Millennials buy cars differently than their parents

They do more research and buy mostly imports

In the 1980s GM tried to appeal to young Baby Boomer car buyers with the marketing catch phrase, “it's not your father's Oldsmobile.” Actually, it pretty much was.

Now, there's a new emerging generation of car buyers and manufacturers are finding that not only are tastes diverging, so is the car-buying process. At least that's what the research shows. For example, among Millennials, there is very little actual tire-kicking going on.

A study commissioned by interviewed thousands of Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers and concluded that Millennials are much like earlier generations in their general automotive preferences. They're image conscious and aspirational – they want a nice car now, rather than when they've achieved more in their careers.

Rick Wainschel,'s vice president of automotive insights, notes luxury brands have anticipated this desire by developing more entry-level models.

"Lower-price-point vehicles such as the Mercedes CLA, BMW 1-series and Audi A3 are making luxury cars more attainable for Millennials earlier in life, which could help these brands establish long-term consideration and loyalty," Wainschel said.

Keeping an open mind

If Millennials are similar to their older peers in wanting the trappings of success in their ride, the way they go about about shopping for just the right deal is a departure. An analysis by Annalect, a business analytics firm, finds they tend to go into the buying process with no firm convictions.

While previous generations tend to be influenced by TV commercials and actively scan newspaper ads for price information, it seems many Millennials start the car shopping process with no idea what they want to buy.

How, then, do they decide? For 95%, online research drives the decision. And here, Millennials do their homework.

Taking more time

The study shows they spend more than 17.6 hours shopping for a car online – usually with their smartphone – vs. 15.5 hours for other buyers. Shopping time includes consulting research, reading reviews by experts and consumers, and other online activities.

That means when they arrive at a car dealer, they pretty much know what they want and aren't likely to change their minds.

“Since the majority of Millennials are decided on which vehicle they want to purchase by the time they get to the dealership, the opportunity for dealers and OEMs to influence their purchase decisions is online — where Millennials spend the majority of their shopping time,” said Isabelle Helms, vice president of research and market intelligence at “With that, it’s incredibly important for automotive advertisers to understand how Millennials are shopping online and across mobile devices so they can effectively reach this generation of car buyers.”

No stigma to a lesser-known brand

Millennials also appear more open than their older peers to buying a a less well-known brand if they perceive quality and value. Young buyers are more likely to drive away in a Kia or Mazda because they believe in the quality of imports.

While Boomers and Gen Xers both include both Chevrolet and Ford among the brands that best fit their personalities younger Millennials don't include either one, preferring only German and Japanese brands.

Auto manufacturers are digesting this research to devise different ways to sell cars to different generations, and some marketing efforts are breaking new ground. If you've seen the new “in the moment” Lincoln MKC ads featuring Matthew McConaughey, you'll notice an almost zen-like appeal to contemplative Baby Boomers.

Millennials, on the other hand, are more likely to be swayed by research as they narrow down their choices. A Baby Boomer consumer is most likely to learn about their next new car at the dealership, but a Millennial values research and first-hand recommendations from a family member or a friend and knows about the car before they arrive.

For that reason, automotive advertising is likely to target fewer Millennials and more Boomers and Gen-Xers.

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