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Chevrolet pioneered the sport utility vehicle in 1983 with the Blazer. But Chevy and its parent, General Motors Corp., were caught off guard by the rising popularity of SUVs.

In the early '90s, competitors roared past with more sophisticated entries aimed at car buyers switching to trucks. So well before the fall 1994 launch of the '95 Blazer, Bill O'Toole's team at Chevy had rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

With its agency, Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., they hired an anthropologist for in-depth interviews with current Blazer owners.

"It did provide some insight into the psyche of SUV owners," says Mr. O'Toole, 43, then marketing/product planner for the Blazer. They learned that Blazer owners saw their SUVs as providing security in an insecure world.

Blazer ad spending was upped to an estimated $60 million and launched with a new theme, "It's nice to know it's there." TV spots still carried the "Like a rock" tagline, but without Bob Seger's song.

Consumers in focus groups told Chevy their key concerns: ride/handling, power and quality. Since the SUV would be targeted at cross-over car buyers as well as traditional light-truck buyers, the redesigned Blazer offered a choice of suspensions with different ride types. But the new rounded exterior styling is aimed at car buyers, Mr. O'Toole says.

The Blazer SUV garnered 16 awards last year, including 1995 Motor Trend Truck of the Year. In 1996, it's already captured three. Sales jumped to 233,000, up 42% from 1994. Mr. O'Toole says 1996 sales should match last year's.

"We're selling every one we can make," he adds.

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