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Design Lines

Looks Do Matter

Rendezvous and Aztek have same platform, disparate sales


The Aztek was Pontiac's bid to market a crossover that blended the best of the minivan and sport utility vehicle and appealed to younger, active-lifestyle buyers.

The Rendezvous was Buick's bid to market a crossover that blended the best of the minivan and sport utility vehicle and appealed to younger buyers, etc.

Both were built off the same General Motors Corp. platform, shared with the GM minivans.

Pontiac's stylists went for wild, giving the Aztek slab sides, scoops, side cladding in contrasting colors and a sharply angled glass hatch in the back.

Buick's stylists went for restrained luxury, giving the Rendezvous softer, sculpted lines and a smooth rear hatch.

Aztek was roundly cheered by auto reviewers for versatility but fetched a chorus of hisses and boos for its styling.

Rendezvous got good press on both counts.

Now analysts at J.D. Power & Associates have plowed through sales data filed by more than 5,000 new-car dealers in 25 major markets and found that while Rendezvous models typically take about 60 days to sell, Azteks linger on dealers' lots for an average of 120 days. (Good news for would-be Aztek buyers: Dealers pay interest on cars on their lots, so it is cheaper to discount them than to let them hang around. If you can stomach the looks of an Aztek, you usually can get a good deal on one.)

The Rendezvous also sells to a young (for Buick) buyer--the average age is 49--and has helped lower the average age of Buick buyers overall to 56, versus 64 before Rendezvous was introduced a year ago.

By contrast, the average age of an Aztek buyer is 44, and Pontiac's overall average buyer age of 43 is two years older than it was before the Aztek was introduced.

Monthly sales data, according to Power, show that Aztek sales have rarely topped 3,000 units a month since it hit the market two years ago and this year averaged just 2,300 units a month from January through June.

But Rendezvous' monthly sales peaked at 6,491 in December, seven months after the vehicle was introduced, and this year have averaged 5,025 units a month through June.

What a difference design makes.

John O'Dell

GM's Perceived Quality

As General Motors redoubles efforts to improve its reputation in design and quality, the world's No. 1 auto maker is reaching the conclusion that the two go hand in glove.

"We can't disconnect one from the other," said Anne Asensio, GM's executive director of interior design, quality and brand character.

Quality includes customers' perception of workmanship and attention paid to little things, something at which, Asensio said, Volkswagen excels.

"For example, the Passat: They use a hard [plastic dashboard] part, but they create a bevel and it communicates something soft," said Asensio, formerly a senior designer with French auto maker Renault.

Stylists can design in perceived quality with surprising results, she said during a recent presentation on product quality at GM's Technical Center.

At GM, for example, policy calls for door and window seals to be made of premium material, while at VW, at least on the Passat, "they just stick [on] a piece of tape, but with aluminum and grain [texture]" that makes the finished product look quite good, Asensio said.

With material-cost reduction at the forefront of auto makers' minds these days, designing something that enhances a car's looks but is less expensive is win-win.

"Designers say, 'That's cool, fresh and communicates something I've never seen or felt before,' " Asensio said. "But when the designer is doing cost analysis, you have the whole [project] in mind."

Providing quality with less-expensive solutions has to be done just right, however. "If you deliver that in a [Cadillac] Deville, you're dead," Asensio said.

"It's a balance of quality and design. You can have a hot, hot car that is of lower quality, and it can do well," she said of vehicles with unique, striking styling.

She didn't provide any examples, but industry analysts point to cars such as VW's Jetta and the Pontiac Sunfire as less-fancy vehicles that are popular with younger buyers.

But better quality doesn't need to be reserved for high-end products. "When you know how to get [good quality], you can go to a lower segment and it doesn't cost more--you already know how to get it," Asensio said.

Terril Yue Jones

BMW Updates the Z

BMW has released the first photos of its new Z roadster. The new car isn't just an annual model upgrade but sports a completely new body that's longer and wider, giving BMW occasion to update the name--from Z3 to Z4--to call attention to the changes.

The company calls the new BMW Z4 "a modern interpretation of all the classic roadster features" and says the new design uses an "interplay of convex and concave surfaces, hard edges and curves" to create "new transactions of light and shadow from every angle [for] an eye-catching visual character."

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