The Word on Sport Compacts

May 4, 2012

(Lead photo courtesy Ben Pope/ACT)

In a word, how would you describe the current state of the sport compact market?

Maybe you haven’t given it much thought. Luckily, parts manufacturers serving this popular niche weren’t at a loss for words when asked how shops can make the most of getting involved with the sport compact crowd.

So here’s the good word-six of them, actually-on what’s hot with Japanese, European and small American performance vehicles, many of which are on the radar of the next generation of performance enthusiasts.

Word #1-GROWING

Gary Sheehan, director of marketing for COBB Tuning, Austin, Texas, describes the current state of the sport compact market as “very healthy and growing quickly. It seems that more and more people are interested in customizing their vehicles, both to suit their aesthetic tastes as well as to improve vehicle performance. At the same time, while the customer base is growing, so is the number of manufacturers. More customers mean more business for manufacturers, and more manufacturers mean more choices and faster development for customers.”

Bill Neumann, founder/CEO of Automotive Performance Systems Inc. and its brand names NEUSPEED and NM based in Camarillo, Calif., calls the market “flat, but for our company, good.” NEUSPEED is seeing the most success with its line of lightweight hub-centric wheels, he says, that clear big brake kits and are available in a variety of sizes and finishes.

“The market is steady in performance parts sales,” adds Tracie Nunez, CEO of ACT Advanced Clutch Technology Inc., Lancaster, Calif. “Drag racing events on the East Coast are seeing a resurgence of larger crowds, while drifting events are continuing their extreme popularity. Shops that have survived the last couple of years have redefined how they make the sale.”

“The sport compact market (was) strong in 2011, especially for Honda and performance vehicles like the Subaru STI and Mitsubishi Evo X,” says Lucio Tapia, marketing representative for AEM Intakes, Hawthorne, Calif., who expects more of the same this year. “AEM continues to build innovative products for the core sport compact vehicles, as well as new models being introduced such as the Hyundai Genesis, Kia Forte and Ford Fiesta.”

Word #2-MATURING

Worried that your current customer base is quickly aging? Sport compacts can put your shop front-and-center with the next generation of performance enthusiasts.

But that doesn’t mean spending your days with annoying teens and twenty-somethings that have no appreciation for you or what you do.

“Gone are the days when the typical modified sport compact was a gas-guzzling, annoyingly loud, rough-riding work-in-progress,” says Greg Brungardt, who handles marketing for DeatschWerks in Oklahoma City. “Today’s typical enthusiast is older, more educated and often willing to spend significantly more money. In return, however, they demand that aftermarket products keep their cars as reliable and drivable as stock.”

Neumann warns not to try and play up the youthful aspects of the market too much, particularly when dealing with older customers.

“Kids!” he says of the biggest misconception with the sport compact market. “The older group with money to spend doesn’t want to be associated with a kids-looking car.”

Instead, look to create tasteful, understated builds that will age gracefully.

Word #3-SERIOUS

Shops-and even enthusiasts-that fail to give the market their full respect can lose out on many of the benefits associated with sport compacts.

“A big misconception is that the market is made up of a bunch of young teens that want to be part of a The Fast and the Furious movie,” says Tapia. “There are many facets to the sport compact scene, and in the past few years I’ve seen the cars maturing and modifications taken to another level. I think some of the new cars like the Scion FR-S and the Subaru BRZ will attract even more buyers.”

AEM’s hottest products, he says, are ETI electronic tuned intake systems available for specific applications. The systems eliminate the need to detune an intake tube as it crosses the MAF sensor for bigger horsepower and torque gains without activating dashboard service lights.

“Now is a perfect opportunity for many shops-there is the ability to sustain a business and grow,” says Nunez, who notes one hot seller for ACT is its twin-disc clutch kit for the Acura Integra K series that can support up to 770 foot-pounds of torque.

“The economy is more stable now compared to the last four years,” she continues. “The definition of what is a sport compact has broadened to allow for more selling opportunities. Finally, while the consumers’ buying habits are changing, they are still reachable if the shop changes its approach to interacting with the customer.”

