- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 2004

Automakers spend a great deal of time and money trying to establish a connection with their customers in order to figure out what features they need in their vehicles to accommodate buyers’ priorities. The industry uses a range of tools, including focus groups, market research, Web site eavesdropping and hanging out at the beach. They do it with the goal of taking some of the gamble out of building a new car or truck.

In 1998 when Honda began developing the Model X concept, which became the Element, its engineers slept on Southern California beaches and visited fraternity houses to find out what features the “Gen Y” males they were targeting needed to accommodate their active lifestyles.

In developing the new 2004 Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey, Ford engineers donned suits that simulated pregnancy and aging to better understand the priorities of these customers.

When Toyota was beginning to develop its Lexus luxury brand back in 1985, the company sent a team of Japanese engineers and designers to immerse themselves in American culture by living in a house overlooking the ocean in upscale Laguna Beach.

To you and me it may sound like a clever way to get an all-expense paid vacation or party time on the beach, but automakers call it product development. While much of development starts with engineering, consumer research is not ignored.

When Ford was researching what would become the new Five Hundred and Mercury Montego, they found that more than two-thirds of consumers surveyed said they were either “very interested” or “interested” in a sedan with all-wheel drive as an option.

In one Ford customer panel several years ago, parents said they wanted to be able to more easily reach small children in the back seat. That led to a center section of the second row that slides forward on the Ford Expedition and Volvo XC90.

When Chrysler began investigating ways to make its minivans more competitive, it found that some parents liked the idea of second-row seats that would fold into the floor just as third-row seats do.

That led to an innovative system on the 2005 minivans called Stow’n Go in which the second- and third-row seats can either be used or made to disappear into the floor.

The newly redesigned 2005 Honda Odyssey has what Honda calls a “Plus One” seat in the middle of the second row, turning the Odyssey from a seven- to an eight-passenger vehicle. It started with comments from customers when Honda introduced its Pilot sport utility, said Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager, product planning, American Honda.

“Our customers said, that’s great, but the Odyssey is the minivan. That should have the most people-carrying capability. They were right,” he said.

Automakers also do some eavesdropping to find out what people really want, compared to what they say they want.

Scion executives visit independent Internet chat sites, “when we want to listen fairly anonymously to what consumers are saying freely in their own space,” said Brian Bolain, national sales promotions manager for Scion. “It’s such a great window for us because it’s honest,” he said.

In addition to doing their own research, automakers can purchase research to learn how satisfied customers are with the features and technology they are offering.

One is the J.D. Power and Associates study on satisfaction with rear-seat entertainment systems. The 2004 study showed that systems that had the DVD changer located in hard-to-reach areas, such as the cargo area or the trunk had the lowest ratings. Also rating low are single DVD players.

The problem is that it is difficult or impossible for parents to change a DVD to appease a small child without stopping the car, said Mike Marshall, manager of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates. All the different types of research and probing of consumers’ desires shows how desperately competitive the auto industry has become, according to analysts.

In a market that is crowded with new products, manufacturers are trying hard to break through and stand out in everything from functionality to technology, said Susan Jacobs, president of Jacobs & Associates.

None of the features from a supplier is exclusive — or exclusive for long — and automakers are quick to adapt successful features from competitors.

While that may drive auto-industry executives just a little bit crazy, it’s a great deal for consumers.

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