Pontiac's Aztek launch isn't so pretty

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Pontiac's all-new Aztek isn't selling as briskly as the General Motors Corp. unit projected.

The size, price and appearance of the controversial all-new Aztek -- which some writers to car enthusiast magazines have called ugly -- are hampering sales, according to a survey in September of new car intenders by consultancy CNW Marketing/Research.

Of the roughly 40,000 intending to buy new cars surveyed by CNW in September, 5.2% had Aztek on their shopping lists, said Art Spinella, CNW VP, and about 31% of those visited a Pontiac showroom to see Aztek. But after their visit, about a third scratched it off their list.

The reasons, according to CNW: 39.5% cited price, 32.4% cited its appearance and 21.4% cited its size.

The prospects who went to showrooms were surprised the minivan-based sport-utility vehicle is as big as it is, Mr. Spinella said. "Somewhere in the advertising, its true size really doesn't come across well." Aztek went on sale in mid-July in the West and Southwest. The base price is $21,995.

The vehicle's national ad campaign from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich., broke May 31 on the CBS hit "Survivor." Aztek was the show's only auto sponsor. Aztek also will sponsor "Survivor II" arriving early next year.

The launch spots are still airing on national cable and broadcast network sports programming. Tag is "Quite possibly the most versatile vehicle on the planet."

Don Butler, Aztek brand manager, said that although Pontiac is launching Aztek at a time when generous incentives are common, Aztek has no sales deals. He said he's surprised to hear Aztek shoppers are turned off because it's too large.

BELOW PROJECTIONS

Pontiac sold 3,755 Azteks in August and September, according to Automotive News. Mr. Butler admitted sales "are a little below initial projections." Earlier this year, Mr. Butler predicted unit sales of between 20,000 and 25,000 for the calendar year, rising to between 65,000 and 75,000 units in 2001 (AA, May 22).

But, he said, Aztek is attracting newcomers to Pontiac showrooms. Nearly 50% of Aztek buyers previously owned another domestic-brand sedan, minivan or SUV. Roughly 27% of Aztek buyers visited Pontiac dealerships specifically to look at the vehicle, he said.

Mr. Butler dubbed Aztek "unlike anything else out there," so it will take time to click with consumers "once positive word of mouth gets out." He's counting on owners to pass the word along, since Pontiac research found 98% of buyers were extremely satisfied with Aztek and would recommend it to a friend.

Buyers also are older than the prime mid-30s the brand is targeting. Mr. Butler said Aztek buyers are in their early-to-mid 40s.

DMB&B is creating two new TV commercials for the all-wheel-drive version of Aztek that follow the launch theme and arrive in the first quarter of 2001, said Annette Lloyd, ad director of Pontiac.

`SURVIVOR' TOUR

Aztek expects to leverage its "Survivor" sponsorship more in 2001 with a promotional tour tied to Pontiac dealers, Mr. Butler said. The tour, still in the planning stages, is trying to sign participants from the original show for appearances. An online link between Aztek and the CBS program is also in the works.

The Aztek's rear end was the most disliked part of the vehicle among showroom-going intenders who cited its appearance as their reason for not buying.

Mr. Butler said most vehicle ads don't show a rear angle unless it's germane to the car or truck. "It wasn't a conscious decision" to show the lift-gate open, he said. Aztek's brand team wanted to show the wide opening, interior roominess and optional camping package.

To gain visibility and spark sales in its hometown market, GM last month let some of its executives drive Azteks around town.

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