BRAND IN TROUBLE: Aztek's outlook not pretty

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Don Butler doesn't take criticism of the Pontiac Aztek personally. Good thing, because there's been plenty of it-mostly focused on the sport wagon's looks.

But the brand manager of the General Motors Corp. vehicle wishes people would have more appreciation for its concept and its unique (some have said ugly) design. "The execution maybe wasn't right," he conceded.

Sales proved that. The automaker had targeted sales of 60,000 to 70,000 units annually when the Aztek hit showrooms last June. But Pontiac sold a scant 11,201 Azteks last year, according to Automotive News. In the first four months of 2001, Pontiac Aztek sold 11,052 units, which translates to an annual rate of 35,000 units.

"It has not done what we wanted it to do, but we are not giving up on it, especially when we listen to the owners," said Mr. Butler, who moves to exec director of GM's OnStar Virtual Advisor on June 1. He said owners who love the vehicle are starting to spread the word and have formed several clubs on their own.

Aztek shoppers who visited Pontiac dealerships in its early months last year were surprised at its appearance; more than half of them didn't like the vehicle's back end, said Art Spinella, VP of CNW Marketing Research. The other two main reasons they didn't buy one was price (the base price is $21,995) and size-it looked bigger than they thought it would be. CNW surveyed 40,000 Aztek shoppers.

Other consultants have criticized GM for charging too much for Aztek, considering it contains many parts shared with other GM vehicles. It's built on a modified minivan chassis.

GM will alter Aztek's exterior in the 2002 model year; changes could include the grill, body cladding and front fascia, according to Automotive News.

Aztek's ads from Bcom3 Group's D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Troy, Mich., highlighted the versatility of Aztek. One launch TV spot showed the camping package that attaches to the wide rear end. "We're proud of the campaign and how it worked for us," Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Butler challenged Interpublic Group of Cos.' General Motors Mediaworks, Warren, Mich., to find a media property that fit with Aztek's image. GM's dedicated buying agency landed the unknown and unproved "Survivor" show on CBS last summer. Aztek was also a sponsor of this year's "Survivor II."

Spending clearly wasn't at fault for slow sales. The Aztek received $35 million in measured media last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. That's more than $3,000 per car sold.

Things may pick up. Mr. Spinella said with climbing incentives that started on Aztek last November, "It's almost hard [for buyers] not to consider it." He predicted a sales rise when the styling is revised.

Even Mr. Butler was doubtful annual Aztek sales will ever reach 70,000 units, but said, "It will reach a level to be profitable, which is the ultimate measurement of success." He said it's not as if GM's "been burned and won't do anything risky again. You'll continue to see vehicles that continue to stretch limits."

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