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`Boomers' Reveling In Retros

DETROIT--A Polk study indicates that new retro models are rocketing toward bridging the gap between young and old car buyers.

Three models were chosen for Polk's ``retro'' study--the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volkswagen New Beetle and Plymouth Prowler. Based on recent buyers, these models are primarily popular with those 25 to 54 years old, with roughly two-thirds of this group falling into the Baby-Boomer segment (35-54 years old).

``As we're seeing, these types of retro vehicles were expected to attract seasoned and established vehicle buyers, but these stylish products also appeal to a relatively younger audience with many years of purchasing power ahead,'' said Pete Affeld, performance consultant for Polk.

``In the case of the New Beetle, we're seeing a stronger contribution from 18 to 34 year olds, which should be pleasing to Volkswagen given the effort to align this model with relatively younger consumers. These classic designs bring back good memories for those who grew up in car-crazy America of the 1950s and 1960s, while the new look and new choice of colors provide an added bonus to attract buyers under their mid-30s as well.''

When comparing buyers over a two-year period for the New Beetle and Prowler, Polk noted subtle changes in the age composition for these two retro models.

``We're seeing a slight shift in New Beetle buyers that indicates more attraction from the mature segment (age 55+) compared to those buying this same car two years ago,'' said Affeld. ``Additionally, the share of Baby Boomers buying this car also dropped a bit. This indicates that the New Beetle is starting to appeal to age groups that weren't the first to own it upon its launch in 1998.''

In the case of the Plymouth Prowler, Polk's analysis sensed a starker shift toward relatively younger buyers over a two-year period. While less than 5 percent of Prowler buyers represented those under 35 years old, the share in this segment more than doubled to nearly 11 percent two years later. Prowler buyers over 55 years old also dropped by nearly 10 percent during this period. Polk found that for the New Beetle and Prowler, many high-income households were among the first to buy the New Beetle and Prowler, with nearly half of all early Prowler buyers and nearly a quarter of all early Beetle buyers having household incomes of at least $125,000. However, recent numbers indicate that buyers of these vehicles now come from a variety of income levels, with most buyers falling in the $50,000 - $75,000 household income range.

``Vehicles with extra flair, such as concept cars, have always captured the attention of the public. Actually owning a vehicle with such unique styling is becoming more widespread; it's no longer restricted to car collectors,'' said Affeld. ``Affluent and able-buying households can obviously influence the adoption process and retro vehicles are quickly noticed by being on the road as soon as they are available.''

According to Polk, new vehicle registrations and PT Cruiser sales have been skyrocketing, growing by 1,800 vehicles every month since the model was introduced. If this trend continues, as it did with both the Prowler and the New Beetle in their first year, then the PT Cruiser could reach into sales of over 20,000 vehicles a month.

Meanwhile, sales of Beetles and Prowlers show no signs of declining. Sales of both models have been steadily increasing since September 1998, although not at the same rate as in the first year of production.

So what does the future look like for this trend of retro vehicles? As sales continue to be strong for the three vehicles mentioned above, Ford and Chevrolet are introducing their own classic-designed retro vehicles this year. Ford is bringing back the Thunderbird, which will feature a look similar to the 1950s model with an aluminum egg-crate grille, leather-wrapped instrument panel and rocket tail- lamp lenses. Chevrolet is introducing its SSR (Super Sport Roadster), which is a combination sports car, pickup, and other roadster-like features.

``This effort shows the continual movement toward refined-niche marketing in the automotive industry in order to offer a little bit of everything to everyone,'' said Affeld. ``With the continual fragmentation of SUVs and their rejuvenated appeal and lure of roadsters, automakers will continue to use retro models as a draw to gain market share and brand dominance.''