Germans' love affair with the auto is so well known, it's become cliché. But in fact, younger people don't have the connection to cars they once did, which is not good news for automakers.
Cars used to have sex appeal - not so much anymore
Back in the day, becoming an adult in Germany meant three things: coming of legal age, getting your driver's license and having your own car.
Heribert Schröder, born in 1950, couldn't wait. He bought a used Ford that "kind of still drove," as he remembers, and it cost him all of 150 deutschmarks. He had already passed the driver's license test. So on his 21st birthday (legal age used to be 21, now it's 18 in Germany) he picked up his license, got in his car and drove off.
After that, Schröder often found himself in under the vehicle - screwing, twisting, oiling, tinkering with the muffler to make the car sound faster, although it really never drove any faster. But when it came to cars, it wasn't really about practicality.
Cars meant freedom and youthful rebellion once
A car was a status symbol, says Stefan Bratzel, a professor at the Bergisch Gladbach University of Applied Sciences who heads the school's automotive research department. It showed others your lifestyle, your coolness, even your general attitude toward life.
For Schröder, the car gave him a sense of freedom, allowing him to reach destinations that had before seemed out of reach. He could go cruising the boulevard and "check out the hot chicks" or leave the others in the exhaust. He seems almost embarrassed about it now. "That was how it was back then," he says.
That's the way it was and that's how it'll always be: for years, that was the motto of the car industry. Germans' desire for cars seemed, in their eyes at least, to be genetically programmed. But for years now, automakers have had a sense that Germans' relationship with cars has changed.
Not the same role
At the end of the 90s, Mercedes launched its A-class on the market, hoping to appeal to younger drivers. The strategy was to get them hooked so later on, they'd shell out more for a high-end model. But even today, the A-class is mostly popular among an older crowd. The youngsters stayed away.
Stefan Bratzel says the auto industry needs to rethink its strategy
For between 30 and 40 percent of young adults in urban areas, "the car no longer plays a big role," says Bratzel. It is no longer a product that is tied up to a lifestyle and emotions.
While in 1988, 16.4 percent of new car buyers were between 18 and 29 years old, today only 7.6 percent fall into that age range. Some go even further, dispensing with a driver's license all together. In 1998, 89.4 percent of 18 to 25 year-olds had one. A decade later, that number had fallen to 75.5 percent.
What the car in the 80s and 90s represented has been overtaken by the iPhone, the iPod and the iPad. Social networking is the coolness indicator now. For young people, it's all about being a member of Facebook and finding out what a friend on the other side of the world is doing right now or getting to know new people on the other side of the world without leaving the keyboard.
Maybe the car, in its current form, just no longer fits into this new world.
In addition, buses, trains and streetcars are much better these days than they were in the past, says Bratzel. It's possible to be mobile, in bigger cities at least, without having a car.
It's the iPod and assorted gadgets that are the status symbols these days
And there are many reasons why it might be better to avoid having a car all together. Parking spots are hard to find; freeways and main streets are often jammed; cars are bad for the environment. To rub salt in the wound, prices for new cars have risen dramatically.
The car industry could just wait until incomes of young people rise enough so they'll feel like opening their wallets in the automobile showroom. But the question is if what will ever happen with a group that feels little emotional connection to cars, and mentally associates the sound of the motor with noise pollution and horsepower with accidents.
Bratzel says it's a values decision. Only those who think that cars are "cool and exciting" are going to reach deep in their pockets to pay for one. Those who see the car as solely a method of transportation are not going to shell out the cash for a premium model.
Rethinking the sector
Industry observers say the auto sector has to do something lest it become "dispensable."
Bratzel and others say the industry needs to think more about electric vehicles, interesting design and creating networks with other forms of transportation. The car industry has heard the message and is beginning to move in that direction.
Electric autos are interesting to younger people
The "Mu by Peugeot" is one project that shows car companies are changing their thinking. Since May 2010, the French carmaker has started a car sharing program in Berlin. It calls its scheme a "French revolution" although car sharing is not all that revolutionary anymore. What is new, however, is that it's a carmaker that is renting its product by the hour to customers.
The goal is that Peugeot will eventually sell cars, since the customers are meant to fall in love with the voitures a little bit more each time they drive them. Daimler has a similar plan in the works.
However, sometimes a great love affair can have unintended consequences. In Heribert Schröder's case, he did begin earning more and finally realized a dream: a Porsche. OK, it was used and needed a lot of work, but still…
Schröder doesn't have a Porsche any more. Now he heads the Porsche dealership in Cologne. There's always a company car around to take him home at the end of the day. Why should he buy his own?
Author: Jutta Wasserrab (jam)
Editor: Kristin Zeier