Thursday, June 02, 2005

Coolness and the Car

The Toronto Globe and Mail writes about the idea of "coolness" and how the Big 3 just don't get it. From a language perspective, the word "cool" has been so overused and become so vague and vacuous that it has almost no meaning. I suppose "cool" means, from a product perspective, a vehicle that young people, or the mass media deem as a "must-have".

The article points this out, and I agree with it, that new cars are by and large unaffordable to young people, so "cool" cars become used cars that are altered, probably with various plastic ground effects, spoilers, and paint jobs.

But then the author decides that the Big 3 are no longer "cool", by and large because they do not produce entry level vehicles for young people that can be modified. That may be so, but the profit is not in the "cool" market. European cars are not bought by young people, outside of VW. Honda, a car company that seems to dominate this "cool" market had a severe sales decline this month because of lack of new product. The money is not be made catering to a segment of the market that is by most definitions impoverished.

Coolness comes in catering to those who can afford new vehicles, for better or for worse. "Cool" vehicles as I see them, are only affordable by people in their 30s through 50s, and seem like the kind of cars young people should be driving. A Corvette, with its incredible speed, and daring design, is the kind of car a young person would kill for. But it is only affordable by a far older, far more careful market segment. It is deemed "cool" for who it was built for. The older the buyer, the less likely the car is to be used to its full, risky potential.

In some ways the Big 3 have a monopoly on "cool". Can the Japanese build a cheap v8 coupe? Of course not. Only Dodge, Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac are allowed to do that. The Supra, if it ever returns, will never sell as many as the Corvette. Scions are sort of cool, but do any of those cars have the profit margins the new Mustang have? Does the RX series from Mazda have the loyal following any muscle car in the US has? The Japanese dominate the market of four door front wheel drive sedans, but can any of those be considered "cool", or liked by young people? Of course not.

In a way "coolness" and retro are things that the Big 3 can rely on when times get tough to make a lot of sales. The Japanese and the Europeans will have to strive hard to continously create extremely reliable or extremely well handling vehicles. The Big 3 will never have to, so long as they design cars that young people want, or at least middle aged people think young people want.

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