In Which We Examine The Thinking Of The Elusive First-Time Car Buyer Buyers’ Thinking

Buying one’s first car is a rite of passage in this car-obsessed country. And for automakers, the first-time buyer’s choice is a chance to latch onto someone who might become a long-term customer. What factors play a role in the purchase decisions of these consumers? To find out, the Polk Center for Automotive Studies surveyed Americans age 18 to 30 who’d bought or leased a car for the first time during the past two years.

Given the age skew of the respondent pool (and of first-time buyers in general), one would expect the Internet to influence their thinking. Still, it’s striking to see the degree to which the Internet eclipses other media in this matter. Thirty-five percent said the Internet was their most important source of information when deciding to buy their first vehicle, vs. 8 percent citing TV, 4 percent magazines, 4 percent newspapers and 1 percent radio. Apart from the Internet, media were outranked in this respect by parents (25 percent) and friends (13 percent). This doesn’t mean automotive advertising in traditional media has ceased to be important. It does suggest that such ads might focus more on reinforcing brand loyalty among veteran car buyers and less on enticing the novices.

For all the emphasis on glamour and excitement in automotive advertising, the decisions of first-time buyers tend to hinge on a more prosaic factor: money. The poll presented respondents with a list of factors and asked them to say which were very important in shaping their purchase decision. The highest vote (56 percent) went to “amount of monthly loan payment,” putting that matter ahead of “the way the dealer treated me while shopping” (42 percent) and “fuel efficiency” (39 percent). While gas prices were a factor for some first-time buyers (25 percent), more of them cited “availability of affordable credit” (35 percent) and “cost of insurance” (31 percent). Just 7 percent said it was very important to buy from the dealer where their parents buy cars.

First-time car buyers aren’t necessarily first-time car owners. Many of them already owned a car that had been given to them. Indeed, when the survey asked respondents to say why they’d bought themselves a vehicle, 26 percent said it was because their “older hand-me-down” would not run any more. Those buyers outnumber the 19 percent who said “it was just time” now that they’d grown into driving age. Seventeen percent said they bought a car to get to a job they’d already had, while another 9 percent bought one to get to a new job. Fourteen percent said they bought one to get to school, and 15 percent did so in order to haul their kids around.