The import car enthusiast scene spawned by young Asian-Americans in California has become a trend closely observed by automotive marketers.
It started around 1992 with teen-agers and young men who buy aftermarket parts to boost the performance of their subcompact import cars - particularly Hondas. It is now a $1 billion market with U.S. automakers eager to get in on it.
But it requires savvy to reach these consumers who see themselves as trend-starters, not trend-followers, say marketing executives.
'Historically, this was a very Asian phenomenon that has gone Hispanic, gone African-American, and it's going mainstream now. They've made it their own thing. We want to support it, but (the enthusiasts) are leading the movement,' says Jim Jordan, West Coast merchandising manager for Mazda North American Operations.
'It's a market created by young people and you can't lead it. You can embrace it, support it and follow where it's going next with products, but no one can dictate to these kids.'
An American Honda Motor Co. spokesman says the marketer also has identified the trend, but adds that targeting this audience is risky. 'We walk a fine line with how hard we want to market to the hot import crowd. It's fashion, and the best way to reach them is by providing great performance cars and making genuine and prototype parts.'
The movement began when young Asian-Americans began altering Honda Civics and other small import coupes to perform like hot rods.
Next the fad spread to include Hispanics in the Southwest and Puerto Ricans and blacks in the East and Florida. Automotive mar- keting executives say the fad is being embraced by young consumers in the Midwest and Southern cities such as Atlanta.
The market centers on consumers who spend less than $20,000 on a new car but then invest another $15,000 to $25,000 with performance-enhancing parts and accessories including wheels, exhaust manifolds, competition camshafts, superchargers, spoilers, wireless-enabled onboard personal computers and high-end car stereos.
The National Import Racing Association pegs the core audience for hot import cars as mostly male - 87 percent - and under age 24. Typical consumers come from households with a median income of $57,000.
'These are kids who are in school and have jobs. They live at home and put all their spare money into their car and into enhancing their car in any possible way to make it faster and more unique than the next guy,' says Larry Saavedra, editor in chief of Sport Compact Car, a fast-growing monthly from Primedia's McMullen Argus Publishing division.
McMullen also launched Import Tuner last year as a monthly newsstand magazine targeting the hardcore import enthusiasts aged 16 to 24.
Attendance at National Import Racing Association races is up 40 percent this year over last year and race sponsorship has quadrupled. More mainstream marketers are starting to knock on the association's door for next year's races, says Craig Lieberman, the organization's executive director.
Ford Motor Co. last year discovered its subcompact Focus was gaining a following in the import scene and responded with a line of performance-enhancing parts. Last December the Focus became the official car of the association.
'Parts have become a real profit opportunity for Ford and we're watching this market closely. We hope to become a bigger part of it,' says Tom Berkery, dealer channel sales manager for the Ford Racing Technology operation.
Car shows are a big part of the import scene. Vision Entertainment began hosting 'Hot Import Nights' events in 1998 with two a year; now there are 12 shows slated for next year including one in Atlanta.
The car shows' sponsors are still mostly makers of cars and accessories, including Web sites such as carparts.com and speed options.com. But Kenwood Car & Home Audio has become a big sponsor, and video game makers are laying plans to sponsor shows in 2001.
'We're expecting to see our sponsorships explode next year and open up new categories of consumer product marketers and apparel,' says John Russell, Vision director of marketing.
Mazda dispatched a team that included its top design engineer to observe the scene at an import event this year in San Bernardino, Calif.
To encourage import enthusiasts to concentrate their passions on Mazdas, the company paid the entry fees of any Mazda drivers in the car show, sponsored a stage displaying souped-up Mazdas and added prize money to the event.
'Unfortunately for us, the car this segment has embraced is the RX7, which we no longer make, but at shows we're displaying the Protege and the Miata in hopes that some (enthusiasts) might come over to it,' says Mazda's Jordan. Mazda also is backing a line of Protege performance parts.
Ford observes the import movement growing to include more mainstream youth in the past year.
'There's definitely a big Asian influence on the East Coast,' said Ford's Berkery, 'but we're seeing a real mix of ethnic groups and nationalities and more young women getting involved, too.'