Our hearts go vroom-vroom, our daughter’s beep-beep

I’ve been dismissive of reports that younger Americans lack their parent’s passion for cars, that the car-indifferent Japanese youth culture had crossed the Pacific.

But last week, our daughter’s quest for a phone brought fresh insight. Rebecca lives on the Virginia side of Washington and works for the Smithsonian’s natural history museum. An anthropologist and archeologist by education, she is now an IT expert. My wife and I call her the IT ace -- She-Who-Speaks-Scientist, or Alpha Geek for short. She is, proudly, a nerd.

Now by rights, Rebecca should be a car nut. She’s a Detroit native raised in the car culture of Southern California, descended from three generations of auto industry sweat: engineers, plant managers and assembly line workers. Her great-granddaddy built Studebakers, for Pete’s sake.

And she likes cars. Always the first child in line when a test car appeared in the driveway, she can debate the relative merits of ’80s hot rides from the Corvette ZR-1 to the Acura NSX. Say “road trip” and she’s packed in two minutes. She always knows what vehicle she would want for specific tasks: a New Beetle for city errands, a Jeep Wrangler or Land Rover Defender for archeology field work.

But -- and this was once the heartburn for her Midwestern-bred parents -- since she moved to Washington for grad school 14 years ago, she has never owned a car. Now we have mellowed since we lived in London and decided owning a car there wasn’t worth it. Still, our understanding doesn’t help sell any cars.

Sorry, automakers. You tempt her, but this Virginia homeowner isn’t buying your wares.

What rouses her consumer passion? Cool electronics. And last week, it was the release of a new Droid cell phone, the R2D2. Yeah, the cute Star Wars droid. Viewed from the back side, it looks just like R2D2, right down to its phone camera lens “eye.”

Uh-oh. Nerd alert. Tired of her chatter, her co-workers pushed her out the door. “Take lunch early, go, go, just buy it.” Minutes later, our cells buzzed with an inbound picture of a tiny, shiny R2D2. An excited phone call followed, as Rebecca walked back to work to show it off. Our daughter was happy, amused and highly entertained. Better, a close friend with a new, less-cool phone has techno-envy and can’t counter until a 2011 sequel, the Droid C3PO.

And that’s when it hit me. Rebecca was as thrilled as I was with my first car. And at least as much as I have been for any new car since then.

All that for a low-three-figure investment.

It is a generational thing. Mom and Dad get off on cars. Our kids, not so much.

OK, Detroit, Tokyo, Seoul. What have you got that generates enough excitement to warrant a five-figure investment from Gen Y?