Neumann notes that performance businesses can start making more money “by marketing to an affluent group” within the market. “Build a project car with the best products-make it look great, but not over-the-top.”

Word #4-DIVERSE

These days you’ll find the fingerprints of sport compacts in nearly every facet of performance.

“The market is ever-changing and full of potential,” says Brungardt, whose company has been seeing recent success with its tunable 2200cc fuel injectors for the Evo, WRX, Civic and GTR, among others.

“Currently, there are so many different directions that the enthusiast can go within the sport compact market. Retro-rebuilds seem to be the current trend, but high-performance upgrades, exterior enhancements and car stereo builds are also popular options,” he notes. “Also, within sport compact motorsports there are a lot of options-drag racing, drifting, time attack, autocross, road racing and more. The diversity and flux of trends provides opportunities for product innovation by the manufacturers and self-expression by customers.”

The common denominator, says COBB’s Sheehan, is that quality isn’t cheap.

“Educate customers that engineering research and development, optimal materials and high-quality manufacturing comes at a price,” he says. “We put a significant amount of effort into all three to ensure that the product performs to our specifications, is able to withstand the harsh environment of a high-performance car and looks great when it comes out of the box, as well as many years down the road.”

The company’s AccessPORT handheld ECU flashing, managing and monitoring device also supports the diverse mix of vehicles and performance applications the typical sport compact shop sees, he says.

Word #5-INCLUSIVE

Looking for a list of every vehicle that can be considered a sport compact? Join the club. In this market, if your customer wants to modify it, then it’s a fit.

“Offering products for all makes and models is an easy way to increase sales,” explains Tapia. “Many shops only market the fact that they can sell parts or work on cars that (are known as) enthusiast vehicles. We strive to build products for the enthusiast vehicles, but also recognize that not everyone can drive an Evo or STI, but will modify their Altima or Accord.”

Technology is a main component that ties them all together.

“The modern sport compact car is a highly engineered piece of machinery,” says Brungardt. “Many manufacturers have begun specializing in one or two applications. A lot of the really successful shops are doing the same. All-purpose speed shops need to arm themselves with a lot of information on what products are the best choices for the given application.”

Sheehan recommends sport compact outlets “take on a more consultative role with their customers. Find out what the short-term and long-term goals are of each customer and guide them into products, solutions and goals that best-meet their needs, rather than focus on a quick sale.

“This type of approach builds trust and confidence with the customer and can establish long-term relationships and strong loyalty, which will lead to additional sales with this customer and everyone the customer tells about his/her positive experiences with the shop.”

Word #6-”VIABLE

In general terms, it’s probably safe to say that the average sport compact customer is a bit more computer-savvy than the typical hot rod or muscle car enthusiast. But the successful businesses in this market stay viable the way any independent speed shop does-by remaining relevant to their customer base and providing knowledge and service the Internet can’t match.

In this regard, Neumann says, “our company has stayed true to its customer base for 37 years.”

“The biggest challenge shops face is being able to get the product quickly and competing with the Internet,” Nunez says. “The sport compact consumer is very mobile and is doing a lot of research online to make their purchase decision. Shops are seeing their ability to influence the consumer at the time of purchase decrease.”

To combat this, she recommends, “Really consider where the consumer is making their buying decisions and be there. Consumers like the Internet for fast information and price, but at the end of the day when something goes wrong, service will always win. A low-price sale with no profit is just not worth the effort and puts the shop at risk. Our industry needs shops to survive. Shops provide a very personal experience for a consumer when they have a passion to modify their vehicle.”

Tapia agrees.

“Shops are faced every day with the Internet becoming the preferred avenue to purchase automotive parts,” he says. “Shops have to learn how to embrace the ‘Net and build a community of followers, while leveraging the fact that they offer a physical location. It’s very easy for a customer to price-shop online, but a successful shop can offer more information and a personal opinion about the products they sell.”

It seems everyone in the market is joining together to ensure its long-term viability.

“When shops, distributors, and manufacturers work together to cross-promote products, everybody wins, including the customer,” says Brungardt. “By working together, we can make products more visible and better educate customers on the benefits that our products offer.”