Rise Of The Small Fry

Feb 28, 2010

Chevy Cobalt

Woe is the SUV and truck markets when sales figures are discussed these days. First the high fuel costs the public has gone amnesiac on. Then the economic downturn that readjusted the purchase and use of larger vehicles to low levels.

And although automotive sales have not rebounded to 2007 and 2008 levels, the readjustment has shined a spotlight on other, growing, automotive sales trends: the hybrid and electric car segment that’s driven by an increasingly green-conscience buying public; the evolution of the SUV to CUV; and the expansion of the smaller-car segment including vehicles like the Chevy Cobalt, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Scion tC, Scion xB, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Yaris and Volkswagen GTI.

Smaller cars have taken a long time to achieve wide public acceptance in the United States. Long popular in Europe and developing countries, this important and contemporary vehicle market has had to wait its turn for a chance to lead the way in vehicle sales and accompanying accessory design, production and installation. Their time has come, and with that arrival comes all the excitement and energy that restylers devote to every hot vehicle segment.

The increased interest in this market has allowed the synergy of design application, mass production and the marketing power of the OEMs, aftermarket manufacturers and restylers.

‘Fun’ brands

Aftermarket accessorizing always serves the same needs regardless of the type of vehicle that is being restyled. Looks, performance, cargo management and functionality are the core focus of restyling. But Geoffrey Brown, senior marketing director at Extreme Dimensions, Fullerton, Calif., identifies the focus even more succinctly.

“What it boils down to is one major key element: fun factor,” says Brown. “Whether it’s fun that has been around for eight generations, such as the Honda Civic, or if it’s a relatively new name to the game like the Nissan Versa, people are looking for fun.

“Yes, the trend is heading towards smaller cars with better fuel economy. The dark shadow that comes with that is the worries that with helping to save the environment and your bank account will my fun suffer? With these vehicles the fun never has to end.”

Brown touches on an important concept for restylers: Know your market, know the vehicles serving that market and prepare your product mix to accessorize these specific vehicles. With a rapid market share growth there are always the stalwarts and the new guys.

Scion brands are popular for restyle projects

“I happen to think that the Scion brand and their marketing team are still gaining ground with the younger audience,” offers Matt Srugis, aftermarket designer at Grip Tuning, Warren, Mich. “Honda has traditionally always been a very aftermarket-friendly car. They have a very strong brand loyalty among their customers, and the aftermarket always supports these vehicles.

Hondas remain strong markets

“I personally think that two brands to look out for are Hyundai and Kia. During a time when the domestic automakers have seen declining sales, Hyundai and Kia have proven to be viable options, and are in fact increasing sales during a time when most other nameplates are experiencing a significant decline in sales.”

Srugis identifies an important component to the success of a vehicle market and its subsequent restyling success: New styles of automobiles are often paired with pop culture trends reflected in the media, entertainment and driving behavior.

“The Hyundai Genesis coupe is doing well capitalizing on the drift movement with its RWD platform,” Srugis affirms, “while the Kia Soul and Forte Koup appear as though they could quite possibly be stiff competition for Scion and Honda. In addition, Hyundai and Kia combine a good mix of quality/efficiency and one of the better warranties around. All are very attractive qualities.”

Kurt Kruse of Coast To Coast International, Tampa, Fla., says that “in addition to the vehicles styling, it is also important the opportunities are there for sales. We like to focus on those vehicles with a higher vehicle population or those that have good indicators pointing towards strong future sales. The Corolla, Civic, Focus, and Cobalt are all high sales volume vehicles.”

Adding where ‘decontenting’ subtracts

Mike Bacon, marketing manager, speaking for Webasto in Detroit, offers his vision for the small-vehicle accessory market.

“Nearly every smaller vehicle from the domestic and Asian manufacturers is a perfect candidate for aftermarket accessorizations because they each offer entry- and mid-trim models that don’t include options like factory sunroofs. Some of the models don’t even offer factory sunroofs at the higher trims.”

With decontenting by automakers, sunroofs prove good to be good installs.

Decontenting by manufacturers is a huge opportunity for restylers. “Consumers are purchasing smaller cars based on economic considerations – for purchase price as well as fuel mileage – and they often find that they have more money left over to spend on restyling,” observes Bacon. “They also may find that the level of features available on some smaller vehicles is not what they are accustomed to with their previous, larger vehicles. These consumers want a smaller, less expensive car and they want the high level of features.”

