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How to Build a Better Car for Boomers

… Without letting them know

En español | When Tony Barcena, a 57-year-old insurance agent living in Winter Park, Fla., was in the market for a new car, he wanted something stylish. "I consider myself a very hip person," he says.

See also: How cars are getting smarter.

So two weeks ago he purchased a 2011 Hyundai Sonata. Barcena was attracted to its slick body and alloy wheels. A "classy" car, it reminded him of the Mercedes, but still had all the essential features that will allow him to easily drive it as he ages, including Blue Tooth, which has a hands-free phone feature, a built-in navigation system and "outstanding" visibility. It's also light and easy to park.

"The whole car is unbelievable," he says. But what's most important, he adds, "is this is not an old person's car. It has style."

And therein lies the rub for the beleaguered auto industry.

"Boomers are different, more hip," says George Kang, vice president for strategy at Edmunds.com. Yet this generation could certainly benefit from features that accommodate the realities of the aging body — even if they won't admit it.

Finding a way to satisfy both the wants and the needs of this market is critical for the future health of the entire auto industry, especially domestic automakers climbing out of bankruptcy. By 2015, no less than 66 million people, or one-fifth of the U.S. population, will be 60 and older. Already today nearly half of all new car buyers in the country are boomers.

Building cars that are better fits for boomers. — Benoit Decout/REA/Redux

"It's an irresistible market," says David Cole, emeritus chair of the Center for Automotive Research. Numbers aside, it's a demographic with a significant amount of disposable income. "If you're a car company and you don't pay attention to this market, you're making a really big mistake," he says.

How to build for boomers

Exactly how to court boomers seems to be a confounding question for automakers. They're terrified of explicitly marketing products that could be perceived as geriatric or old.

"If that demographic has any feeling that the car is made for senior citizens, it won't fly," says Kang. Automakers sense this, and they're so concerned about being perceived as catering to older people that they're skittish about even discussing their initiatives. Yet they're clearly taking steps to serve this market.

GM: Cloaking features in cool

By far the boldest approach is coming from General Motors — at least judging from an exclusive tour it gave the AARP Bulletin of a facility at its Technical Center in Warren, Mich. Rather than incorporating a handful of creature comforts that older customers may appreciate — bigger door handles that are easy to grasp, for example — GM is studying the needs of older people in hopes of building vehicles from the ground up to satisfy them. The effort is called the Independence Project.

The project started three years ago with intensive research on what boomers want — but without explicitly asking them. Researchers shadowed dozens of boomers around the world for six months to see how they live and get around. The senior staff engineer and project manager for research and development, Carl Wellborn, acknowledges that part of GM's undoing in recent years can be traced to its arrogance: presuming it knew the cars that customers wanted to drive. "We've not done the best job historically of addressing customer needs," he says.

Based on its trove of research, GM stripped down several existing cars and rebuilt them with from-scratch modifications aimed at addressing needs revealed in the field, and the results are sitting in the Warren Technical Center.

Next: Building specific kinds of cars for a specific customer. >>

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