From navigation systems serving as game consoles to sound systems doubling as amplifiers and nail polish matching a paint job, automakers are trying new tricks to lure fickle young buyers, AFP
Connected consoles that sync with smartphones to stream music and even read incoming text messages aloud seemed to be almost standard features on most of the cars on display at the Detroit auto show.
"It's difficult to capture this group because they're not brand loyal at this stage in their life," said Joe Vitale, an auto analyst with Deloitte.
Young buyers also have higher expectations than their parents, he said.
They take reliability, quality and safety as a given, want good fuel economy and access to "infotainment" like satellite radio and social media, and -- perhaps like their parents -- want a car that makes a statement.
Aggressive styling, a renewed focus on design, souped-up interiors and zippy small cars are becoming more common on the showroom floor as automakers jostle for position with a group that is expected to soon be buying one in every four cars sold in the US.
"When you build more emotional cars, you get more young people to buy your product," Jim Lentz, head of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said in an interview on the sidelines of the show.
Toyota developed an entirely separate brand -- Scion -- to help it connect with young buyers and get them to develop the kind of brand loyalty their parents have.
One way it connects is through a focus on personalization -- something young buyers care a lot about and for which they are often willing to pay a premium.
Scion offers enthusiasts over 250 different ways to accessorize their cars, including sporty mufflers, lowering springs, graphics to highlight the trim and an interior lighting kit that illuminates the lower level of the interior in green, red, purple and white.
Daimler's Mini brand also focuses on personalization and has got to be the hippest car at the show.
The choices of colors and patterns for the exterior seem endless -- including the classic Union Jack rooftop -- while the interior offers surprises like a hidden glove box and a circular key fob to match the console design.
The joystick-operated sound system shifts the volume on the speakers to match your drive (say, shifting to the right on a turn) and a little goldfish turns good driving into a game by falling out of its bowl if a corner is taken too fast.
Ford certainly doesn't expect that a bottle of nail polish in "Ford Fiesta Storm" alone will bring new buyers to its zippy small car lineup.
It gets them in the door by offering a lot of higher-end features like heated side mirrors and a voice-activated entertainment system that will read incoming tweets aloud in a fuel efficient, funky and low-price little car.
The matching polish perk is part of a broader strategy to get new buyers to make an emotional connection to their cars that will lead them to think of Ford again when it's time to replace their vehicle.
Ditto for Volkswagen's Fender Beetle. It's not a huge seller, but the advanced sound system -- that you can plug your guitar into -- and the stylish interior adds to the already distinctive car's appeal.
Young buyers also want their cars to be more than just a way to get somewhere, said John Mendel, head of sales for American Honda.
"They're looking for the flexibility of being the Swiss Army knife of cars," he told AFP
Honda is reaching out with an expansion of its small car offerings, like the "urban SUV" concept unveiled on Monday that combines the function of a sport utility with the handling of a small car.
GM has targeted young buyers with its Chevy Spark and Sonic cars, which offer bold design in a small package, bright colors echoed in the interior through stitching and trim, and text-message reading sound systems that link up with smartphones.
But its Equinox SUV and Silverado pickup are also big sellers among millennials looking for more utility.
Hyundai tries to tempt young buyers with power and aggressive styling, but offers a great perk for anxious parents worried about teen drivers: a navigation system that will alert them if the car leaves a pre-set "safety" zone.