A teen or young adult's first car in its time was a rite of passage, maybe not to the level of a Sweet 16 party but something car owners would remember decades later.
Today, that initial vehicle is less a prize than a commodity. Some college age adults don't even own a car; they may wait until they get married or start a family.
Still, millennials fixate on an age to buy or lease their first auto, and it's 21, a new survey from Bankrate.com shows.
The money and personal finance website in its count also found that millennials, which it set at ages 18-37, are twice as likely than older consumers to believe purchasers' best time to buy their initial car is before turning 18 years old. In the survey, 14 percent of millennials see 18 as the optimal age compared with 7 percent for consumers aged 38 and up.
By region of the country, the Northeast is the least likely to consider 21 as the optimum age to first buy a car, at 41 percent. That compares with 54 percent for the rest of the country.
Bankrate.com polled Americans including millennial age adults and teens, on a number of age-related questions. The group as a whole considers age 61 to be the ideal time to retire, 28 the right time to buy a first home and 22 the perfect years to open a credit card for the first time and start saving for retirement.
Separately, the share of car buyers aged 16 to 34 — roughly the millennial age — dropped 6 points from 28.6 percent to 22.6 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to staff with the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. But when factoring out income and other influences, the car-buying change among teens and younger adults isn't much different than other age groups. Actually, the steepest decline was the 35-49 year-old group, which fell more than 9 percentage points ni the past 15 years, while the fastest climb was in the 55 years plus age group, up a whopping 15 percent.
New vehicle sales totaled 17.4 million cars and trucks in 2015, about the same rate as the all-time record set in 2000, the Fed report noted.
Relying on figures from its Consumer Expenditure Survey and J.D. Power & Associates, the Fed researchers checked the merits of anedotal evidence that younger adults are not interested in buying new cars, instead choosing public or ride-sharing transportation or bike-riding, and don't fancy vehicles the way earlier generations did.
Most starkly, the most active new car buyers in 2000 were consumers aged 35-49 followed by age 16 to 34, then age 55 and above and finally ages 50-54. By 2015, drivers age 55 and higher were the top new car buyers, followed by ages 35-49, ages 16-34 and ages 50-54.
"Although young buyers have been purchasing new vehicles at lower rates in recent years, the two most important factors that contributed to the rise in the average age of new vehicle buyers seem to be the aging of the Baby Boomers — a large group that continued to purchase new vehicles at a solid rate during and after the 2007-09 recession; and the decline in the new vehicle purchase rate for 35 to 50 year olds over the past 10 years," the Fed system concluded.