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China Beats US as World's Top Auto Market

Buick, built by the big U.S. automaker General Motors, is one of the most popular brands in China, as this photo from Suzhou in Eastern China attests. (btaroli, Flickr Creative Commons)

Young Americans ditching car keys for the keyboard

Whole books and hundreds of studies have been written about the American “automobile culture” - our “love affair with the car.” But the United States is no longer the world’s largest auto market. China is.

Time magazine cites a report from J.D. Power that in 2010, Chinese and Indian consumers together bought just under 20 million new passenger vehicles. That’s 70 percent more cars than Americans purchased that year.

It’s not just Asia’s booming economies that may explain why this is happening. The Washington Post notes that Americans - especially young, fairly new drivers who once couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel and go anywhere and everywhere, and fast - do not regard the automobile as part of the American Dream quite so fervently any more.

In the newspaper’s words, they’re “ditching the keys for the keyboard” - more entranced by texts and apps and such than sleek steel lines and horsepower. As the Post put it, “younger people seem more interested in fiddling on the Internet than under the hood.”

Why? For one, American roads are more congested than ever. One can often get to work faster - and certainly cheaper - on a bicycle or subway train than in a gas-guzzling automobile. Dollar-a-liter gasoline prices can be prohibitively expensive for young people who are trying to pay off their college tuition loans.

Anti-auto-pollution campaigns by environmentalists have struck a chord. And millions of young people have moved back in with Mom and Dad, who likely have a big, free automobile handy, right out in the driveway.

And in more and more cities, when young people feel an urge to get behind the wheel and head out, a few thumb clicks on their mobile devices will find them a fuel-efficient car to rent for an hour or a day or a week, and pay for it at the same time. They don’t have to worry about car payments - or about insurance, whose costs are built into the price.

Auto dealers are still finding lots of buyers for high-horsepower, sporty “muscle cars.” But more and more of those buyers are older people, reliving the good-old days. A classic “car song” from 1964 refers to Ford’s stylish and powerful Thunderbird model: “Daddy took the T-bird away,” it goes.

And it looks like he’s done it again - to use for himself.