Getting Gadgety: Automakers installing high-tech baubles to upgrade car-riding choices, lure shoppers

MyFord Touch, which integrates touch-sensitive buttons, touch screens, thumb-wheel knobs and voice recognition in its lineup of front-seat controls, has proven popular with customers (Photo provided).

By JIM PARKER The Post and Courier

Savvy young customers — and middle aged ones, too — are being attracted to car dealerships as much for the gadgets inside autos as for the models alone.

“In this age of iPods, iPads, iPhones, everybody, even older people, go for this,” said Richard Cooper, new car manager and vice president at Jones Ford in North Charleston.

Ford has been in the forefront of automotive technology, introducing such equipment as Sync voice-activated command system and the MyTouch touch-screen enhancement for years.

“Things like Sync and MyTouch are very important to our customers,” Cooper said.

The way to tell how important, he said, is to check out what is selling. In Jones Ford’s coverage area including greater Charleston, Columbia, Myrtle Beach and Wilmington, N.C., the bulk of sold Ford Focuses, for instance, are equipped with the high-tech features.

Many shoppers, and notably younger ones, are up to speed on the space-age offerings. But Cooper said even less wonky customers often choose the gadgets when they are shown how they work and learn they don’t cost much more: A navigation system’s base price is $795 for example.

They say, “‘Yeah, I want that hands free phone (connectivity),’” he said.

Some features, such as satellite radio, cross all age lines. “Most of us here have Sirius Satellite Radio,” Cooper said, referring to Jones Ford salespeople. While geared toward music and entertainment, there are also channels that give weather and traffic reports — especially helpful on trips.

National research backs up the anecdotal evidence of a growing interest in technological features and how they play a bigger role in decision-making.

A new survey shows that car buyers may be less loyal to a brand if a rival offers features they prefer such as connections to smartphone apps.

According to cars.com, research company GfK Automotive found that 48 percent of motorists in 2011 who answered a monthly survey said they would buy the same brand of vehicle they now have. The figure is down from 55 percent a decade ago.

The gap is more dramatic by age group. Doug Scott, a senior vice president at GfK, grouped the responses and found the 15- to 45-age groups were less loyal than baby boomers and pre-boomers, according to cars.com.

The Gen Z and Gen Y crowd has tended to be less loyal for the past decade, but their numbers have grown, making the overall percentages drop.

According to Scott, the younger buyers are keying on technology over a particular carmaker.Another GfK study concluded that teenagers and young adults went for gadgets ahead of the cars themselves in what they need.

Manufacturers are catching onto the heightened interest in tech-y features. Every vehicle in the top 15 sellers in February, which makes up nearly a third of all cars sold, offers USB/iPod ports and Bluetooth hands-free phone usage, according to cars.com.

But auto companies’ high-tech enthusiasm waned in a survey ofbrand-new gadgets that are proving popular.

For the 2012 model year, just 11 of the top 15 offer Bluetooth audio streaming for apps such as Pandora internet radio, cars.com said. At least three companies provide the ability to tie into smartphone applications: Ford with its Sync AppLink, MyLink from Chevrolet, Entune, from Toyota.

Ford has been on the cutting edge of gadgetry for quite some time: Sync has had Bluetooth streaming audio since 2007, according to cars.com.

Scott said Ford’s innovationsmake it more effective than its rivals in driving loyalty rates among Gen Y shoppers. But he said it’s important that companies install effective systems. They can lose goodwill if the devices fail or don’t work well.

Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.