They're comin'," exclaims Jim Masters - and he's getting ready for them.

"They" are indeed coming, some 78 million strong: so-called "Generation Y" youngsters, sons and daughters of Baby Boomers, who range from pre-teens to voting age. They are commonly called "Echo Boomers," a moniker they prefer. "They hate taglines," he says.

James C. Masters is president of Lear Corp.'s Technology Div. As a dominant player in automotive interiors, Lear has more than a casual interest in what these young folks will want when they start buying cars.

With that in mind, Mr. Masters' team has been formally studying the "Y" phenomenon since last fall. Although he's not yet prepared to share the full results, one message is clear: More than any preceding generation, the "Ys" crave individuality - the personalized approach.

Lear is embracing a strategy that targets maximum flexibility in interior designs and trim while using fully engineered mass-produced structures underneath.

Lear will demonstrate how this works "live" at the Society of Automotive Engineers Congress & Exhibition March 6-10 at Detroit's Cobo Center. An interior scheme tuned to baby boomers - a group calculated at 74 million - stemming from 1998 research was unveiled at last year's SAE show. Lear skipped "Generation X" (high 20s to mid-30s) because it's relatively small: 17 million.

Both studies were based on the company's "PVI" (for people/vehicle interface) methodology, which aims to "identify the right products for the right markets at the right time," says Mr. Masters. Parameters include consumer research, engineering, technical analysis, industrial design and visualization, manufacturing process development and validation - in short, the entire process from conception to production.

"We wanted to find out what makes Generation Y different from the other groups, even though a lot of them can't even drive yet," says Mr. Masters.

Over a period of several months, the Lear team worked with 23 Detroit-area young people - 10 boys and 13 girls between the ages of 15 and 20 - representing diverse cultural, economic and racial backgrounds, he says. That number may seem small and geographically limited, but Mr. Masters underscores that Generation Y is "connected" with their peers across the U.S. and worldwide as never before via the Internet.

"If kids in Australia are wearing wide-legged pants and slacks, they're doing the same thing in the U.S. and Europe" thanks to the Worldwide Web, he says.

The differences between the generations could not be sharper, he says. "The Boomers are extremely brand loyal. They're big spenders, and if they buy something and break it, they buy another. The Xers are just the reverse: They buy a sweatshirt and keep it forever. They're more conservative and think things through.

"The Ys are completely different. They don't want to be like their parents. They want mass customization. So our job is to customize every vehicle."

Isn't that more expensive? "No, because we use standardized structural components like seat frames and instrument-panel (IP) frames, then let consumers pick the pieces on top of them. The cost could be the same or less."

Think of it as buying a basic computer or home entertainment system, then adding the peripherals. "These are what the Yers are used to, and we want to do the same," says Mr. Masters.

Take, for example, an IP. While the basic structural cross-member can be the same for numerous models, the Lear scheme permits a variety of different designs of the components you see and feel. Moreover, buyers can select the instruments they want (such as black-or white-background gauges); the radio and HVAC (heating/ventilation/air conditioning) and radio fascias and switches; and handles, overhead amenities and the like. "Some may want a light switch that turns, or another may want a 'pullout' switch," he says.

Electronics permits flat-panel "touch" controls, freeing up IP space and broadening the choices, he points out. "We can have an infinite variety of interior designs," he adds. "Everything is becoming more personalized. Our challenge is to develop interior components that are as easily upgraded as computers are today," he adds. Older folks might like these touches, too.

Lear's emphasis on personalized interiors could add up to a flourishing aftermarket. "They (the Ys) are more likely to get bored (in their cars). With our approach they could go in after six months and change from fabric to leather seats," he says.

Nor are the Ys likely to be as brand conscious. "They can kill a brand in a day," he says. "Why? Because they're connected on the Internet. A Cadillac in the driveway used to mean you were successful, but that's absolutely gone."

Two favorites emerging from the Detroit youngsters are Volkswagen's Beetle and Golf, the latter because of its versatility and "honest, clean very usable design," he says.

"We asked them what they do when they come home from school, what events they attend, what they like and dislike, and lifestyle issues," says Mr. Masters. One finding: "They love pizza and Dr Pepper. This generation (Boomer) thinks it invented Mountain Dew."

The Y group also favored bright, far-out colors, avant-garde textures and fabric designs, and seats tailored to their needs. "They don't want the same seats as their neighbors," says Mr. Masters, adding that Lear has developed a system so that one day "you'll be able to go to your dealer, he'll scan you, and that will tell us the contours that fit you." Lear developed the basic technology for Formula 1 race car drivers in 1999, and it since has been adopted for all F1 cars, he says. The scan takes only 17 seconds.

Based on what Lear and others are learning, that also may be the typical loyalty Ys have to those failing to get inside their minds.