Young Americans have no enthusiasm for cars and can’t wait for the next generation of self-driving automobiles. So goes the conventional wisdom.
Someone forget to tell consumers.
Honda debuts its ferocious 306-horsepower, $34,775 Honda Civic Type-R to dealerships this month, the latest in a flood of driver-centric enthusiast cars aimed at the heart of the North American market. Other affordable millennial-friendly toys include the Ford Focus RS, VW Golf R and Toyota 86, and off-road rascals like the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD. They join a bushel of all-new $60K-something getaway cars like the winged Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, high-revving Mustang GT350, tree-chewing Ford F150 Raptor pickup and the hellacious Demon and Hellcat Dodge Challenger twins.
“Don’t believe that boys don’t put posters of cars on their walls anymore,” said Rob Keough, Civic product planner, at the Type-R’s Montreal media launch. “I’ve been on the auto show circuit and there is no shortage of young fans for cars like the Type-R and Mustang and Camaro.”
Auto headlines have been dominated in recent years by industry preparations for an anticipated shift in automobility to self-driving cars. Traditional automakers have joined Silicon Valley giants like Tesla, Uber, Google and Apple in investing billions in technology that would take the steering wheel out of driver’s hands. Chevrolet is testing 130 self-driving Bolt bots in three cities while Ford has shaken up management ranks to, in part, accelerate its transition to the new autonomous world order. The trend dovetails with reports that Americans have grown tired of automobiles as tedious, environmentally unfriendly appliances.
But while autonomous vehicles may well be an integral part of the nation’s future, evidence that America’s love affair with the automobile is waning is scant. In fact, signs are it’s hotter than ever.
While Tesla and Uber have suffered high-profile hiccups with autonomous vehicle rollouts, automakers are heeding consumer demand by sexing up their portfolios. The Type-R is a Civic on steroids. It boasts the highest engine output the Japanese automaker has ever introduced to the U.S. market. It joins similar 300-horsepower rockets like the Golf R and Focus RS for under $40,000.
“The excitement is building for more affordable performance cars. I was blown away by the whole Type-T package,” says Honda devotee Jason Richman, an auto personality who has built a cult following on YouTube and Facebook. “There was a time when this kind of performance wasn’t available unless you could afford a $100,000 to $200,000 car.”
An ex-car salesman in Chicago, Richman is a social-media phenomenon known by the handle “Honda Pro Jason.” He has 126,000 followers on Facebook and another 85,000 on YouTube. He credits the social media revolution with turbo-charging auto enthusiasm by helping automakers better connect with car fans.
“The excitement that social media brings has had a lot to do with the growth of performance offerings,” he says. “Auto events I used to go to that attracted 10 or 20 people now attract 1,000 to 5,000. The Type-R, for example, would not have come to the U.S. were it not for social media. Honda saw an uprising for it.”
Industry insiders say this passion coincides with manufacturing developments that have made it more profitable for the industry to cater to niche buyers.
“Carmakers have gotten better at making the business case for these lower-volume vehicles,” says Kelley Blue Book auto analyst and motorhead Karl Brauer. “Because of global platforms, the economies of scale are there to build-out niche vehicles that are not just brand halos, but that can also be profitable model extensions.”
Honda’s Keough says the Type-R is a beneficiary of the first-ever global platform for the Civic, now in its 10th generation. In previous models, the five-door hatchback-style Type-R was made exclusively for Europe and Japan on a separate architecture.
“You used to have to make a business case for each version because you have to pay for the (regulatory) calibrations,” explains Keough. “But this time the Civic is built on a global platform for two-, four- and five-door variants. Since the body structure was planned to meet European, Japanese and North American crash requirements, it was easier to get the hatchback into the States.”
Advances in manufacturing and software have also made sport variants more affordable to produce, says KBB’s Brauer. Technological innovations like variable valve timing, turbochargers, and programmable engine-control units have made it easier to get more range and capability out of the same engine block.
“Making high-performance cars can be no more difficult than hooking it up to a laptop,” smiles Bauer.
Contrary to the narrative du jour, Brauer says these variants are finding a millennial audience just like previous generations — including electric cars that also bring social status. Electric-car sales are up for the 20th-straight month. “The idea that millennials don’t desire cars is an urban myth,” he says.
Polls taken during the Great Recession found millennials delaying auto purchases, but that appears an economic phenomenon, not a cultural one. Last year, the 20- to 35-year-old age group was the fastest-growing segment of car buyers, accounting for 29 percent of purchases according to J.D Power.
Grassroots Motorsports is a Daytona Beach enthusiasts network that oversees magazines, websites and auto events. Grassroots writer and Mustang racer JG Pasterjak says its membership has never been stronger — and that readers can’t wait to get their hands on the latest hot hatch like the Type-R.
“I actually look forward to the day when I can tow my car to the track behind my autonomous truck, race all weekend, then sleep all the way home,” he laughs.
Even Google CEO Sergey Brin, whose company popularized self-driving with its breakthrough Google car, dismisses the notion that autonomous vehicles will cool the love of driving. “There is a future for both worlds,” he told journalists in 2015. “There’ll always be the pleasure of the open road.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.