Find the Ideal Car for a Baby Boomer
The Cars That Fit a Generation
You've probably seen the TV commercial for the 2012 Toyota Venza in which a 20-something woman is fretting about her aging baby-boomer parents, whom she imagines to be increasingly feeble and addled. Her lament is juxtaposed with scenes of the silver-haired empty-nesters unpacking their mountain bikes from the Venza's hatchback and pedaling off into the hills in endorphin-induced rapture, no doubt thrilled to be rid at last of their whiny, killjoy offspring.
This TV spot is noteworthy not just because of its hip, snarky role-reversal humor, but because it represents a rare attempt to market a car specifically to aging baby boomers, the roughly 77 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964.
The Last Car You'll Ever Buy?
Baby boomers are indeed buying the Toyota Venza, but not necessarily because they're embracing it as a status symbol that identifies them to the world as vigorous, carefree adventure-seekers. The Venza gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway, which makes it relatively fuel-efficient for an SUV/wagon. The Venza also has been named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And despite its higher ground clearance, the Venza is just as easy to get into as a Toyota Camry sedan and has both more legroom and front seats designed to accommodate wide, middle-aged bottoms. The Venza's interior doesn't have a lot of the cutting-edge electronic gadgetry that appeals to 20-something members of Gen Y, but the gauges have big, clear fonts — a plus for bifocal-wearing boomers — and the temperature control buttons are similarly large and easy to manipulate.
Even better as far as boomers are concerned, the Venza comes from Toyota. Baby boomers remember the defect-plagued U.S.-made cars of the 1970s and 1980s and they think of Toyota as the epitome of dependability in comparison. It's true that Toyota's reputation plunged in early 2010 after it temporarily halted production and recalled a number of models after reports of a mysterious problem with sudden acceleration. But after a National Transportation Safety Board investigation found no defects in Toyota's electronic throttle-control system, Toyota regained its reputation. Moreover, the Edmunds 2011 retained value rankings reveal that Toyota models retained 49.7 percent of their value over the last five years, an outstanding result that trails only Honda at 50.4 percent.
A Good Time To Be a Baby Boomer
The emergence of vehicles such as the Venza is a sign that if you're a boomer, it's a pretty good time to be shopping for a car. While automakers are rushing to develop vehicles so laden with Internet-connected gadgetry and touchscreens that they seem almost like iPads on wheels, they can't afford to give up on 50- and 60-year-olds just yet, because of the generation's still potent buying power. In 2010, consumers 50 and older spent $87 billion on cars, compared to $70 billion spent by younger car purchasers, according to a 2011 study on baby-boomer spending by the consulting firm A.T. Kearney.
Of course, for a while the automakers mistakenly assumed that boomers wanted high-end luxury vehicles, as evidenced by those 2011 Lincoln commercials featuring silver-haired John Slattery from TV's Mad Men. They also assumed they'd be clamoring for updated versions of 1960s muscle cars, so they could relieve their youthful need for speed. Neither assumption has proved to be the case with boomer buyers, however. Now the industry finally seems to be getting a grip upon what graying veterans of the Pepsi Generation want and need — which are not necessarily the same things.
Consumer research by Deloitte, a global consulting firm, reveals that aging boomers — unlike their Gen Y kids — are past the point where they're jazzed by the prospect of shopping for a cool-looking, high-performance set of wheels. Instead, explains Deloitte regional automotive research leader Joe Vitale, boomers "tend to be focused on utilitarian things."
"In fact, they've really learned to be focused on the things that had frankly turned them off when they first entered the market," he says. "They remember vehicles that were poor quality, badly designed, unreliable."
Baby Boomers Want Fuel Efficiency, Reliability
Baby boomers rely more heavily than Gen Y members upon reviews and comparative data gleaned from car magazines and Web sites, Vitale says. By the time they are ready to go to the showroom, they've narrowed it down to one or two models that they want to check out in person, and there's little a salesman can do to influence their decision.
"We found for Gen Y members, the dealership experience is three times as important as design," Vitale says. "Baby boomers have owned cars before. They know what they're looking for."
Explains Matt Thornhill, 52, founder of the Boomer Project, a Richmond, Virginia-based marketing research firm, "At this stage of life, we're going to buy a car that we think is relevant to us." He continues, "I don't care what people think of me because I drive a Prius, because it gets great mileage. When I was 30, I cared. A car meant status then. Today, we're interested in quality. I think that's one reason why Hyundai is doing pretty well. Boomers will say, 'Hey, that's a pretty good value for the money, and you get a lot of features.'"
