In many ways, the auto industry is changing faster than ever before. Crossovers, which barely existed a decade ago, now make up the fastest-growing automotive segment in America. The popularity of electric vehicles and hybrids continue to grow, and increasing fuel economy standards have forced automakers to push traditional engines and transmissions to new heights in order to comply. Infotainment systems are a major selling point for cars in every segment, and the release of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay systems could make the market even more competitive.
While the cars themselves change, automakers are having trouble keeping up with the way American buyers buy cars. Tesla’s direct-sales approach is incredibly popular, but is under attack by auto dealers who view it as a threat to established conventions. The trouble is for them, car buyers are looking for a simpler, Tesla-type buying experience more than the stressful old-fashioned approach of haggling and multiple visits.
Traditionally, cars aimed at young buyers offered a combination of affordability, practicality, competitive tech, and a fun to drive factor. Taking cues from tech companies like Apple and Google, carmakers are constantly in search of new ways to build and sell models that will attract that next generation of brand loyalists. As the cost to develop a new model can run into the billions, this is no easy task. In this ever-changing automotive landscape, here are 8 models that car builders hope are competitive enough to hook customers for life.
1. Kia Soul
Shortly before the Kia Soul was released in 2010, The New York Times ran a profile on the car, revealing that inspiration for the Soul came from designer Michael Torpey’s caricature of a wild boar, who “for practicality, put a backpack on it.” The Soul was designed to appeal to younger buyers, and it quickly became successful in the emerging small crossover segment. Now in its second generation (with an electric version available in some states), the Soul is one of Kia’s strongest sellers in the U.S., moving 145,314 cars in 2014 alone.
2. Scion iM
Launched as Toyota’s youth-oriented brand in 2002, Scion has been successful at reaching a younger buyer – relatively speaking, that is. In 2014, the average age of American new car buyers was around 52 years old, while the average Scion owner is a spry 51. No longer focusing on quirky cars designed for first-time buyers, the all-new iM offers the practicality and reliability of a five-door hatchback that should appeal to the brand’s older buyers while its bold styling should appeal to their kids.
3. Chevrolet Spark
When Chevrolet launched the Spark in 2010, it wanted an affordable, tech-friendly subcompact to appeal to young buyers considering a Honda Fit, Fiat 500, or Ford Fiesta. With the all-new 2016 model recently released at the New York Auto Show, Chevy hopes that “the new Spark is still the fun, agile urban car that made the first-generation model so popular, but it delivers that fun driving experience with greater sophistication.”
4. Cadillac ATS
After decades in the wilderness, Cadillac is refocused and ready to take on the world’s best. Eager to takes sales away from entry-level competitors like the BMW 3-Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and Audi A4, Cadillac introduced the ATS in 2012. Available as a coupe and sedan, Cadillac hopes the small, sporty Caddy is enough to hook young buyers and create a new generation of brand loyalists. The base ATS is a capable enough performer, but the BMW M3-slaying 450 horsepower ATS-V should help Cadillac attract performance-minded buyers to the brand too.
5. Mercedes-Benz CLA
It seemed too good to be true, and it was. When Mercedes-Benz launched the CLA in 2013, it went out of its way to advertise that the car’s base price started under $30,000. In a little over a year, the price has climbed to well over that magic number, but it hasn’t taken away from the car’s appeal. Designed to compete with the Audi A3 and BMW 2-Series, The CLA is Mercedes’s first attempt in over a decade to field an entry-level model in the U.S. market. Despite its relatively low price, the CLA is a Mercedes through and through, and it’s been a considerable sales success for the brand.
6. Ford Fiesta ST
When it was introduced over 30 years ago, the Volkswagen GTI was considered the first “hot hatch,” an affordable, world-class sporty car that also happened to be a versatile daily-drivable hatchback. As the GTI has moved upmarket, its spiritual successor is the Ford Fiesta ST, a sub-$25,000 five-door hatchback that also happens to be one of the best driver’s cars in the world. Not only is the Fiesta ST the entry point for Ford’s fantastic new performance lineup, it’s also a reliable daily driver that’s affordable enough for young buyers on a budget.
7. Jeep Renegade
On top of being a radical departure for the Jeep brand, the new Renegade is one of the company’s strongest efforts to attract young buyers in its 75-year history. Similar in size to the Kia Soul, and available with with Jeep’s legendary all-wheel drive system, the compact Jeep was designed in the U.S., built in Italy, and aimed at buyers who wouldn’t normally consider a rugged Jeep. Parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles wants to expand Jeep’s global footprint, and hopes that the “Renegade will attract a new wave of youthful and adventurous customers around the world to the brand.” It’s too early to tell if the Renegade will live up to sales expectations, but so far, it’s more than lived up to the Jeep name.
8. Toyota Camry
For decades, the ubiquitous Camry has had the reputation of being about as exciting as a washing machine, and Toyota has decided it’s not going to take it anymore. After years as the best-selling car in America based on reliability and inoffensive styling, the latest Camry has a sporty new facelift, and a major advertising campaigndesigned to show off its newfound young, sporty side. This dynamic, new Camry may not attract any more young buyers, but it shows just how far automakers will go to stay young.
These models may be different from one another, but they all have several things in common. They’re relatively small, relatively affordable, and are positioned as tech-focused and fun to drive. It’s nearly impossible to tell whether or not a model will catch on with the buying public, but automakers have enough faith in these models to introduce their brands to a new generation of buyers and keep them loyal for life.