In the recent history of popular vernacular I can think of few terms that have made the trip from "must-have" to "has-been" in a shorter span of time than "bling" (though "off the hook" comes close). I almost used that term (bling, not off the hook) in the title of this month's column before I thankfully realized something obvious with regards to popular vernacular: If a 34-year-old journalist is using the term in the title of his editorial, it is well past its "sell by" date.
So while I won't again use that term, I will focus on the concept it represents, and how that concept is changing market perceptions, and market share, in the automotive industry. The key element can be hard to describe, but I believe it involves a combination of edgy/ostentatious styling, without an overt sense of desperation. Being simply edgy doesn't cut it, otherwise the Nissan Quest would be a best-seller. And if the vehicle looks to be "trying too hard" in the eyes of today's youth, an automaker might as well kill the model now, and save itself the cost of tooling up only to subsequently close down. As any market researcher will tell you, both Generation X and Generation Y thrive on individualism as long as this expression of individualism is hailed by their peers and subsequently inspires widespread imitation. Certainly these groups like the idea of a car that is wanted as long as it isn't too wanted. And if the vehicle looks like it's trying to be wanted? Forget it!
Which brings us to perhaps the most interesting aspect of today's popular youth cars: They often aren't designed for the youth market. Case in point — Cadillac's Escalade. The popular myth is that Cadillac didn't design the Escalade for rap stars and MTV appearances, but in reality the company saw the reaction Lincoln was getting with its Navigator, an upscale SUV that entered the market in 1998 and truly wasn't designed for hip, under-30 entertainers, but was scoring with them nonetheless. Yours truly saw Jennifer Lopez piloting a black Navigator at a local movie studio in 1999. The Navigator's popularity was rapidly growing with non-traditional Lincoln buyers when Cadillac's entry to the full-size, luxury SUV segment hit in 1999. But the real crowd pleaser, with the wide, oversized chrome grille and edgy shape didn't come to market until 2002. That model single-handedly vaulted Cadillac to where it hadn't been in decades — onto the car-shopping list of people under the age of 50. While the folks at GM surely had a notion of how the car would be received by young trendsetters, the extent of this SUV's success went beyond even the most optimistic of Cadillac's product planners. From Hollywood's heavy hitters to professional athletes to young kids with money to spend (not only on the Escalade's $50,000 price of entry, but thousands more on 20-inch aftermarket wheels and 15-inch subwoofers), they all flocked to their local Cadillac dealer. It may not have been planned, but nobody at Cadillac was complaining.
Three years later we find ourselves in a world that views SUVs with increasing skepticism, particularly with regards to their fuel mileage, rollover potential and general unwieldiness in any sort of urban environment. Many folks are finally asking the question they should have pondered back in the late 1990s: "Are these vehicles really necessary for the average person?" For which the only rational answer is, of course, "No!"
So the buying public has evolved and once again values merely conspicuous consumption, rather than blatant, oversized, gas-guzzling consumption. But the need to stand out with a vehicle that offers unconventional styling and unnecessary power remains. And in the last few months I've watched the "It Car" crown transfer from the Cadillac Escalade to Chrysler's all-new sedan, the 300C. The two models have much in common: oversized chrome grille, edgy styling and wheel wells that seem all too happy to accommodate 20-inch wheels. But unlike Cadillac, Chrysler can't make any claims about its latest model stumbling into this enviable market position by chance. It's clear Chrysler knew what it was doing when it pumped up the 300C's chrome-plated exterior while simultaneously pumping up its horsepower rating with the company's hugely successful Hemi engine (it makes 345 peak horsepower).
The recipe is working, too. More 2005 300Cs were sold in its first month on the market than were sold all last year of the previous model (a front-drive, V6 sedan with relatively conventional styling). The automotive press has made much of Snoop Dogg's request for a 300C, a request made directly to Chrysler Group CEO Dieter Zetsche during a live radio interview. And in West L.A., I've seen two different Chrysler 300Cs with 20-inch wheels in the last two weeks. Rumors abound that the upcoming Green Hornet movie will feature a 300C in the starring role; a role that the new model seems born to fulfill with its tall fenders and short greenhouse. But the really good news is that you don't have to be status-conscious to enjoy the 300C's value and performance. Even the base model makes for a comfortable and roomy sedan at well under $30,000. Loading it up with options and the Hemi V8 keeps the price well under $40K, which should have the premium European brands worried.
Who knows what the "It Car" will be three years from now? Maybe a hybrid-powered pickup truck? Yet another trademark of today's youth is that they tend to change their collective minds (which are highly individualistic, of course) far quicker than automakers can change their product designs. But right now, today, the 2005 Chrysler 300C appears to be exactly the right car at exactly the right time. Enjoy it while it lasts, Chrysler. All power (and fame) is fleeting.