Millennials have changed the auto industry in unexpected ways.

How millennials are changing the auto industry

Remember the Scion xB? How about the Nissan Cube? It was only a few years ago that these were promised as some of the most enticing rides available to young car buyers. But as Bob Dylan once so perfectly put it, the times they are a changin’.

Toyota’s Scion brand is now looking up at its own headstone, and Nissan Cube sightings are so rare the Boy Scouts might make a badge for spotting one. What happened? Why didn’t the promise of cool, offbeat cars targeted to millennials fully catch on? The answer, it seems, is that Generation Y isn’t quite as quirky and rebellious as it was once thought to be.

Times change, but only so much

When Toyota announced last February that it was laying Scion to rest 12 years after the brand’s inception, the move was perceived as the auto industry coming to terms with the fact that it had misjudged the tastes of the millennial generation. For years experts had said that Gen Y couldn’t be treated like any age cohort that had come before. They were something new, something different.

It turns out that wasn’t exactly so. According to The New York Times, millennials are really just a whole lot like their older counterparts.

Young drivers have, against all expectations, embraced bigger SUVs rather than quirky small cars.Young drivers have, against all expectations, embraced bigger SUVs rather than quirky small cars.

“Compared to Gen X, Gen Y is very mainstream,” Michelle Krebs, Senior Analyst for Autotrader, told The Times. “They see the car as a symbol of their accomplishments and aspirations. They’re into very established, highly respected global brands, whereas Gen X always wanted something different from what their parents drove.”

Tastes weren’t the only thing experts got wrong. Long thought an anti-car generation, it turns out that millennials play a big role in the auto industry. The Florida Times-Union, citing data from J.D. Power and Associates, reported that young buyers accounted for 27 percent of new car sales in 2015. That makes them the second-largest car-buying population. So much for ownership apathy.

Still, even as millennials prove expectations wrong, there’s little doubt that they look at cars differently than older generations.

Automakers respond to millennials

As the various buff wagons and candy-shaped cars originally designed to woo millennials fade into memory, Gen Y has taken to crossovers and SUVs. Even enduring brands like the Mini have found it difficult to compete against the bigger cars favored by millennials, The New York Times reported.

“Low gas prices and affordable credit have helped to make bigger cars more appealing.”

Low gas prices, affordable credit, and cheap online car insurance have all helped to make driving larger vehicles easy, even for younger drivers carrying student debt. But big and strong isn’t all they’re looking for with their cars. They want fuel efficiency as well.

“Millennials want a car that gives performance but is also economical,” Bill Olive, a car dealership general manager, told the Times-Union. “50-year-olds are more worried about comfort and technology rather than gas mileage.”

Automakers shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. The industry follows patterns, and chances are that the strange, eye-catching designs which caught on for a short time in the early to mid-2000s will appeal to younger drivers again at some point in the future. For now though, it appears proven mainstream autos are what millennials are after.

As Stewart Reed, Chairman of the Transportation Design Program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California put it to The Times, “Right now, you can’t really say: ‘You can sell a young man’s car to an old man, but you can’t sell an old man’s car to a young man.’ It’s a make-you-smile shift.”

It’s also one that nobody could have seen coming a decade ago. It’s incredible just how much millennials have changed the auto industry in so little time. What’s most surprising about it, though, is how they’ve done it by returning to old roots, not forging new ones.