How Could Generational Changes Impact The Market Viability Of Sports Cars?

Jun 26, 2020

 

 

Credit Brian Champagne

 If you picture yourself shifting gears on a twisty road with the wind in your hair, you’re part of a shrinking group. Car Guy Brian Champagne loved a sports car he borrowed from Toyota, but he’s worried that it won’t survive because it’s stuck between generations.

 

That sound is already rare. 

It’s the Toyota 86 with the e-brake yanked to let it slide. 

That’s the clutch popped, revving its engine through a six-speed manual transmission. 

Those sounds will get rarer because e-brakes you can pull, transmissions you can shift, and sports cars like this are in decline. The ’86 has a long sleek nose; tight, low front seating; and is so fun to drive it doesn’t have to call itself fun to drive.

 

And it’s sales numbers are down. All Toyota non-hybrid sales were down for COVID-19 except one vehicle: The RAV4. The small SUV has decent space, power, and economy. It’s fine.

So why do so many people want a “fine” vehicle? Dr. Gill Pratt, who heads Toyota’s autonomous vehicle program, may have dropped a clue at a tech conference four years ago.

“Society is aging,” Pratt said. “ In the United States, we’re going from 13% over age 65 right now to 20% over age 65 in the next 15 years. This is all the result of the Baby Boom coming through the population.”

When the Baby Boomers hit mid-life crisis, the Mazda Miata was there, selling 36,000 of the sports cars in 1990. Ten years later, Mazda sold about half as many; now, less than half that. The two-seater is their worst-seller. Their best-seller is a “fine” crossover.

“Car culture and cars show up in both my environmental history class and my urban history classes,” said Utah State University’s Lawrence Culver follows trends of buyers and drivers.

“I think lot of the Baby Boomers now would rather be in a vehicle that’s easier to get in and out of and is more easy to maneuver in and out of than a very small, low to ground sports car,” Culver said. 

Our tape measure showed the driver’s seat of the ’86 is about nine inches off the ground. Great for handling, tough on hips and knees.

Going up to get in seems more appealing. The number one selling vehicle in the U.S. for 38 years running is the Ford F-150 pickup, with sales just 14,000 short of a million sold last year.

And the way Culver sees it, it’s not getting better for sports cars.

 

“Generation Xers are in or even through the midlife crisis phase, but I don’t think many of them bought cars like that or had the money to buy cars like that,” he said. “And certainly now as the Millenials, the oldest Millenials are now closing in on 40, I guess we’ll see what they do, but I frankly doubt demographically speaking that a lot of them are going to have the money to go blow on a sports car.”

Which is too bad, because the ’86 has all the modern conveniences, but also sporty handling and a great driving experience, which is getting even less important.

“I have a good chunk of students now who can’t drive,” Culver said.