In addition to knowing the vehicles, restylers need to know who’s buying and accessorizing small vehicles. Grip’s Srugis says that “there is a definite mix between suburban and urban consumers who I believe to be accessorizing these vehicles. I think it more comes down to age group. Many people are attracted to these small cars because of their low sticker price. This leaves more disposable funds for people to use to accessorize the vehicle.”

“A lot of this depends quite a bit on the geographical location,” Srugis continues. “Here in the Detroit area it would

definitely be suburban consumers, whereas in an area like Southern California I think you will see a pretty equal percentage in both suburban and urban consumers.”

Extreme Dimensions’ Brown sees a broad demographic in the small-vehicle market.

“The consumers of accessories for these vehicles range from the kid that just got their license to adults coming to realize that moving to such a vehicle is a better economic move than to the new Camaro SS that they have been eyeballing. They are old, young, urban and suburbanites; the range is vast. Granted, a majority of the buyers are male, 16-30 years old, and have a steady low- to mid-level income, but the range doesn’t end there by any means.”

Likewise, Coast To Coast’s Kruse agrees that with accessories, age doesn’t always matter. “We feel the benefit accessories present to a vehicle, especially on the aesthetic side, really bridges the gap between young and old and it really comes down to personal preference. A little chrome goes a long ways, especially on smaller vehicles. It is easy to go from complementing a vehicle’s appearance to being too much.”

Remember, Kruse notes, “it goes back to those accessories which complement a vehicle’s appearance. Door handle covers, mirror covers, and pillar posts all provide extra value and the best part is that they are not difficult to install. The time-consuming part, but also most important, is the prep work before installation. The prep work is a key factor in avoiding those agitated customer call-backs.”

Accessories that sell

Specific accessories do vary from segment to segment; step bars and grille guards aren’t likely to evolve as options for the small vehicle (although the CUV segment does inherit some accessory sense from its forbearers, the mighty SUV segment). Spotting and exploiting hot trends in accessories is as important as recognizing trends in vehicle segments.

“Some of the lower-cost accessories are definitely good options to promote to the restylers” notes Srugis. He continues with, “vinyl graphics are always in demand. There is a good margin to be made on these, especially on the installation side. Spoilers, grilles, and add-on lip kits won’t typically break the bank for the consumer, and once again typically provide a good profit margin for restyling shops on the parts, as well as the installation.”

“Looking outside of our own catalog,” Srugis adds, “wheels/tires, and suspension components are one of the first things that younger consumers gravitate towards.”

At Coast To Coast, Kruse says, “We like to focus on those vehicles in which the accessories we decide to tool will best complement the vehicles’ styling and have the most impact on the vehicles’ aesthetics.  We feel the Corolla, Civic, Focus and Cobalt are the best small vehicles for our CCI chrome accessory line.”

Wheel skins are good-selling items for small cars

“The best small-car items to promote are those accessories which upgrade a vehicle’s trim level appearance,” Kruse continues. “This cosmetic upgrade increases the vehicle aesthetic value and that translates into dollars for dealers. For our customer, the grille overlays and wheel skins are the best products to provide the biggest impact on vehicles’ appearance and value.

Webasto, a leading provider of aftermarket sunroofs finds great opportunity in the small-vehicle market. Bacon describes what he sees as strong product opportunities: “The best accessories continue to be sunroofs, leather interiors and mobile electronics. At first glance we may think that spoiler sunroofs are better suited to these smaller vehicles for two reasons: The sunroofs are smaller and they cost less. However, we find that many of these consumers are opting for the look and features of inbuilt sunroofs, so long as the product fits the vehicle.”

Brown notes a vision involving a strong market presence for body kits.

“Extreme Dimensions Inc. is in the business to make your car look good no matter what it’s doing whether that be on the street or at the track,” he says. “We have a wide range of looks for people that prefer the subtle styling cues from a lip kit, to the people that are looking for more of the wild side of things from an aggressive bumper kit. We will also be able to provide customers that just want a little change to the look of their ride with, maybe, a carbon fiber hood or wing to give a bit more of a sporty look.

“It doesn’t matter what the purpose of your vehicle is, tuners don’t want to park next to a car that looks exactly the same as theirs. That is where our very wide range of products comes into play.”

Economic conditions have taken their toll on the entire automotive industry. But this doesn’t mean that excitement isn’t in the air. Growth segments are opportunities and opportunities attract and reward the spirit of innovation, the eye for the unique and aggressive participation in the market.

Small vehicles are only small in title; they are epic in restyling potential.