by Dan Sherman
Welcome to my inaugural post. The management at Sorgenfrei has asked me to blog a bit about the attitudes of my generation toward the automotive industry.
I am a 20-year-old junior Econ-Math major at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. I am a certifiable car enthusiast but that is not the reason I’m here. After all, who wants to hear the opinion of another 20-year-old car geek? Instead, I am going to tap my fellow students and friends who are a more accurate representation of the college-age consumer to give insights and opinions on topics in the auto industry. Let’s call it Guerrilla Ethnography or “Echo Booming”.
The hot topic of the week is Saturn. As soon as Penske reneged on its agreement to take the brand off GM’s hands, GM announced plans to kill the brand by October 2010. Roger Smith is probably tossing and turning in his grave.
But do college kids care? When I was younger, college-age first-car buyers were the Saturn target market. They bought Saturns in relative droves thanks to the no-haggle buying experience, low prices, and great fuel economy. Since then, the Saturn brand, college-age buyers, and competitive market have changed drastically.
I did an informal survey on the campus of Emory University and gathered the following observations:
About 90% of my age demographic falls into two categories: 1) those that don’t care; and 2) those that don’t care, but worry about the impact on the US economy.
“Do you mean the planet or the car? Scientists were, like, wrong about ANOTHER planet?!” The Saturn brand is already dead to my peers.
College-age consumers care a lot about the cars themselves—we either like cars that are flashy (particularly Emory students), or cheap cars that will last forever. Those in the former market are offended by the thought of replacing their old Bimmer with a new Saturn. Those who group themselves in the latter market praise the Camry, RAV4, Civic, Accord, CR-V, and even Cobalt. But few have even heard of an Astra, Aura, or Vue. One Emory student expressed that her aunt had a Saturn Aura, and that she considered it a dull, comfortable car for “40-year olds who want something nice but inexpensive.”
Some patriotic political science majors voice complaints that the death of the brand is representative of the US automotive industry’s woes. However, even that group hypocritically expresses that, unlike older Americans, we couldn’t care less about where our vehicles are made. In the past five years, a crowd of strong Japanese, Korean, and even German offerings have entered the B, C, and compact CUV segments. Cheap, fuel efficient offerings are found from just about every manufacturer, and too many offer greater perceived reliability or flashiness than Saturn.
Saturn dealers have historically offered no-haggle pricing and high customer service satisfaction. This seems to be absolutely worthless to college-age consumers. Those who bought recent Saturns or Scions, which offers a similar buying experience model, made their purchasing decisions based on the cars and not the buying experience. If GM defines college-age consumers as a target for any of its other brands, replicating the “different kind of car company” model is not worthwhile.
Only those driving old SLs and SCs will actually mourn the loss of Saturn. They love their cars’ utility and low cost of ownership, and they like the dent-resistant plastic panels. None, though, would choose a Saturn if given the chance to buy a new car. One girl remarked, “My SC is cool and all, but their new cars are just, like, boring. My parents would rather have me in a Civic or tC than an Astra, and I can’t think of one reason to make me disagree.”