Trouble for Detroit? Gen Y’s Favorite Cars Are Foreign

A new study of Gen Y drivers’ preferences looks like more bad news for the Detroit automakers.

Auto pricing site tracked both the brands and individual models bought in 2009 and 2010 by Generation Y shoppers (ages 18 to 27). The results should strike fear into the hearts of U.S. auto executives: Not a single brand from a domestic automaker made the Top 10 list.

Scion, a brand set up by Toyota Motor specifically aimed at young buyers, was No. 1. (See its Scion tC above right.) Mitsubishi, a name that barely registers with older shoppers, came in second.

Some other brands among the top 10, such as Honda and Volkswagen, have a long record of youth appeal. But even the Korean corporate twins Hyundai and Kia, which have recorded surging sales in recent years, appear to have extended their appeal to young buyers as well as older ones.

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Though Ford, Chrysler and the General Motors brands have enjoyed big sales gains this year, the TrueCar list portends some future trouble, as young buyers who like their first car often become loyal to that brand. “It is important for an auto maker to get a young buyer into their vehicle from the beginning, in hopes of continued loyalty to the brand,” says TrueCar chief analyst Jesse Toprak.

To that end, the domestic brands do still have the chance to get a boost from new models — such as the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze — that offer plenty of features at an affordable price, notes Toprak’s colleague, TrueCar analyst Kristen Andersson. “Buyers from this generation are looking for vehicles that have the technology features they are accustomed to built into the vehicle at an affordable price, ” she says.

Not surprisingly, seven of the top 10 models preferred by young buyers have a list price of under $20,000. The top three models — the Scion tC, Mitsubishi Lancer and Honda Civic Si — offer a wide choice of features for personal customization.

The only U.S. model on the top 10 list of individual models is the Ford Focus coupe, which offers the SYNC system — Ford’s pioneering voice-command system, which controls mobile phones and to play music and is particularly popular with young buyers.

Other tech features that attract young buyers include the Lancer’s navigation system, with its own music server, and a Honda Civic Si system that lets the driver customize an on-screen display with options like current mileage.

Here is a closer look at TrueCar’s top brands and models:

Top Brands for Gen Y Buyers
(Ranked by percentage of buyers in Gen Y)
1. Scion — 21.2%
2. Mitsubishi — 20.3%
3. Mazda — 10.7%
4. Nissan — 9.8%
5. Volkswagen — 9.6%
6. Kia — 9.1%
7. Hyundai — 8.6%
8. Honda — 8.0%
9. Toyota — 7.6%
10. Subaru — 7.3%

Top Models for Generation Y Buyers
(Shown with MSRP)
1. Scion tC — $18,995
2. Mitsubishi Lancer — $20,670
3. Honda Civic Si – $22,975
4. Toyota YarisSedan — $13,915
5. Ford Focus Coupe — $17,365
6. Scion xD — $15,830
7. Volkswagen GLI — $25,365
8. Subaru Impreza – $19,220
9. Kia Forte — $15,690
10. Toyota Corolla — $16,660