Consumer preferences for the type and concept of the vehicle they purchase is a continually evolving process. Generally, the type of vehicle a consumer buys changes as he ages and moves through the various stages of his life. The usual cycle has a younger consumer starting off with a lower-price, small car or truck, and then continually moving into a larger and more expensive vehicle as he ages.

Although this cycle is followed by all generations of buyers, it varies within each group in terms of vehicle type and concept. Basically, each generation defines the type of vehicle concept that fits its various stages of life. These preferences are usually driven by the attitudes, lifestyles and underlying values instilled in their youth.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than with the baby boom generation, which has completely redefined the light-vehicle market since they started browsing dealer showrooms in the late 1960s. Baby boomers were responsible for driving the surge of Japanese small cars in the 1970s and the success of the compact van in the 1980s. Now approaching their 50s, these buyers have set their sights on sport/utility vehicles, with nearly 60% of SUV sales coming from those between 35 and 50.

But that generation is not the only demographic group that has created and embraced new segments of the market. Their parents were responsible for the creation in the 1960s and 1970s of the midsize personal coupe market, which became the fastest-growing segment of the market at the time.

Parents of the boomers were entering the "empty nest" stage of their lives in the late 1960s as their children were going off to college or getting married. This compelled many of them to move out of the large full-size sedans and station wagons they had and into something smaller and more personally oriented. This phenomenon drove demand for these midsize coupes from less than 300,000 units in 1964 to more than 2.5 million units by 1977.

Over the next 10 years. baby boomers will continue to drive the light-vehicle market but Generation X will take a more prominent role. The burning question is how these two groups will evolve from a product-preference standpoint into the next decade.

Will the baby boomers continue to buy sport/utilities and vans, or will they go back to passenger cars? Or will they gravitate to a new segment of the market not yet charted? And where will Generation X go? Will they follow the baby boomers? Or will they once again reshape the market in an even more dramatic way than the boomers have?

Unfortunately, there are few tools in place to help automakers predict what consumers are going to want 10, or even 5 years, down the road. Consumers themselves, let alone manufacturers, don't know what they are going to be buying in the future. Although a wealth of consumer research exists that blueprints current consumer behavior, it does not have the ability to chart future behavior and direction.

Manufacturers may actually get a better sense of what type of product consumers will be buying in the future by studying what influences their purchase of a new car or light truck. Manufacturers are already doing a good job of understanding the more tangible reasons for buying a vehicle, such as price, value, utility and style.

Where manufacturers tend to fail, however, is in understanding the less tangible or emotional reasons for purchasing a vehicle. Conventional market research tends to understate the image appeal of a vehicle since most consumers do not feel comfortable in discussing the more emotional reasons for buying. For many buyers, however, the purchase of their vehicle was primarily dictated by its image appeal.

It's not only critical for manufacturers to understand how important image is in the buyer's decision process, but why its image is so strong. For example, is the reason why sport/utilities have such a strong image that there has been a move by baby boomers to more active lifestyles that embraces the great outdoors?

Understanding the dynamics of image requires a keen understanding of all the extraneous issues that forge a buyer's definition of a high image. The image factor varies among generations and evolves and changes over the course of a consumer's life span.

For the image-enthralled baby boomers, the profile of a vehicle will continue to be a driving force behind what type of vehicle they purchase. Those that monitor behavioral and lifestyle trends believe that boomers will want to recapture their youth once they move into the empty-nest stage of their lives and reward themselves for successfully raising their children. These same observers of behavioral and lifestyle trends also believe that boomers will try to recapture some of the refined and elegant living that they enjoyed in the 1980s, but in a more value-oriented way. Does this mean that the boomers will shun their sport/utilities and pickups for sports cars and luxury cars, or will they just demand that their trucks evolve into more sporty and luxurious vehicles?

Wherever they go, the only way manufacturers will be able to anticipate the changing preferences within demographic groups and what new vehicle concepts they will embrace is by clearly understanding the role that image and lifestyle play in the decision process. Despite the industry rhetoric that an increasing number of consumers view a car or light truck as a commodity purchase, the fact is that most consumers view their vehicle as an extension of their wardrobe, lifestyle and personality.