How the Corolla Became Cool

As a therapist who works with teenagers, one of the fun parts of my job is to “ooh” and “ahh” over young drivers’ first cars. When a teen client gets a new car, it is momentarily not dorky or embarrassing to have a therapist and I am ceremonially dragged into the parking lot to witness their transition from dependant child to someone who can transport themselves about town. It’s something I truly enjoy.

Having been in practice now for over 10 years, I have been able to watch the makes and models of ‘first cars’ change over time. Around 2003, I noticed that somehow or another, the Honda Accord had become a cool car. Really? The Accord? My mom had an Accord when I was in high school. It was totally a mom car. How did it get cool?

I noticed that the kids were putting all sorts of cool parts onto their Accords – spoilers, decals, low-profile tires, super-dark window-tinting, and even neon underbody lighting. Okay, it looked cooler with all those accessories, but c’mon, it was still an Accord. It so perplexed me that I started asking the owners of tricked-out Hondas what it was about the Accord that made them so desirable. I was surprised by the answers.

Young drivers repeatedly responded that the Hondas were reliable, safe, and efficient. I just about fell out of my chair each time I was faced with a pimpled face talking to me about the reliability or the efficiency of their vehicle. Since when did that become important to kids?

From a social scientist standpoint, I realized that Generation X was the first generation in a long time that did not do better economically than their parents. They were raised by Baby Boomers who worked hard, were paid well, and whose places of employment were generally loyal. Gen X’ers didn’t experience the same stability in the workplace and had to pinch pennies a little more. They, in turn, raised the Millennials, who started driving in about 1996. Those kids, also known as Generation Y, seem to appreciate the value of the dollar a little more than their parents did, having had to grow up with slightly less. Those kids are actually looking at the value of a car when it comes to purchasing, not just the color or how loud the stereo is like their Gen X parents did.

Recently, a number of proud teens have brought in their first cars and now the cool car is the Toyota Corolla. They’re not even bothering to camouflage the sensible vehicle with awesome accessories, either. Incredulous, my interviewing goes on. Turns out that in addition to being a sturdy and reliable car, the Corolla gets “mad” gas mileage, too. (Translation = excellent). So now a car doesn’t even have to remotely look cool to be cool?

The very first members of the Net Generation, also known as “Digital Natives” are just starting to drive. These are kids who have never known a world without internet. To them, a car, although useful, is a machine, and not a very interesting machine at that. They can hang with friends, do homework, and even earn money without leaving their homes. A car is not the absolute necessity it once was. Of course, teens aren’t going to stop wanting cars, but they are more focused on practicality than appearance and with gas prices rising and more focus on preserving the environment, today’s kids are proudly displaying sensible cars that would have embarrassed their parents to drive as teens.

What’s next? Kids investing in retirement accounts? Oh wait, they’re actually starting to do that, too. And the pendulum swings back… We can expect the next really irresponsible generation in about 2026, but before you get too bummed out about that, remember that at least Mustangs will be cool again.

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