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GM Will Hold Test-Drive Event to Lure Back Lost Market Share

October 01, 1998|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — General Motors Corp. desperately wants to get back on Southern California consumers' radar screens.

To do so, the nation's No. 1 auto maker is borrowing and expanding a direct-marketing tactic that has been effectively used by several luxury auto makers to expose owners of rival vehicles to their products.

Beginning next Thursday, GM will hold a four-day ride-and-drive event at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Facility in Orange County. The company is inviting thousands of non-GM vehicle owners to test-drive about 50 of its cars and trucks and compare them head-to-head with about 30 products from competitors.

The invitation-only event, called "Auto Show in Motion," is aimed at getting import owners who haven't driven a Chevrolet, Cadillac, Oldsmobile or other GM model for years to give them a try. No dealers will be present, so consumers can put the vehicles through their paces without sales pressure.

"We have disconnected with a generation of car owners," said Phil Guarascio, GM vice president and general manager of marketing and advertising for North American operations. "This is about reconnecting."

The unusual test-drive campaign comes as GM is launching several aggressive marketing initiatives--hefty rebates, cut-rate financing and employee incentives--to regain market share lost because of two costly United Auto Workers strikes during the summer.

GM's market share plunged to 21% in July and August, down about 10 percentage points from the first half of the year. The auto maker needs to regain 30% of the U.S. market quickly or face the prospect of closing plants, laying off workers and discontinuing poor-selling models.

Southern California, a trend setting auto marketplace, is a key battleground for GM. Its market share in the region, where Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords are ubiquitous, is a disappointing 19%.

The problem is that many baby boomers have written off GM because of bad experiences in the 1970s and '80s, when quality was shoddy and look-alike products proliferated. The image of GM's inferiority persists among many consumers even as the company has introduced a new generation of vehicles that compare favorably in quality and design to foreign cars and trucks.

"The perception still lags reality," said Roy Roberts, GM's vice president of sales, service and parts. "This is all about giving customers a chance to live, feel and touch GM products."

Similar test-drive programs have been conducted by BMW, Mercedes-Benz and even Cadillac. But this is the first time one has been attempted on such a broad scale and across the entire vehicle spectrum.

The competitive test drives are a "critical test" for GM, Roberts said, because the company is asking people who have little love for the auto maker to make critical judgments about its products.

The Southern California event is the third in a series of pilot programs that began in Denver in July and continued in Washington last month. GM says that early results are promising and that the program probably will be expanded to 50 cities nationwide.

In Denver, where GM has a 26% market share, about 5,000 consumers took 15,000 test drives. More than 80% of participants said afterward that they were more likely to buy a GM vehicle, and 86% had a more positive feeling about GM's quality, safety, styling and handling, according to the company's surveys.

Last month in Washington, where GM has a 21.5% market share, nearly 7,000 people took 23,000 test drives. GM targeted consumers from Maryland and Virginia who owned non-GM cars, either domestic or foreign, or owned a 5-year-old GM model that was likely to be replaced soon.

The test drives are set up on seven test tracks spread over 1.2 million square feet--about the size of 22 football fields--designed to provide real-world driving conditions. GM also displays most of its vehicles under two large tents, where consumers can view safety and technology exhibits.

The Washington event attracted Ken Barnes, a onetime Buick owner who abandoned GM in the late 1980s after repeated breakdowns. He now owns two Subarus.

But Barnes, a retired government worker from Kingston, Va., is willing to give GM another look. He came away impressed with the new Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle and the Oldsmobile Aurora luxury sedan.

"It's nice to be able to look without the pressure of a salesman," he said.

Another participant was Kenneth Brown, a Bell Atlantic employee looking to replace his Ford Explorer. A former Toyota and Honda owner, he now is partial to sport-utility vehicles. He test-drove the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, as well as the Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

"They did well head-to-head," he said. "What I buy depends on who gives me the best price."

GM officials acknowledge that such direct-marketing programs are costly--each event costs well in excess of $1 million--and their ultimate success can be judged only by increased sales.

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