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That Little Old Lady From Pasadena? She’s Driving a Green Machine

Will older drivers support the shift to environment-friendly cars?

green machine

— Photo by Colin Anderson/Getty Images

Last September, as part of the Cash for Clunkers program, Joan Schweighardt, 61, and her husband, Michael Dooley, 59, traded in their 1996 Ford Explorer for a tiny Smart car. In swapping a gas-guzzling SUV for a golf cart-size vehicle that gets 41 miles a gallon, they reduced not only the cost of a major purchase, but also their impact on the environment. They “absolutely love” their new wheels, says Schweighardt, a writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was surprised at how roomy the car is—enough to keep her 6-foot-3-inch husband comfortable, and haul luggage.

Green cars are gaining ground, due to fears of fluctuating gas prices, tightening fuel economy requirements, and consumer consciousness. They burn less fuel, save money at the pump, pollute less and ultimately reduce reliance on foreign oil. “U.S. cars and light trucks emit more global warming pollution than all but five entire nations,” says Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. ”Cutting this pollution represents the biggest single step to curbing global warming.”

Automakers have embraced green as their new mantra, but they’re also banking on this new segment as a lifeline for the industry itself. Crucial to that strategy will be attracting older buyers, and early figures show that they’re responsive. Industry analyst Lonnie Miller, of R.L. Polk & Co., says that 42 percent of all 2009 U.S. hybrid purchasers were ages 55 to 74; in contrast, buyers 18 to 44—a sought-after demographic for advertisers—represented only 27 percent of these sales. “From a buying power potential,” Miller says, older Americans like Schweighardt and Dooley “are a prime audience.”

But it’s hard to predict whether that trend will continue and encompass the full range of green vehicles coming down the pike: high-mileage, gasoline-powered cars like the Smart; hybrids, which run on a combination of a fuel engine and an electric battery; and pure electric vehicles that run on a battery alone. It’s one thing to buy a hybrid, which can be refueled at a gas station and doesn’t require a change in behavior; it’s quite another to purchase an electric vehicle that needs to be recharged like a laptop.

A hybrid SUV, after all, is still an SUV, with all that room. How will older Americans react to a type of vehicle that could cramp their style or make it harder to cart around grandchildren and antiques? It remains to be seen whether they will embrace not only the new technology but also the new driving habits that some of those technologies demand. Will boomers lead the charge, or will they become a niche customer?

Right place, right time

They’re certainly in an ideal position to go green. Older Americans tend to have the financial means necessary to pay the higher prices associated with green vehicles. Hybrids cost roughly $3,000 to $4,000 more than comparable gasoline vehicles, while Chevrolet’s electric Volt, which goes on sale later this year, is expected to list for around $40,000—steep for a compact car. The Toyota Prius hybrid costs around $25,000.

While automakers refuse to confirm that they’re deliberately targeting older buyers, the sales figures thus far for hybrid vehicles show that’s who’s buying them. Such buyers “will continue to be an important part of the customer group for green cars in the future,” says Honda spokesman Chuck Schifsky.

As boomers continue to become empty-nesters and retire, many of them will gravitate to smaller cars, says George Pipas, Ford Motor Company’s chief U.S. sales analyst. That’s already happening with two cars initially marketed to younger Americans—the boxy Honda Element, a small SUV, and Toyota’s Scion xB—a combination of compact, hatchback and SUV. Ford’s sporty Fiesta and Focus cue off the design strategy of sophisticated subcompacts that have fared well in Europe.

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