Automakers Race to Keep Up With Boomers' Needs

As Boomers near retirement age their automotive needs begin to change.

As Boomers near retirement age their automotive needs begin to change.

There's no secret handshake, no dues, no monthly meetings. To join the Baby Boomer club, you simply need to have been born between Jan. 1, 1946, and Dec. 31, 1964. There are 77 million members in the U.S. alone.

With the generation born in the post-World War II explosion now nearing retirement age — if not already retired — their needs are beginning to change.

"There are certain undeniable truths that come with age," said Greg Lang, corporate manager of product planning for Toyota. "The older you get, you aren't physically as good as you used to be."

One of Lang's duties is to determine what features and amenities Toyota needs to offer in vehicles to attract those aging Boomers, who represent the largest number of potential vehicle buyers today.

"We did a study in 2007 — and five years before that, and 10 years before that — on what features all consumers wanted in their vehicles, and though we asked both retirees and non-retirees, the lists every year had ABS brakes and remote keyless entry as No. 1 and No. 2," he said. "The rest of the lists had all the same items, only the order was different." Lang declined to discuss the other features on his list, not wanting to provide rivals free Toyota research.

Those in charge of coming up with features say that everyone — older motorists as well as younger ones — need basically the same things in a car. For example, everyone needs a car that's easy to get in and out of, that they don't have to fall into or need someone to lift them out of. And the easier the controls are to use, the better, Lang said.

The Buick Lucerne lane departure system has a camera in the rearview mirror that "reads" lane markers.

The Buick Lucerne lane departure system has a camera in the rearview mirror that "reads" lane markers.

The hard part for automakers comes in how those things are marketed. Boomers don't want to be told that big buttons and big numbers are there to make it easier for them, simply because they don't want to be told they're growing old.

A large percentage of Buick and Cadillac buyers are aging Boomers, which is one reason why the Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS and STS offer lane departure warning systems, which benefit those with declining vision and reaction times. In these systems, a camera in the rearview mirror "reads" lane markers and gives drivers an audible alert when they stray into another lane without the turn signal being activated.

The Lucerne and STS also offer a blind spot alert in which alternating radar beams sweep the adjacent lanes of traffic on both sides of the car. When another car enters the area, visual and audible alerts warn drivers that a vehicle is in their blind spot.

A variety of cars, such as the Audi A8, Infiniti EX35, Lexus RX 350 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class, also offer adaptive cruise control systems that apply the brakes if you get too close to the vehicle ahead of you, which also takes into account older-driver vision and perception problems.

Then there are sonar detection systems in cars like the Cadillac CTS, Buick LaCrosse and Lucerne, and Lexus IS and LS that beep when you're getting too near a car ahead of or behind you. There are also backup cameras on vehicles like the Toyota Sequoia and Sienna, Nissan Armada and Hummer H3 that display a video on the navigation screen of what's behind you so you don't back into a child, another vehicle or a garbage can. All are extremely handy for motorists whose eyesight and reaction time isn't as good as it once was.

Also becoming more common are lower door sills, grab handles over the doors, higher seating, wider door openings, bigger mirrors, bigger windows, larger controls, larger lettering and numbers, more room throughout the car, softer cushions, and seat belts that are easier to reach and fasten. Fuel-door and trunk-release levers have been moved off the floor and onto the door, dash or center console so older drivers don't have to bend.

To identify needs and solutions, Ford has its designers and engineers wear a "third-age suit" when creating features and systems for its cars. It's a heavy, bulky suit that limits muscle and joint movement to simulate the aging process, including stiff foot pads, ankle braces, knee and back braces, elbow and hand braces, rubber gloves, a neck brace and yellow-tinted glasses that magnify glare. Once strapped in, designers get in prototype vehicles to see how well they can see, reach and use all the knobs, buttons and handles in the car. They also test how easy or difficult it is to turn, park and back up.

Catering to the needs of older drivers seems risky; it's a well-known fact in the auto industry that you can sell an older person a young person's car, but you can't sell a young person a car perceived to be an older person's car. That's where the practicality of the features comes in.

"What's good for youth is good for older drivers as well," Lang said. "Young drivers establish tastes, and Boomers adopt them and make them more mainstream. The young find it neat to touch a screen to change radio stations; Boomers find it neat, too, because it's better than fumbling with knobs. Boomers want things intuitive to use."

John Wolkonowicz, an analyst with Global Insight, has spent the past 20 years specializing in the differences between generations and the wants and needs that will satisfy each. He said the secret for automakers is to cater to the aging body while keeping the features hip and cool enough for both older and younger consumers.

"We all get older and face physical limits and don't want to admit it's harder to climb in the car or turn around to change lanes or back up," Wolkonowicz said. "But the last thing you want to create is a vehicle or system for older Boomers and advertise it as such. In the '80s, Ford created a concept that it said would make it easier for older people to get in and out. The public said they didn't want it and it never was built.

"The trick is to create a product that meets those needs in an appealing way.

"Boomers want high-tech, but it has to be simple and not too complicated to understand or use, like iDrive at BMW, which Boomers don't like," Wolkonowicz said. "They don't want a complex nav system that forces you to program the address letter by letter. They just want to say, 'Go to...' and have a map appear."

Along with that high-tech approach, Boomers are also into "smart" cars with lots of content because they see that as giving them value for their money.

According to CNW Marketing Research, many Boomers don't consider GPS navigation an important automotive feature.

According to CNW Marketing Research, many Boomers don't consider GPS navigation an important automotive feature.

"Boomers don't want to compromise features," said George Peterson, president of automotive research and consulting firm Auto Pacific. "They want status. They want air conditioning and satellite radio. They don't want small, which they see as unsafe. A minivan would be perfect for them, but they avoid minivans like the plague because of the soccer mom image."

On the flip side, not every gadget appeals to Boomers. CNW says there are many features Boomers couldn't care less about, like GPS navigation systems. Those are rated important by only 5.2 percent of Boomer buyers. Hybrid technology is important to just 16.7 percent of Boomers, which is slightly more than the percentage attracted to a sun- or moonroof (15.6 percent), but lower than the percentage who want stain-resistant seats (18.9 percent). Today's younger drivers couldn't live without an iPod input in the car, but only 10 percent of Boomers say they need one. A sports suspension (21 percent) is also way down on Boomers' lists.

While it's not surprising that Boomers and the younger generation don't see eye-to-eye on some features, it's also safe to assume there are some differences when it comes to the big picture. According to CNW Marketing Research, the 10 attributes all consumers consider most important when buying a vehicle are low monthly payments, visibility, quality, styling, manufacturer's reputation, low price versus the competition, status, driver ergonomics, low sticker price and resale value.

For Boomers, however, the order changes somewhat. Good visibility is No. 1, followed by manufacturer's reputation, quality, styling, driver ergonomics, status, monthly payments, passenger protection, airbags and resale value.

© Cars.com 07/1/2012