Vitale says that for baby boomers, the single most important factor in picking a vehicle is a prosaic one — fuel efficiency. Because a boomer's formative experiences included long lines at filling stations and gas prices skyrocketing overnight during the mid-1970s OPEC embargo, they tend to focus on a high mpg rating as the key indicator of a high-quality, reliable vehicle, he says. An Edmunds.com analysis of sales data from January to November 2011 reveals that while traditionally popular vehicles such as Ford's F-150 line of trucks still rack up the biggest overall sales among 45-and-older auto buyers, the fastest growth is in fuel-efficient imports such as the Toyota Yaris, the Kia Forte and the Toyota Corolla.
Additionally, perhaps because of boomers' unhappy youthful memories of the exploding Ford Pinto and the rust-plagued, oil-burning Chevy Vega (No. 5 on the list of worst cars of all time, as compiled by our partner site Inside Line), they've learned to focus intently, if not obsessively, upon reliability and safety. "They tend to be skeptical that a car has all the latest safety features," Vitale notes.
Fascinated With Tech? Not So Much
In contrast to Gen Y, baby boomers are big on simplicity and comfort, and they generally are not that interested in cutting-edge gadgetry that they see as adding mostly to the price tag.
For example, don't expect many boomers to go for the 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS, the new subcompact set to debut this summer, which will have built-in steaming music capabilities but no CD player, a feature that analysts say appeals mostly to older — read boomer — car buyers. "Boomers like things that are evolutionary, rather than revolutionary," Vitale explains. "Touchscreen dashboards, connectivity — that's not for them. They like practical technology, like onboard roadside assistance, heated seats, good temperature controls."
But while old habits die hard, baby-boomer car shoppers should keep in mind that their aversion to being stuck with a clunker or loaded down with expensive gimmickry can actually deter them from making the best automobile choice for their needs.
"Boomers tend to believe there's a bigger quality gap among different brands and vehicles than there really is," Vitale says. "They can remember the days when there were significant differences in craftsmanship and reliability. But now, the quality gap is very small, to the point of being negligible."
Buying a Car for an Aging Body
Instead of worrying about finding a car that isn't going to fall apart, it makes more sense for baby boomers to focus on picking a car with design features that are best suited to their needs.
Boomers should look harder at finding a vehicle with ergonomic features that better accommodate their aging bodies. At the University of Florida's National Older Driver Research and Training Center, occupational therapist Sherrilene Classen and other experts have worked with engineers from the American Automobile Association to identify the factors that affect the safety and comfort of drivers as they get older, and figure out how cars can be designed to accommodate them.
Classen says that while there's a wide variation among individuals, most people start at age 40 to experience a slow, gradual decline in their driving-related physical abilities. "Night vision and recovery from glare worsens," she says. "By age 50, nine out of 10 people require bifocals and have vision problems such as astigmatism that lenses are less able to correct. Even more worrisome, reaction times are slower." As aging progresses, arthritis, expanding girth, diminished muscle strength and more limited range of motion can make it more of a challenge for an older driver just to get in and out of a vehicle, let alone turn their neck to look in outside mirrors.
Boomer-age exercise fanatics and health-food buffs who pride themselves on being healthier than previous generations might be reluctant to admit to all that, but nevertheless, Classen advises baby boomers to scrutinize prospective vehicle purchases with an eye to age-related ergonomics. For example:
- Pick a car or SUV with a sufficiently low threshold and big enough doors that it's easy to get in or out.
- Look for models with six- or eight-way adjustable front seats.
- Look for an instrument panel with a design that is clean and simple, with large fonts on the gauges, and buttons and controls that are big enough to be easily manipulated.
- Find a vehicle with wide-angle outside mirrors that provide an unobstructed view of the sides and rear of the vehicle.
- Look for a rear window that's large and flat, rather than sharply angled, which diminishes a driver's field of vision and clarity.
- Pay attention to crashworthiness testing by organizations such as the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the private-sector Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Older drivers tend to suffer more serious injuries in accidents than younger ones.
The University of Florida's National Older Driver Research and Training Center and AAA have published a detailed study of how well various vehicles met the requirements we listed above back in 2008, and they're planning an update in 2013 that also will look at the age-related benefits of recent advances such as accident avoidance systems and back-up cameras, which NHTSA seeks to have as required equipment on all new vehicles as of 2014.
In the meantime, though, Classen says she's encouraged by the extent to which car companies are making design adaptations to accommodate baby boomers. "Automakers are starting to pay attention to older drivers," she says. "They have to."