Automakers, eager to project a youthful image and attract as broad a customer base as possible, say they have no interest in marketing directly to older car buyers despite an aging U.S. population.
But the vehicles themselves are starting to reflect that demographic shift as manufacturers pay more attention to features that may appeal to older drivers, executives said at the North American International Auto Show this week.
"We will not design a vehicle for old people specifically," said Joe Eberhardt, Chrysler Group's sales and marketing director, adding that the post-World War II generation doesn't think of itself as old.
Design principles, such as legible readouts and the ease of getting in and out, are aimed at all users, he said.
"We were always the old person's car," said Doug Osterhoff, marketing manager for Buick passenger cars. "We know that. It's nothing that we hide from."
GM, figuring its dealer network has its traditional customers well in hand, is trying to attract a younger demographic.
Its advertising targets buyers in their 40s and up. "For the lifeblood of the channel, we need to bring in these younger buyers," Osterhoff said.
Buick models such as the Lucerne feature "universal design" conveniences that include heated windshield wiper fluid and seats that warm or cool passengers depending on the weather.
GM's Cadillac, whose average buyer is 60 years old, also is aiming young. An iPod connection is standard in the DTS model and its television spots are set to Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll."
Other brands are confident that they don't need to win customers who are already on board.
Tom Purves, chief executive of BMW North America, said BMW avoids marketing to specific demographic groups, focusing instead on measures such as income.
Advertisers have traditionally pitched their products to younger buyers, partly because they believe that older ones stick to tried-and-true brands.
But older adults are just as likely as their children and grandchildren to switch, according to Boomertising consultancy.
Cars designed for buyers in the 20s or even younger, such as Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius and Scion brand and Honda Motor Co.'s Element, have been big sellers among over-50 car buyers, according to the Boomer Project, a marketing research firm.