Memo to automakers: Don't even think of trying to sell a car next year in the United States without an iPod or MP3 connection. Otherwise you can count on losing customers under age 44.
Automakers are rushing to offer factory-installed adapters that allow customers to plug portable digital music devices into 2007 vehicles - and aftermarket adapters that dealers can install in earlier models.
More than 70 percent of the 2007 models to be sold in the United States will offer the jacks and plug-in options, according to Apple Computer Inc., which dominates the MP3 market with its ubiquitous iPod. Digital music players, roughly the size of a cell phone, hold thousands of songs or sound files that can be organized in multiple ways.
Ivan Garneff, lead salesperson at Hollywood Scion, part of the Hollywood Toyota chain in Hollywood, Fla., says iPod connectivity is "hip and hot."
BMW was first to spot the trend. It offered the BMW iPod Adapter in certain models from 2002-2006.
"We saw iPod's enormous popularity as people wanted to utilize their iPods with their music libraries in their cars," says BMW spokesman Dave Buchko. "Dealers have had a difficult time keeping up with demand."
Originally, listeners could hook up iPods or MP3s in their vehicles by plugging them into a cigarette lighter and using a wireless adapter purchased separately. With the new technology they can plug the units directly into the car or truck.
The connections began with simple auxiliary jack adaptors that allow for manual operation of iPods and MP3s. But now many automakers offer advanced plug-in kits or dock connectors wired right into steering wheels and radio controls. That means virtually hands-free operation and safer driving.
More advanced kits also can recharge the iPods or MP3s. Other kits are exclusively for iPods. Prices for most adaptor kits range from $149 to $319, depending on the automaker or the type of unit installed, plus installation fees.
Most nameplates now offer auxiliary audio input devices as either a factory- or dealer-installed option on some models. General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Mazda Corp. announced this month that they will offer the option in new vehicles later this year. A variety of aftermarket kits also are available.
Everyone wants it
Dealers are salivating.
At Hollywood Scion, customers for the dealer-installed $260 iPod integration kit have changed from the young buyers Toyota saw when it began selling iPod connection options more than a year ago.
"We're seeing a more mature market. The brand is attracting Gen Y parents who realize this is a great car and are buying it for themselves or their kids," Garneff said.
"We run 80 percent of our vehicles with the upgraded iPod integration feature and we usually don't have anyone who doesn't want it. They like the feature once they know it's available and can't believe how inexpensive it is," he says.
Chad Simkins, sales consultant at the Midwestern Auto Group's Mini franchise in Dublin, Ohio, says about half of his customers order the auxiliary jacks or MP3-compatible adapters in their Minis.
Connectivity is "a closing tool for people who are really into their songs and music," said Craig Hubble, general manager at Genesee Valley Dodge in Flint, Mich. "It opens up a whole new avenue.
"I had a customer in recently buying a Dodge Ram for his college-bound son. His son wanted to make sure it had iPod compatibility."
Hubble sees two big markets for MP3 features: parents with high-school and college-age children snapping up the vehicles and buyers who are deeply into electronics.