DETROIT – Millennials compared with previous generations postpone obtaining their driver’s licenses, but auto makers can relax, says researcher Isabelle Helms, overseer of a new study, “The Next Generation Car Buyer.”

The delay in getting a license doesn’t mean kids aren’t interested in ultimately buying a vehicle, says AutoTrader’s senior director-research and marketing analytics.

“Millennials care more about cars than you may think,” says Helms, rebutting claims Generation Y is as interested in owning a car as owning a lawn mower.

Auto makers, with good reason, keenly watch the buying habits of the age 16-to-32 set. “They will represent 40% of new-car sales by 2020,” Helms says. “That’s why we care about them.”

They put off getting a driver’s license at a higher rate than their elders, 36% compared with 24% when Baby Boomers were teens. “But the delay is not for the reasons people may think,” Helms tells a gathering of the Automotive Press Assn. here. “It has very little to do with a lack of interest in driving.”

The AutoTrader consumer survey says “too busy” is the No.1 cited reason for license deferrals. “That was surprising to us,” she says. “But often with school, extra-curricular activities and both parents working, this is considered the over-scheduled generation.”

Other cited reasons for not getting a driver’s license include fear of driving, cost of buying and owning a vehicle and the desire for more driver’s training.

But 73% of young people surveyed indicated they plan to purchase a vehicle in the foreseeable future.

Fifty percent of surveyed young Millennials (ages 16 to 24) and 16% of older Millennials (ages 25 to 32) currently don’t own a car, “and cost is the primary factor,” Helms says.    

Compared with their elders, young Americans are less interested in whether a vehicle is domestically produced.

“‘Made in America’ is less important to this generation,” says Helms, noting that international nameplates have been established players in the market for most of their lives.

A Gen Y’er is less concerned with where a vehicle is made and more concerned that it has desired features, quality and brand attributes, according to the study.

Dealers play a big role in influencing young people’s vehicle purchases, Helms says. Forty nine percent of young survey participants say they rely heavily on a dealership salesperson for providing information beyond what they garnered online.

Many dealerships do a good job of shepherding first-time car buyers through the purchase process. But some blow it by overselling and using high-pressure tactics, Helms says.

Sixty percent of young buyers say they thought the car salesperson tried to sell an unneeded service or pitched a car they didn't show an interest in buying.

“That has jaded some Millennials,” Helms says. “Only 47% said they considered the dealer to be trustworthy vs. 64% of older people who said that.

“But some dealers know exactly how to handle young buyers who are looking for a dealership person to hold their hand and guide them,” she says. “Think Apple store.”

Traditional car-selling practices can fail to live up to the buying expectations of Generation Y, says Rick Wainschel, AutoTrader’s vice president-automotive insights.

Dealers do well when respecting and listening to young shoppers, says Dora Nowicki, marketing manager for the Chevrolet Sonic compact car. “Young people typically know what they want going into the dealership.”

Young car buyers particularly are interested in style and innovation, says Amy Marentic, Ford marketing manager.

Consequently, “we’ve put technology in a lot of small cars, such as the Fiesta,” she says, calling the entry-level vehicle practical, innovative and fun to drive.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com