DETROIT - Pontiac and Dodge - which traditionally have chased the same performance-minded customers - are adopting sharply different strategies in the shrinking market for cars.
Dodge is underscoring its performance image by developing a lineup of souped-up R/T models. The Dodge Viper - winner of two international racing championships last year - remains the division's halo car.
'I can envision a day R/Ts could be the focus of our brand spots,' said Jim Julow, general manager of Dodge, during an interview with Automotive News. 'It's a little premature now. Obviously, we don't have a wide enough range.'
Meanwhile, Pontiac quietly is moving away from the boy-racer mind-set. The division is betting that young motorists will prefer versatile sport wagons, such as the Aztek concept car it unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month.
General Motors insiders hint that the Aztek is a precursor to a sport wagon to be introduced within a few years.
The auto show also featured a Pontiac GTO concept, which recalled the division's muscle-car heritage. But Marketing General Manager Lynn Myers said the Aztek offers a better forecast of Pontiac's future direction.
'People want more versatility in their vehicles,' Myers said. 'Muscle cars don't have as much versatility and function. We have to address these needs.'
GM planners are serious about the Aztek because they are convinced that sport wagons - vehicles with light-truck looks built on car platforms - are the next big thing. Sometime in the next decade, company executives predict, demand for sport wagons could range from 1 million to 1.5 million vehicles a year.
That would represent a huge market shift at a time when car sales remain stagnant in the face of booming demand for trucks.
To anticipate that shift, GM designed a vehicle with removable rear seats and a low floor for maximum cargo storage. With the seats out, the Aztek boasts 105 cubic feet of storage space, big enough to hold a 4-by-8 plywood sheet. For access to cargo, the Aztek is equipped with a rear liftgate and tailgate.
The vehicle comes equipped with a tow hitch. To underline the Aztek's role in the motorist's lifestyle, Pontiac released photographs of the vehicle towing a jet ski on a trailer.
With its versatility and edgy styling, the Aztek 'is like a piece of athletic equipment,' said Jay Houghton, a consultant who helped form Pontiac's marketing strategy in the 1980s for D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles
'It fits with the customer's sporty lifestyle, like jet skis, or snow skis or a softball bat.' Houghton is automotive marketing manager for A.T. Kearney Inc., based in Southfield, Mich.
Pontiac's image makeover comes at a time of record GMC truck sales and soft car sales.
Last year, Pontiac sold 477,421 cars, down 14.2 percent. For comparison, GM's overall car sales declined 8.6 percent.
Pontiac believes it cannot stand pat. Sales of its image leader, the Firebird, fell from 58,493 in 1988 to 31,692 last year, part of a long-term decline in the sporty-car segment.
Spotty sales have fueled persistent rumors that GM will kill the Firebird and Chevrolet Camaro early in the next decade. Even if that happens, Pontiac will not disown its performance heritage entirely.
During the 1998 Specialty Equipment Market Association convention in Las Vegas, the division unveiled souped-up versions of the Grand Am, Grand Prix and Firebird.
Despite Pontiac's presence at SEMA, senior GM executives emphasize the need for a new strategy. In a speech this month during the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit, Ron Zarrella, president of GM North America, summarized GM's market research.
'There are many customers who are leaving the sport car segments looking for something more functional,' he said. 'We've identified crossover needs for people and cargo that fall somewhere between the functionality of a van and the off-road dynamics of a sport-utility.'
While Pontiac shapes a new image, Dodge is doubling its bet as DaimlerChrysler AG's performance division.
As Dodge rolls out more R/T versions of its cars and trucks, the focus of Dodge brand advertising will shift to these high-performance models.
Dodge unveiled a new Intrepid R/T model and a redesigned Neon R/T model during the Detroit auto show.
Julow, 45, took over at Dodge May 1 last year, replacing Raymond Fisher. Dodge ended the year with record sales of 1,442,777, up 16.9 percent over 1997. The Dodge Ram and Dakota pickups set individual sales records during 1998. But Dodge car sales fell 3.4 percent last year.
The Dodge stable of R/T cars and trucks is growing with the Intrepid R/T. It will arrive in summer 2000 as a 2001 model. R/T versions of the Caravan minivan and the Stratus mid-sized sedan are being considered.
Dodge currently fields three vehicles with the R/T badge - the Viper R/T 10 roadster, the Dakota R/T pickup, and the 1999 Neon R/T. A redesigned Neon R/T, based on the redesigned 2000 Neon, goes on sale in spring 2000.
R/T models provide greater horsepower, sportier ride and handling, more powerful brakes and different looks from the vehicles they are based on, Julow said.
Yet they must be affordable and meet everyday needs, he said. That is, a sedan still needs to carry five passengers and a pickup truck still needs to tow and haul.
Meanwhile, Dodge will continue to use the familiar 'The New Dodge' brand campaign, Julow said.
'The reality of it is, it's still working,' he said. Dodge's oldest product is the Viper, now 6 years old.
Said Julow: 'If your oldest product is 6 years old, that's a fairly vital, new brand, and I think we'll continue to use ('The New Dodge') as long as the product makes it credible to the customer.'