A new SRT Viper and an upcoming Chevrolet Corvette Stingray, Alfa Romeo 4C and Acura NSX. If consumers didn't know better, they might think that all is well in the sports car business.
American consumer tastes are changing and sports car buyers are aging. Fuel economy demands are threatening to take the fun out of revving engines. Segment definitions are blurring at the edges. And what worries automakers most is that kids seem more interested in their iPhones and Instagramming than in roaring roadsters and redlining tachometers.
"We're doing a lot to try and awaken the younger customer to Corvette," says John Fitzgerald, marketing manager for Chevrolet performance cars, whose job is to market the 2014 Corvette Stingray that goes on sale in late summer. "We want to change the conversation a little bit."
Once the image of 1960s youth expression, the Corvette is now seen by some as a reward car for older men. One fifth of its buyers are age 65 and older, according to R.L. Polk & Co.
In a bid to rekindle the Corvette's mystique among younger buyers, Chevrolet opened the market launch by planting the car in a video game. A pre-production Corvette appeared as a downloadable drive in the Sony game Gran Turismo 5. More than 500,000 gamers downloaded the car's data.
"That really influences your ability to get the attention of teenage boys and college kids and young adults," Fitzgerald says of the video cameo. "It influences whether people are out there talking about the car because it's relevant."
It's not just the Corvette.
Higher-end sports car buyers are getting older, according to J.D. Power and Associates. In 2008, 28 percent of those buying compact premium sports cars were age 56 and older. Last year, 36 percent of them were.
As models mutate and proliferate, defining "sports car" promises to become more difficult for the industry. Traditionally, the term referred to a two-seat performance car, such as a Ferrari 458 Italia.
But a sports car can also be in the eye of the driver. A Shelby Mustang GT500 capable of 200 mph? A Dodge Challenger R/T with a 372-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8?
"There are more alternatives out there for young people now than there were 20 years ago," observes Jeff Schuster, J.D. Power's executive director of global forecasting, who tracks segment changes around the industry.
"Our point of comparison is a golden era of sports cars in the past. But today, young people get more excited about sporty crossovers. And other buyers are finding that sedans, like an Audi A4, give them all the sports car thrill they want.
"The challenge for Chevrolet and Chrysler and all the other sports car manufacturers," Schuster says, "is to lower the age of that buyer while they still can."
It is a long-term issue, not so much a problem for the promising 2014 model year, when Chevrolet will offer the first new Stingray since Gerald Ford was in the White House.