A Greener Sport Compact

Dec 3, 2009

Although the record-high gas prices of last summer seem to be a distant memory, consumers know that high rates will undoubtedly return soon enough. And that’s only part of the motivation so many people have for subscribing to the “green” vehicle trend.

While sales of the Prius and other environmentally conscious vehicles have tapered off, greatly due to their premium price during a challenging economy, the green trend in the automotive industry is still a very hot topic.

And “green” is not strictly limited to vehicle makes and models; it also includes aftermarket offerings that increase fuel mileage, even with some products constructed using environmentally conscious materials and manufacturing processes.

Is it easy being green?

But is the idea of a greener sport compact going too far?

It’s actually a match made right from the start.

“By and large, that has really been the appeal of sport compacts as a whole for years-the fact that they are highly efficient, sporty vehicles,” says Matt Srugis, aftermarket designer for Grip Tuning, Warren, Mich.

“That being said, I’d classify the Honda Civic and most of the Scion models and any sport compact car that achieves 30-plus mpg as being truly ‘green’ sport compacts.”

He adds that the Chevy Cobalt (which gets extraordinary fuel mileage) also fits the requirements despite the fact it hasn’t caught on in terms of aftermarket support.

“The other side of the coin is,” Srugis continues, “do we encapsulate ‘green’ as being just about fuel efficiency? Some things to think about are the build processes and other factors that the company incorporates to reduce their environmental impact, as well. I don’t think that the term ‘green’ sport compact car necessarily has to be interpreted literally, as in a hopped-up Prius or Insight, but rather by taking any vehicle to its efficiency threshold while maintaining a strong aftermarket presence.”

Ernie Bunnell of 3dCarbon, Newport Beach, Calif., defines the greener sport compact of the future as, “a vehicle that has the latest technology in fuel efficiency -aerodynamic styling and ‘cradle-to-cradle’ design, manufactured with materials that can be recycled.”

Bunnell suggests restylers attend local and national trade shows like the SEMA Show to meet manufacturers and build relationships that will continually give them information on new products as they become available.

“A ‘green’ sport compact car is one which in some way minimizes its effect on our environment,” notes Blair Elliott, vice president of sales and marketing for Razzi Ground Effects, Alpharetta, Ga. “Our (ground effects) manufacturing process uses thermoforming, which consists of heat and vacuum. Neither of these two procedures creates a by-product other than excess trim/flash material, which we return to our supplier to be recycled.”

The options are unbounded where new technology is concerned, and the sport compact market provides a strong base with many environmentally conscious enthusiasts ready to embrace all that the aftermarket has to offer.

Performance with a purpose

“Drivers are growing up with a different set of values compared with enthusiasts of previous generations,” says Ed Kim, director of industry analysis for AutoPacific Inc., Tustin, Calif. “While everyone appreciates a good time behind the wheel, today’s young driver has also taken sensitivity for the environment as much more of a given compared to prior generations.”

Kim also says these enthusiasts don’t relate to the traditional definition of performance that their predecessors cling to – big V8 engines and rear-wheel drive. They don’t believe four cylinders and front-wheel drive have negative connotations.

“These types of vehicles provide efficiency and performance, with the aftermarket ready and willing to provide added performance for those who want it,” says Kim. “The computer age has also enabled young enthusiasts to fine-tune their vehicles for greater performance and efficiency via software – rather than hardware-modifications. It’s a small performance car that primarily caters to young enthusiasts’ values. It’s a blank canvas that’s tunable, fun and doesn’t take more than its fair share of the resources we have.

“Many of the best performance parts work to create power through efficiency. Even turbochargers, if tuned right, can provide huge horsepower and torque increases with a relatively minimal impact on fuel economy.”

Kim calls the sport compact segment as a whole a great launching pad for the green trend because the cars themselves already represent a very efficient way to achieve maximum performance. Kim states that in his firm’s research, it has found that young enthusiasts will not give up performance for better efficiency, but they embrace vehicles and technology that give them both.

“Selling both of these qualities to the sport compact scene, to me, is a no-brainer,” says Kim.

Widening audience

As the number of cars sold this year is about to overtake the number of trucks and SUVs sold, smart diversification for restylers is an important topic. Even though a shop may specialize in trucks, that doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from expanding its offerings to draw in sport compact and green car enthusiasts, as well.

