CRUISING ON CAMPUS

When Morris Lifschutz began his sophomore year at the University of Southern California in 2004, he noticed a lot more hot cars cruising campus. So he and a buddy decided to restart something USC hadn't had in more than a decade: a car club. To attract members, they parked four sweet rides at the foot of the Tommy Trojan statue, hired a DJ and handed out fliers. The result: the Trojan Racing Club quickly swelled to 130 members. By the end of the year, Lifschutz was staging the "Super Sport Auto Show." The only problem was, he spent more time on the show than studying for finals.

For years college students were more interested in laptops than a hot set of wheels. But now, thanks to shows like "Pimp My Ride," movies like "The Fast and the Furious" and videogames like Gran Turismo 4, the campus crowd is once again coveting cars. Last year they spent about $15 billion purchasing 1.5 million cars, according to a Harris 360 Youth Survey. (How can they afford this? Mom and Dad buy a quarter of those autos.) Though schools discourage students from bringing cars, today's applicants view a parking space as nearly as essential as a dorm room; at schools that restrict cars, kids find ways to hide them off campus.

What are they driving? Often it's cars they've raced on a screen. Among the top-five cars on campus, according to J.D. Power, are the Lancer Evo and Subaru Impreza WRX, which are popular in both pixels and pavement. "There used to be this shop-class stigma that people who go to college weren't interested in cars," says Peter MacGillvray, VP of the car-trade group SEMA. Now "students are gearheads."

That highly educated traffic jam, though, is causing parking problems. Many urban schools won't issue parking permits to students. If they do, commuters often have to prove dire need. How to get a sticker at Boston College? "If you live in Rhode Island," says spokesman Reid Oslin. The University of Michigan conducts a lottery for parking passes that run as high as $1,150 a year. Still, Michigan can't keep up. It's building two parking decks in Ann Arbor, with three more on the way.

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But there's an upside to the gridlock: record receipts from tickets. UCLA writes about 700,000 tickets a year, raising nearly $1 million, which it uses to encourage bus ridership. But don't try selling Dave Chang on the bus. "I couldn't imagine not having my car," says the Boston University senior, who has countless parking tickets.

That automotive devotion is driving car companies back to campus. The easiest way to connect is to have your car show up in a music video, as Chrysler's 300C did in 50 Cent's "Poppin' Them Thangs." "When 50 Cent digs your product," says Chrysler marketing executive B. J. Birtwell, "it gives you street cred." But for automakers that aren't that lucky, the buzz is built through "viral marketing." Toyota's Scion car line shows up at clubs near campus with DJs spinning out of the back of a converted Scion xB. Scion's $16,000 tC is No. 1 on campus.

For students who spend more time in the garage than the library, there can be a payoff. There are car-oriented scholarships out there, like those offered by SEMA to students with at least a 2.5 GPA who are planning an automotive career. Lifschutz parlayed his hobby into a summer internship at an auto-marketing firm. On a recent sales call, he got so excited he dropped his camera phone while trying to send pictures of the $555,000 Saleen S7 supercar to his fellow Trojan Racers. "I was like a kid in a candy shop," he says. Or an auto shop. And these days, shop class is going to college.

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