by Hannah Elliott, 06.05.09, 05:00 PM EDT
Teens still want cars. Despite all the grim auto news, graduating seniors continue to fantasize about driving a spanking new ride to that momentous first day at college.
So which cars are most popular with newly minted drivers? According to marketing data, American kids want reputable brands with cool styling, great gas mileage and ample passenger and luggage space.
"The brand has to speak to them and interact with them," says Issa Sawabini, a partner at Fuse, a youth marketing agency in New York City.
Ford Motor, Honda, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota have excelled at capturing teenagers' attention, offering the readily customizable, Euro-style Ford Focus and the aggressive Nissan GT-R, which earned a loyal following thanks to its presence in the auto racing videogame "Gran Turismo." Teens also like the eco-minded Toyota Prius and Ford's carefully cultivated, iconic Mustang brand.
Behind the Numbers
For our list of 10 cars teens want most, we used survey data from TRU, a youth marketing and research firm based in Chicago. Via the mail and the Internet, TRU asked 2,000 teenagers, "If you were to buy a car right now, what make and model would you buy?" Participants mirrored national age, gender and ethnicity demographics and were instructed to list a model they could realistically afford, rather than the Maseratis they ogle on YouTube.
Teens tend to pick small sedans and coupes that get good gas mileage, have room for several friends, cost no more than $23,000 and, most importantly, are made by brands identified as socially acceptable in the rarified air of high-school hallways and cafeterias.
Honda and Toyota are perennial winners on our "most popular" list. The $20,900 Accord and $19,400 Camry have seating for five and combined fuel efficiencies of 24 mpg and 27 mpg, respectively. Plus, they are produced by respectable companies that also make the likes of the $35,000 Honda S2000 and Toyota Celica (of "Gran Turismo" fame).
Driving the Teenage Mind
Experts say the primary forces shaping teenagers' brand preferences are the Internet and peers, and they are hyper-sensitive to each. Ubiquitous reports on Detroit's demise and reports of Volkswagen's reliability troubles also affect high schoolers, says TRU's trends director, Rob Callender.
"Teens, for all their love of fun and freedom, they're also pragmatists," Callender says.
What's more, today's teens never saw Honda and Toyota as upstart imports with questionable reliability, while news of Chrysler's financial implosion and General Motor's bankruptcy have further soured teens’ perception of domestic brands. Ford sits slightly apart from its Detroit counterparts, thanks in part to flagship models like the Mustang and the soon-to-come Fiesta.
On the Horizon
Honda, Scion, Subaru and Nissan, among others, have used clever marketing and a wide range of inexpensive options to reach teens. They each offer several smallish but practical cars (the $17,500 Subaru Impreza and Scion's $16,500 xB), plus one or two aspirational vehicles (Subaru's souped-up $35,000 Impreza WRX STI) as well.
Those brands have also gained invaluable momentum from associations with "Gran Turismo," the X-Games and movies like The Fast and the Furious and its multiple sequels.
Apparently, when it comes to teenagers, Japan's got the right image in mind.
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