As many of you know, I have a tendency to spend way too much time on online car configurators. This has involved creating $200,000 911 Carreras, an $80,000 528i, and a beautiful Black Kirsch Rolls-Royce Phantom XWB with a wonderful two-tone interior that I promptly forgot to save. Car configurators are a fantastic way to waste time, especially when you can create the perfect car that’ll be sitting on dealers’ lots as a lease return in three years’ time.
But last week, I was utilizing car configurators for different, research purposes, which entailed creating the most expensive minivans money can buy. After I had created a $45,000 Odyssey Touring Elite on the Honda website, I decided to find other vehicles to which I could add as many accessories as I could. This, naturally made me gravitate to the Honda Element, because there was a tent accessory that could be added on the configurator. But I was surprised the Element it wasn’t there.
After some Google sleuthing, I found out Honda discontinued the Element in 2011. This was a travesty as it no longer meant I could tell which one of my friends’ parents was going through a mid-life crisis. It also put a wrench in my plans of attempting to start the first mini-nightclub on wheels. (Cover charge: $10. I need to pay for future transmission failures.) More importantly though, it meant I as a young person, couldn’t attain the “lifestyle vehicles” I’d seen on TV in between Boy Meets World commercial breaks throughout middle school.
Let’s go back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when “lifestyle” vehicles first started showing up. “Generation X” was a term that was becoming thrown around a lot. The economy was doing well, I used Yahooligans! as my go-to search browser and Mercedes-Benzes were becoming less reliable by the minute. The X Games had become all the rage, Tony Hawk came out with a certain skateboarding video game, and George Clooney was recovering from that near-career killer of a movie called Batman and Robin, which was an hour of my life I’ll never get back. Even the President at the time liked Generation X, having had an “intimate” relationship with one of its members.
There was a new focus on selling cars to Generation X. They were the dawn of that all-too-important 18-to-35 age group every marketer wants. The Generation Xer spent insane amounts of money on CDs and then-expensive DVDs, video games, grew up on MTV, and spent plenty of money on activities. Companies wanted their money by creating products specifically for them.
To get this “hip” group on its side, Pontiac debuted the Aztek, which was surprisingly usable for tailgate parties (and had a tent accessory of its own), but was instantly unpopular because of a little thing called “styling.” Later, Honda made the Element, based exactly on its Model X. Then came the Subaru Baja, essentially an Outback with a bed and a “Switchback” system like the Midgate system on an Avalanche, but with an irremovable rear window, giving you a reason why you couldn’t help your acquaintances move.
Beyond crossovers, Toyota made the FJ Cruiser, which sold well enough at the beginning, but became overlooked when its customer base started having families. Nissan debuted the Xterra, which was heavily marketed to the X Games type, with the bulge on the rear hatch for the first aid kit, a special focus on the roof rack which doubled as a “basket,” and emphasizing the waterproof seats. It too sold well, until SUVs went out-of-style and Jeep introduced the Wrangler Unlimited.
However, towards the end of the 2000s, these SUVs and crossovers eventually became too expensive. So automakers then decided to offer fun, boxy, cheap hatchbacks. This led to cars like the Scion xB, Nissan Cube, and Kia Soul. They sold in droves (especially the xB) because they were surprisingly spacious inside and the features could be customized extensively without paying thousands of dollars to a specialty shop. Dealers loved them since it meant they could make a killing on the accessories and the mark-up that came with them.
Lifestyle vehicles became all the rage. In the ads, these cars were never on the road. They were always in the middle of nowhere, in the forest, in a parking lot, in the desert, in the snow, highlighting how you “would always go off the beaten path” and have the vehicle to fulfill it. These ads played up every cliché featured on those framed motivational posters that populate salespeople’s walls, “lifestyle” vehicles were going to here to say. Those sales were going to stay constant, because there were always more and more people coming of age each year to buy more cars. But that didn’t happen.
All of these cars are going away. The Element is already gone. With the Outback redesign, Subaru didn't think a new Baja was worth it. The FJ Cruiser is soon to be gone. Kia had to push some serious incentives to get the Souls to sell last year, presumably because the people who would buy it simply because of the hamsters have been exhausted, or they’re 8 years old. The same goes for the Cube, whose salesmen struggle to explain the shag carpeting on the dash, and point to everything else but the road while in the car.
It’s been stated the fact that Scion exists is proof that car companies care about young people and how they spend money. I disagree.Do you know what the average age of a Scion buyer is? It’s 49, according to Polk. Meanwhile, their sales struggle to top 100,000 cars a year, and this includes the FR-S. Even sales of the Scion xB haven’t held up well compared to its introduction in 2004, where they were selling around 50,000 a year. But we need to focus on why these cars on going to be gone, which is because of their target customer bases.
First off, let’s start with the industry’s favorite target: the millennials. There’s always a story that they don’t buy cars because they’d rather have expensive smartphones, they’re environmentalists, they’re lazy, they live with their parents, and so on. (I fulfill three out of four of that criteria myself.) But the simple fact is none of them have money to buy new cars. There’s student loans to pay off. Many of them can only find unpaid internships. A lot of them might not have the right credit to finance a new car.
Furthermore, it comes to fulfilling the activities as the cars as advertised to do. Going to see Miley Cyrus involves serious cash. Many of the adventure sports have high costs, especially when gas to get to the venues is factored in. Instead, they’ll repurpose the hand-me-down cars or their used cars and make it work. As marketers now know, there’s a limited amount of dollars in millennials’ wallets and they simply cannot fulfill all of it. This is one part of the equation why lifestyle vehicles will be gone.
However, it’s just not millennials. At the same time, Generation X is in their 40s and consider buying something like an FJ Cruiser as a “frivolous” vehicle when they could get a 4Runner for essentially the same price, four normal doors, a third seat, and no blind spots. The same goes for the Element (personally, I never saw anyone in their 20s ever driving one), which seats only four, and could never compete with an Odyssey as the perfect family vehicle. All of them have families and needs greater than going BMX biking at the spur-of-the-moment.
In other words, if the two best potential groups for lifestyle vehicles aren't buying them, there's absolutely no reason for manufacturers to keep offering them. So they'll die in the next five years, with crazy incentives advertised throughout the classified sections of the newspaper,overlooked because their customer base doesn't read newspapers. They'll become punchlines for auto journalists across the world, who'll need to work them into ever-so-complicated metaphors. We'll end up seeing them on used car lots, with salesmen who'll spend more time emphasize the cargo area more than the payments for a change.
That's too bad. I was really looking forward to seeing how many people would pay to dance hunched-over without shattering the rear skylight window.
This piece originally appeared on my Kinja blog BecauseCAR.
Photo credit Honda.