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Focus Groups - How The Aztek Made It To Production

In the past three years, I've twice been selected to be a member of focus groups concerned with automotive design. The first was a styling evaluation for a full-size sedan. They do not reveal the host manufacturer, but from the model similarities, it was apparent the product being evaluated was a Pontiac. The second focus group was again a GM exercise, but it had to do with pickup trucks.

While most of us attempted to be fair and honest in our comments and evaluations, we were forced into situations like answering the question: "Have you stopped beating your wife?" We were not given a full range of opinions to express.

In the car group, we were shown three or four ugly items, such as wheels, and then told to pick our favorite. There was no option to select "none of the above." The assumption was made that all were good, and they only wanted a consensus to establish which of the ugly is least ugly. To be fair, they did have Dodge, Pontiac, Ford and a couple of Japanese cars of similar size from which to pick the best features of each. These cars had their identifying nameplates covered, but anyone with an interest in cars could easily identify what they were.

The Pontiac was apparently a mockup of the next Grand Prix. I didn't care for it at all, but again we did not have the option to offer that opinion. The opinions we were asked to give were minor and insignificant.

The same situation existed when we were asked to select our favorite truck designs from simple sketches. First was a silhouette of a sleek design similar to a Dakota with a rounded cab back. The next was a semi-boxy design like the current GMs and another was a big ugly hulk they referred to as aggressive. It was fine to that point, but after our first selection, nothing more was offered to define good and bad points of the various designs. They were more concerned with how we wanted the rear seats to be designed in the extended cab and 4-door models.

We were also polled about a new model that appeared to be a full-size copy of the new Explorer 4-door pickup/SUV hybrid. I was among those who were extensively questioned about this concept, and when I told them I didn't like it and would not consider buying one, they tried to change my opinion. I can't think of anything more useless than a 4' box on a truck. I would rather have a large car with a removable trunk lid.

All in all, I don't think GM got their money's worth. We were paid $100 for each event, and most members seemed inclined to hurry through their questionnaire and sign for their check. Nearly all the participants were students, unemployed, or retired, plus a fairly large number of housewives supplementing their grocery budget. Since the events were held during the week, there were few people who could be described as working class or professionals.

If indeed that is how the auto manufacturers make decisions to build cars, it's no wonder hodge-podge designs like the Aztek and Super 8 are created.

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