Friday, January 19, 2001

General Motors didn’t listen to the nation’s auto writers when they described the Pontiac Aztec as “ugly” but when buyers stayed away in droves the world’s largest automaker moved quickly.
Only five months since unveiling the Pontiac Aztek, GM has decided to return the sport recreational vehicle to the styling studio for an unusual second-year freshening.
A full sheet-metal change is not planned. A typical freshening could include a new grille, plus changes to the front and rear fascias and other non-sheet metal exterior elements, including the cladding.
Normally a vehicle is not freshened until a vehicle’s third or more years on the market. The clumsy appearance of the Aztek failed to catch on with buyers, and its poor sales record forced GM to take this unusual measure.
Aztek sales totaled only 11,201 units from August through December. This is far short of the target annual rate of 75,000. Ron Zarella, president of General Motors, told the press recently: “We have some ideas on how to improve the styling that we can do very quickly in the short term, simple things that will change some of the perception of the overall styling. There’s a handful of things we will do a little longer term, say in the course of a year. But we think we can sell the Aztek.”
Mr. Zarella refused to discuss specifics.
“When we did the research on Aztek’s styling it was very polarizing, and the question was, ‘Are there enough people who really like it to make it work?’ We’re going to find out,” he claimed.
Aimed at buyers in their 20s, it has failed to appear on buyers’ lists, despite being a major sponsor of the popular “Survivor” TV series last summer and was seen by millions of viewers.
One defender of Aztek’s appearance is Wayne Cherry, a GM vice president and head of design, who calls it a sleeper. “I think once everybody gets tired of piling it on, and as more and more people realize the functionality of the vehicle and its driveability, we’re going to see some real interest in that vehicle. I can say that with an honest face,” Mr. Cherry said.
He identified some things that could be done to the Aztek. “The vehicle itself, because of its uniqueness, does lend itself to doing various things. It could become more utilitarian looking, it could be more of a street machine, sitting lower with bigger wheels and tires, those sort of things,” he continued.
Mr. Cherry might be whistling in the dark because rumors have been floated that he may soon retire partly because of the Aztek’s sales failure. Another backer of the Aztek is Todd Turner who said: “They didn’t miss the mark by much. It got people’s attention. They can de-emphasize the look of the rear end. They can deliver the all-wheel drive they’ve been promising. And they can bring a higher performance version that can build on the sporty character of the vehicle and the Pontiac brand.”
Critics of the Aztek praised the ride and handling of the vehicle and some of its functionality, it is the styling that has come under fire and it may prove more difficult to change the appearance enough to make a difference without making sheet-metal changes.

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