Adults in the 55- to 64-year-old age group were 15 times more likely to buy new vehicles than 18- to 24-year-olds in 2011, the study found.
In a separate study released in 2012, UMTRI found that the percentage of 19-year-olds with a driver's license had fallen below 70 percent, its lowest point in nearly 30 years.
Collectively, the results show the industry's success is still predicated on its ability to connect with older buyers.
"The probability of buying a vehicle per driver is highest for people between 55 and 64 years of age," said Michael Sivak, who led the study, which relied on data from R.L. Polk. "That is probably surprising to many people because they think of much younger people being the target audience."
Another finding: 35-to-44-year-olds bought fewer vehicles as a percentage of the market in 2011 than they did in 2007, potentially reflecting how the tough economy affected Generation X.
Consumers in the 55-to-64 segment bought 23 percent of U.S. vehicles in 2011, up from 18 percent in 2007. At the same time, those between 35 and 44 accounted for 22 percent of vehicle purchases in 2011, down from 29 percent in 2007.
In another curious finding, the number of consumers in the 35-to-44-year-old segment with a driver's license fell 6.6 percent from 2007 to 2011.
The number of 18-to-24-year-olds with a driver's license increased by 0.8 percent in that four-year period, while the likelihood that anyone in that age group would buy a car stayed flat. In 2011, 1 in 222 drivers in that age group bought a new vehicle, compared with one in 15 for ages 55 to 64.
Those statistics are troubling to automakers that fear that the millennial generation, or Generation Y, doesn't care about driving. The other possibility is the interest is there, but sufficient income is not.
"The big question is: Is this trend of decreasing licenses for young people going to continue?" Sivak said.
Although the auto industry is investing heavily in designs and marketing aimed at young car buyers, Sivak said the study shows that marketing to older buyers "should have the highest probability of success per driver."
- The Buzz: Some parting words (some of them English) from Aaron Reardon 6/1/13
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