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How to Build a Better Car for Boomers

… Without letting them know

Missing the mark?

But these are timid, noncommittal efforts, according to some. "From what I've seen, no one is exactly targeting this market," says Tom Mutchler, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports. "I think everyone is trying to get a youthful audience." He says that as cars have gotten more stylish, they've become harder to see out of. Automakers, he says, "have some work to do in cultivating this market."

Gerald C. Meyers agrees. He is a professor in the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business and also happens to be an 82-year-old driver. "Much more needs to be done to get people comfortable in cars as they age," he says. And if his case is any indication, boomers won't give up the wheel until they absolutely have to.

Reinventing old to look young

As proof of the paradox automakers are facing, look no further than another branch of GM, which is taking a completely different approach than that of the Independence Project.

Buick models are being remade into sleek Euro-sedan style vehicles to combat their reputation as staid and boxy old-mobiles. The idea is to attract a "universal customer base, that is, a car that can attract customers of all ages," according to Craig Bierley, advertising and promotions director for Buick and GMC. But this is a brand with a loyal following and customers known for buying 15 Buicks over their lifetime.

In aiming young, Buick runs the risk of alienating its existing customers, says Meyers. He wonders how any brand can be "all things to all people."

John Kuiper, for one, thinks it can't. A 55-year-old financial adviser living in Plainwell, Mich., Kuiper owns five Buicks handed down from his parents. He endures taunts from his friends that he's driving an "old person's car" because he enjoys the comfortable ride, roomy interior and huge trunk — something he says is lacking in the "sharp-looking but smaller" new models. "If I did buy a new car, it probably would not be a Buick," he says.

Whether or not automakers can build cars that accommodate aging drivers yet appeal to everyone remains to be seen. In the meantime, when you go to look for a new car, ask yourself some questions that the dealer can't answer. How easy is it to see as you back out of the driveway or a parking spot? Are the gauges easy to read? Do you have to duck uncomfortably in your seat to see a traffic light? In the end, asking these questions and making these demands just may help force automakers to build better cars for everyone.

Julie Halpert has been covering the auto industry for two decades. She lives in Michigan.

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