“I would definitely encourage truck accessory retailers to focus more on the car market today” says Rick Passiatore, regional sales manager of Dawn Enterprises Inc., Valley View, Ohio “From installing simple protection products like body side moldings, mud guards and rear bumper protectors to restyling products like spoilers, graphics and ground effects, the sales opportunities accessorizing cars is enormous.”

3dCarbon’s Bunnell concurs, adding, “We would definitely encourage (restylers) to adjust their marketing and sales efforts. In the last several months, starting in October when the downturn started, we have seen many traditional truck accessory shops requesting information (product lists, pricing, etc.). Most restylers have the equipment, facility requirements and technical support required- these are all similar for both markets.”

A strategic adjustment, in order to reach this popular segment, can be a great way to fine-tune to the current trends in the market and increase profits.

“As gas prices rose last year truck sales and low-mileage cars sales dropped dramatically,” says Razzi’s Elliott. “During that time (our) ground effects sales increased due to the new car dealerships trying to differentiate themselves from their competitors across the street.”

When, historically, truck- and SUV-based shops consider marketing to the sport compact market, they should remember that there are many similarities when it comes to what customers desire.

“Many of the same principles apply,” says Grip Tuning’s Srugis. “Some of the universal vehicle modification mantras are present in both markets – performance, handling and styling. The smaller-vehicle market will focus on performance and handling first, then typically venture into the exterior accessory territory.”

Be a show-off

An excellent way for shops to distinguish themselves in this popular market is through the use of demo vehicles. This allows potential clients to see what’s possible with their vehicle and stirs up excitement.

“Traditional truck specialists could make a transition, marketing themselves to consumers and dealers in their local markets, by putting together a demo vehicle that they can use to show what can be done,” says Bunnell. “Also, by leaving the vehicle on display over the weekend for dealers to use as a static display can be very helpful. And most manufacturers (3dCarbon included) will give special prices on products for demo use.”

Creating a demo vehicle can be as simple as restyling a shop employee’s car or even getting a dealer’s car to add accessories to, he says.

“The best way to show dealers that you are doing smaller-vehicle conversions is to build a vehicle-brochures alone will not help sell products as effectively,” says Bunnell.

Dawn Enterprises’ Passiatore says truck specialists can easily leap into the car market.

“To do so, they need to educate themselves on the latest car models and find out which ones are being accessorized most frequently. I find that the most successful restylers are those that develop good lines of communication with parts manufacturers,” says Passiatore. “Manufacturers can provide restylers with a wealth of knowledge about the latest products and newest styling trends.”

Catching the wave

Consumers are excited, overall, about greener technology, though the connection that is most critical right now is to show how that technology not only benefits environmental issues but financial ones, as well- the hot button issue of the year.

“The overall awareness of the looming threat of fuel cost and threatened availability during the last fuel crisis made a big impact on most everyone,” Bunnell says. “The problem is that everyone has amnesia, and many of us have all but forgotten what the cost of gas was six months ago. Restylers pushing green technology should continue to remind consumers where we were one year ago.”

It’s important to remember, however, that automotive enthusiasts will always crave performance and luxury amenities. This has absolutely remained key even among “green” enthusiasts.

“Ford Motor Co. confirmed last fall that consumers that transitioned from larger vehicles into smaller vehicles for fuel economy were ordering more accessories including bells and whistles like sunroofs and spoilers,” Bunnell adds.

In other words, even if they were downsizing, says Bunnell, they were not going to give up the creature comforts they are accustomed to – and still desire. The consumer is in a position to be sold on these types of accessories, and it is critical for the dealer to have a unit preloaded by the installer to illustrate their options.

“Just imagine shopping for a new bed at a large furniture store. You see displays with beds covered with sheets next to tables with lights and pillow arrangements. This is the way to create the sale,” says Bunnell. “A vehicle pre-built with accessories will create the excitement that a brochure can’t.”

Accessories for sport compacts are certainly still in high demand, and the “green” trend adds yet another dimension to the market – one that restylers can most definitely count on to ensure increased opportunity as this trend continues to become more popular.