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Casey Williams: Today's young drivers look for style, tech and value

Casey Williams, Tribune News Service on

Published in Automotive News

In 1964, Ford Motor Co. executive Lee Iacocca proposed a car that would forever change what young drivers wanted. Forget stodgy old sedans and wagons; they received an affordable four-seat sports car in the Ford Mustang — a thoroughbred that begat a new segment of vehicles dubbed “pony cars.” It sold 1,288,557 copies in less than three years!

The Mustang’s success inspired the Chevy Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Toyota Celica.

But baby boomers embraced other novel vehicles as well, such as Chevy LUV pickups, Jeep CJs and Ford Broncos — the forerunners of the SUV of the 1980s and '90s and the crossover craze of this century.

So what automotive trends are younger buyers embracing now?

“Looking over the past five years, for buyers in the 18-24 age range, compact utilities has been the highest-volume segment,” said Stephanie Brinley, associate director of auto intelligence at S&P Global Mobility. “For the 25-34 year-old group, however, since 2021 the Tesla Model Y has been the top seller. If this group proves to be loyal to electric vehicles, this paves the way for EV growth as the age group moves through life.”

If driving a muscle car once made you cool, crossovers and pickups are now hot. Try to find a Ford Maverick hybrid pickup that starts at just $29,795 or the $20,400 Chevy Trax compact crossover that cribs the larger Blazer plus the Corvette’s twin-screen interior. The similar Buick Envista brings German crossover coupe style for just $22,400.

Unveiled in March, the 2025 Nissan Kicks entices budget-minded buyers with future-tech exterior style, dual 12.3-inch displays, power panoramic moonroof, and wireless device connections. Cupholders caress 32-ounce Yeti tumblers. ProPILOT Assist aids drivers with adaptive cruise and lane centering. Prices will start around $22,000.

For those who still want a quick-handling car, the Subaru Impreza that shares a body shell, all-wheel-drive and capacious interior with the popular Crosstrek for just $22,995. Even if it isn’t jacked up for trails, it must meet expectations.

“Today, shoppers are looking for an off-road utility vehicle, and get excited about overall exterior styling and having a vehicle that is fun to drive,” said Bill Peffer, senior vice president and head of Jeep Brand North America.

And it might not hurt to have a little retro flair. A special “Free Wheeling” edition of the 2024 Ford Bronco Sport hearkens back to popular trim from the late 1970s with red, orange, yellow and silver body graphics. Interiors wear sunset-colored seat inserts. It looks ready for the beach.

“The Ford Free Wheeling package was developed to appeal to younger customers,” said Ted Ryan, archives and heritage brand manager for Ford. “The Free Wheeling Broncos were as popular as they were distinctive.”

To attract today’s buyers, it takes more than a fancy graphics package or wireless phone connections. They’re not naive, and given inflation, are looking to maximize value.

“Research shows that ‘price and the deal’ are important to customers who are younger than 30 years old,” Peffer said. “The Jeep brand recently repositioned the Compass with a U.S. MSRP of $25,900, while continuing to deliver 200 horsepower and up to 32 mpg highway. As their income goes up, the tech they want does, as well, but they are realistic as to what they can afford today.”


And these drivers are welded to their phones and apps.

“Gen Z consumers learn about new vehicles from social media and their friends and family,” Peffer continued. “We connect with them authentically outside of the dealership, whether it’s social media, live events or We closely monitor our social comments, respond where it makes sense and take the feedback to inform future programs and communications.”

As automobiles transform through technology, what roads will younger drivers take?

“We see growing interest in electrified powertrains,” Peffer said. “For compact utility vehicles, 83% of respondents definitely or probably would consider gas as the engine of their next vehicle, while 53% would be interested in a hybrid, 41% in a plug-in hybrid and 40% in electric.”

As reported by Motor Trend, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares said a $25,000 electric Jeep is coming to America “very soon.” It’s expected to be a variant of the European Jeep Avenger.

Ford and Nissan are developing $25,000 EVs of their own. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the Ford electric crossover is due in late 2026. Nissan plans a next-generation Leaf that will likely take on crossover styling cues and remain one of the most affordable EVs available.

GM is firing back with its Ultium EV architecture and a page from Alfred Sloan’s playbook.

“We are at a turning point where EVs will be the mainstream choice for the next generation of customers and Equinox EV will lead the charge for us,” said Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors. “We will bring to market vehicles at nearly every price point and for every purpose.”

A sleeker EV-only version of the Equinox debuts with up to 319 miles of range, 17.7-inch infotainment screen, wireless device connections and flatscreen gauges. Entry models will retail for $34,995 later this year. Chevrolet has also committed to a heavily revised version of the popular Bolt EV with a price tag expected well under $30,000. Both models will be available with GM’s hands-off Super Cruise system.

Though Camaro production ended late last year, GM President Mark Reuss envisions a Camaro EV with four doors, priced similarly to the Equinox EV. And if young drivers still want one 60 years on, the 2024 Ford Mustang flaunts heritage-inspired styling, twin screen dashboard, selectable drive modes, powerful engines and a $30,920 base price.

More than a century after their forebears adopted automobile mania, today's young drivers may not be that different from their elders.

“Personal transportation has always been about freedom to move,” said Joe Kyriakoza, vice president and general manager of Polk Automotive Solutions. “With people having other alternatives, from using social media and internet services to connect, buying a new car may be happening later in life. However, as people expand into different life stages, the need for personal transportation continues.”

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