LOS ANGELES - Only five months after launching the Pontiac Aztek, an embarrassed General Motors has decided to return it to the styling studio for a highly unusual second-year freshening. But a full sheet metal change is not in the cards.
A freshening typically could include changes to the grille, front and rear fascias and other non-sheet exterior elements, such as cladding. In general, because of the costs involved, they are not undertaken until a vehicle's third year or so on the market.
But the ungainly looking Aztek has been a colossal flop with consumers, pushing GM to take the unusual measure. Sales from August through December totaled only 11,201 units, far short of the targeted annual rate of 75,000.
'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,' said Ron Zarrella, president of General Motors of North America, in an interview in Los Angeles last week.
'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.'
Zarrella declined 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 said.
The Aztek is aimed at buyers in their 20s. Although the vehicle was a major sponsor of the popular 'Survivor' TV series last summer and was seen by millions of viewers, it has failed to appear on buyers' radar screens.
But Wayne Cherry, GM's head of design, thinks the Aztek is 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,' he said.
Cherry 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 said.
Industry analyst Todd Turner of Car Concepts in Thousand Oaks, Calif., agrees that Aztek is not a dead duck.
'They didn't miss the mark by much. It got people's attention,' he said.
'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.'
On another subject, Zarrella said GM is slashing its model count by nearly 40 percent in a bid to reduce marketing costs and eliminate divisional overlap. By 'model,' he specified that GM means body style, such as coupe, sedan, wagon, minivan or whatever.
Zarrella said the plan is to reduce the model count to about 70 by 2004 from about 115. For example, GM produces three front-wheel-drive minivan models but will lose one, the Silhouette, with the end of Oldsmobile.
'The goal is eliminate the overlap between our product lines,' he said, 'and to provide a lot more differentiatation and a lot more consistency with positioning for our divisional brands.'