The Detroit News Automotive Consumer Panel.
It wasn't just playtime.
"You guys are the ones who will, at some point, buy our products," said GT chief designer Camilo Pardo. "You're the new generation. We want to know exactly what you're thinking."
Many automakers are eager to take the pulse of Generation Y, kids born after 1979 who are destined to have as much financial and trend-setting clout as their Baby Boomer parents.
By 2010, about 63 million Gen Y buyers will be purchasing 65 percent of vehicles, according to industry estimates. Even though many of these "pre-drivers" haven't even taken a driver's education class, the group is already influencing how future vehicles take shape.
After a group of pre-teens griped that there was not enough room in the back seat of the new 2004 Cadillac SRX crossover, General Motors designers decided to stretch the SRX another four inches. Porsche has hosted focus groups with children as young as 6.
Still, some auto executives fret about trusting what can be a fickle group.
"They are notoriously unreliable," said Trevor Creed, top designer for DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group. "Look at their clothing. One minute they're wearing something from the Gap and the next minute the Gap is not cool anymore."
If our panel is any indication, Ford has a winner in the low-slung GT, a midengine two-seater with a supercharged 500-horsepower, 5.4-liter V-8 that is displayed like a gigantic jewel under a glass canopy.
Lavell Riddle, 20, an auto design student at Macomb Community College, praised Ford for "finally taking risks and making exciting cars other than Mustangs and T-Birds."
The complaints about the GT were few, but intriguing.
The oversized polished chrome shift lever sparked a debate of sorts between designer Pardo and Michael Donnelly, 13, an eighth-grader at St. Fabian's school in Farmington Hills.
"I don't want to touch it," Donnelly said. "It looks too hard."
"But this look is famous in racing," Pardo said. "Ferrari uses it. It will fit real good in your hand."
"I'd prefer leather," Donnelly countered.
"You're conditioned to want that," insisted Pardo. "There is no leather in race cars."
After his ride in the GT, 12-year-old Harry Barton, a seventh-grader at Pathfinder School in Pinckney, ticked off a list of complaints.
"It has good brakes," Barton said. "But you should put a turbocharger on it instead of the supercharger. You'd get more power out of it."
"We talked about a twin-turbo," engineer Hannemann said, "but there are issues with turbo lag and warming up."
"Why doesn't it have crossover headers?" Barton wanted to know.
"I was fighting for the same thing," interjected Pardo, who liked the snaky look the headers would give the engine.
"It's an emissions thing," Hannemann explained, shrugging his shoulders.
During an 18-year career with Chrysler, Hannemann was the developmental engineer on the Dodge Viper, one of the GT's main competitors. One of Hannemann's problems with the Viper is that it never turned the heads of young women.
Not so with the GT -- a modern interpretation of the original 1965 Ford GT40 race car.
"I love it," said 22-year-old Detroit real-estate agent Cinta Corbin. "The car is appealing and has a lot of power. It would turn my head."
Nicole Burdiss, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Canton High School called it "cooler than a Viper."
"The GT looks more old school," she said. "And it's less obnoxious than a Ferrari." Hannemann, whose jaw was clenched as he watched the panelists zip around the parking lot in the GT for an hour, seemed to visibly relax.
"I always said the Viper is a cartoon," he told Burdiss. "The GT is a car."
You can reach Anita Lienert at firstname.lastname@example.org
A group of young people checks out the Ford GT as part of Ford's attempt to using research gleaned from young drivers to develop products that will appeal to them.