Decked out Saturday in the latest hip-hop gear, baggy pants, a red Ecko shirt and a matching visor, 17-year-old Byron Baba is the kind of customer auto makers want to lure.
The strategy, marketers say, is to draw in youngsters early, so they will remain faithful even after they lose their love for rap music, video games and action movies.
"Kids are likely to buy a car just because it looks good, but adults look at it as a long-term investment," said Baba, who drives a 1992 Integra. "To us, it's all about showing your bling bling," a rap-music reference to money and fancy things.
It's a concept that has caught on among automobile manufacturers trying to woo teens with graffiti, gadgets and club music. At the 2003 Los Angeles Auto Show on Saturday, nearly 50 auto makers debuted more than 1,000 new models to nearly 100,000 car connoisseurs and window shoppers. The event, running through Jan. 12 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, is expected to draw a million attendees, most of them between the ages of 28 and 35, said event organizers.
"Now, they're thinking youth, and the youth market wants something more specific, not mass-produced," said Barry Toepke, a spokesperson for the auto show. "Manufacturers realized, 'Hey, we're missing an opportunity here.' "
In one showroom, Mitsubishi featured video clips from the street-racing film "2Fast2Furious," the sequel to "The Fast and the Furious," as visitors played video games at Microsoft Xbox centers near the 2004 Lancer Evolution, a sports sedan aimed at youths. The four-door, 271-horsepower vehicle, which stars in the movie sequel, features a stereo with an in-dash CD player and a power sunroof, and the base model sells for about $29,000.
"Twenty- to 30-year-olds, that's our target audience," said Robert Chavez, a Mitsubishi salesperson. "Take a look at this young crowd. This is where their eyes are at."
Meanwhile, teenagers practiced poses behind steering wheels of the coolest new Toyota rides, as the company unveiled its 2003 Scion youth-oriented vehicles. A DJ spun club hits, while an army of trendy twentysomething market representatives wearing jeans distributed dance party fliers and CDs featuring rap groups like Jurassic 5 and Hustle.
Marty Henry, 15, who wore a T-shirt that read, "Bling Bling," scoped out the Scion with his father. Henry said he was impressed by the box shape, lowness to the ground, six built-in Pioneer speakers and affordability. It sells for $16,000 for a base model.
"This would be on my list," he said, along with the new Honda Accord and the 2003 Lincoln Navigator SUV.
Henry said his ideal car is one with "rims so wide, you can hardly see the tires" and a stereo system that bumps so loud "when you turn it up, you just hear, 'Boom, boom, boom.' People can hear you from a mile away."
His father, Harold, said youth marketing schemes don't bother him because he has "absolutely no intention of buying that car." But of his son, he said, "In a couple of years, he'll be able to buy it. So he's getting his ideas now."
Toyota sales representative Denise Sierra said the car is appealing to young people because it is stylish and inexpensive. "Other Toyota cars are pretty conservative," she said. "These are not."
The company also offers accessories that can be individually purchased, like leather-wrapped steering wheels in different colors, a satellite radio tuner, a rear spoiler, body side graphics and fog lamps, which jack up the price.
Downstairs in the convention center, a throng of vendors, such as Pep Boys and Lexani Wheels/Nitto Tires, displayed rims, special lights, stereo systems, automobile-ready DVD players and other gadgets intended for young consumers. Lexani featured posters of rap stars Snoop Dogg and Nas, standing in front of their logo.
Stephanie Kali, 22, distributed party fliers and promoted Toyota's new line, as graffiti artists spray-painted murals.
"We're a big bulk of the population. We are where the money is," she said. "Why do companies make minivans? Because there are families out there. They need to make cars that fit the needs of the younger culture too."
The show runs daily through the 12th.
Admission is $10 on weekends and $8 on weekdays. Show hours are 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday.