Automakers spend millions on qualitative market research, but few outside the industry really know what goes on inside one of their secretive new-model focus groups (sorry, automotive review sessions). Only those who've made it past the byzantine approval process know for sure. According to one reader, stories of marathon Ouija board sessions, cocktails spiked with brainwave-synchronization drugs and presentations by radical bodypart modification artists appear to be the fabrications of an overactive mind, but that doesn't mean the sessions are any less fun. (Well, maybe a little less fun.) You do see new car models before practically anyone else in the world, and even walk off with a few bucks. Read that reader's account of a recent, pre-market consumer review of the 2007 Ford Edge crossover in Los Angeles.
I was invited to an automotive review session at the Los Angeles Convention Center over the weekend. A month or so ago a letter came and cryptically let me know what might go on. I would be looking at models of a vehicle(s) that might at some point be for sale in the US and offering my opinions. The letter referenced my current wheels (an 03 4Runner) and said I would definitely NOT be getting sales-pitched whilst I was there, but I would get $125. Other than a note to bring my driver's license, dress in comfortable shoes and not bring my camera phone or children, that was it.
I was intrigued. The marketing of cars and brands is very interesting to me so I ran through all the possibilities in my mind. Would I get to drive the vehicles? What kind of vehicles would I get to look at? Maybe manly SUVs because they picked me out of the 4Runner pile. For a moment I hoped for a look at the new Toyota FJ, but that is not close enough to production, is it?
The day arrived and I headed downtown. Largely deserted Conv Center the place where the LA Auto Show will be held in just a few weeks. In the parking structure I saw several Nissans parked close to the entrance including an electric (plug-in style) wagon called the Nissan Altura. Hmm. Did this mean I would be looking at Nismo s finest?
Upstairs, I have never been in the Conv center so empty only two or three people inside the massive atrium. This space is often used on film shoots to double as an airport terminal or the interior of an auto show-room. I followed some signs to a much smaller side room where I signed in.
They did not search me for a camera phone, but I signed wavers to not take pictures. This was run by a research group called Gfk, all of whom were quite nice and professional. Nothing on the forms I signed said I couldn t write an email to my friends at Jalopnik. I went inside and ...
They gave me a tablet computer device - preloaded with the questions. There were fabric walls behind which were some cars. I was lead to one of two curtained off areas by one of the staff. They said to try and answer the questions with my first impression and NOT ponder and try to figure out what they were after - which is exactly what I did anyhow.
I was lead into a space with five crossover SUVS - all with their logos blacked out. They were Nissan Murano, Toyota Highlander, That Subaru thing with the vagina snout (tribea?), a fugly Pontiac Torrent and the mystery guest. It was clear that this fifth model was the main point of the exercise, but I was guided to start taking the survey so my attention was drawn elsewhere.
I started with the Murano and answered all these questions about the exterior: general impressions, no general impressions when standing at the rear, now from the side, the front, etc. I entered my 1-to-10 opinions onto the tablet and it took me to the next angle. It also asked for some specific views of the tail-pipes, or the fog lamps. Then back to the general opinions again- like maybe me looking at the rear spoiler in detail would lead me to grade the overall side view differently. Maybe it did, maybe it didn t. I am not sure if my scores changed I didn t think it through that much. I hope they don t put too much stock into those kind of things, because they would be reading WAY too much into it. I was answering as quickly as possible and then moving on.
I went around to all five of the vehicles, and there were other survey participants doing the same thing. The crowd seemed a good cross-section of LA - possibly skewed female. One person was either a taller version of Prince or a transvestite. That is great a sample right there - getting a tranny s views on cross-overs. Sweet.
After a general view of all of the rides I had a better look at the mystery vehicle. It was actually very well designed from the outside. It was smooth and flowing like a shrunk down Porsche Cayenne. I do not think the Cayenne is as horrific as some do and this was a great-looking cross-over. The grille was a three bar deal like the new Fusion, so I knew this must be a Ford and not the plain-Jane Freestyle. (After I got home I found this article that references the vehicle I saw).
I had a chance to chat with some of the other people taking the survey and none of them knew what make the vehicles were - other than the woman who owns a Murano. Another woman was a Honda Pilot driver. We all seemed to agree that the mystery guest (Ford) looked great.
Now we went back around the five vehicles and sat inside. A study worker asked us questions and typed the answers into our tablet computer thingies. The Subaru dash is very pretty, but is sucked up lots of interior room. The Nissan was sleek and clean like a mid-century house. The Pontiac was a pile of junk. The Toyota was fine, but the wood-grain stuff was hideous. The plastics were so cheap, they had molding flashings were the seams were. Yuk. The interiors were all maxed out - leather, DVD, third row when available. The power was off so we gave our opinions on the way the seats move and the look of the seats and headroom. No chance to examine the nav systems or listen to the stereos. The Ford was last.
After sitting inside both the drivers and rear seat we loaded a small suitcase into the hatchbacks and commented on the cargo interior while the survey people diligently entered our 1-to-10 scores. The vehicles with a third row seat had the vestigal row folded away - but that still left the back area cluttered and visually messy. Both the Subaru and the Pontiac had particularly over-wrought cargo areas with crevices and crannies and a variety of hooks and platforms. Maybe that stuff is useful, but much of it looked flimsy and likely to be in the way.
Inside the Ford, it was all clearly a mock-up. The buttons on the HVAC and wheel stereo controls were stolen from other vehicles and the glove box actually had dust inside. Probably from sanding on foam to make the mocked up interior. The other vehicles were all brand new and clean. The Ford exterior looked 100% completed but the interior was just not finished. The seats were leather, but the surfaces were wrinkled and uneven - pure prototype. The ford we saw did not have a third row option but it did have a large moonroof over the front seat and a smaller, fixed pane of glass over the rear. The interior was so-so but I would wait to see the final product. The Ford s deep metallic grey (pewter?) exterior was really nice. The surveys on all the vehicles asked us what we though about the flexibility of the center console and the moon-roof. Clearly Ford sees these as selling points on this vehicle.
Then I was sat down to go over the vehicles and which one I would buy. First we ranked them, then they showed us a chart that had the specs and manufacturers and asked us to rank them in our order of preference. I put the Murano first, Then the Toyota and then the Ford. I am NOT into American vehicles - largely due to reliability issues. The Ford looked good, but I would still not put it ahead of the other models (which is prejudiced, I know). The spec sheet said the Ford had a 3.6L V6, AWD and a 6-speed auto (which compared favorably to all the other vehicles. Then they showed us another spec sheet that had prices and we were asked to rank them again. My opinion did not change. I am not sure, but it seemed to me that the prices on the Nissan and Toyota were low - they might have been from a non-loaded, non-leather and nav Murano and Highlander, or I could be mistaken. The Ford compared favorably in all accounts, except my own anti-Detroit bias. BTW the survey people never let on that this was Ford sponsored survey.
After this, I was sent to the other curtained room where I saw five more de-logoed SUV/cross-overs. This time they were all luxury models. Acura MDX, Infiniti FX, Cadillac, Lexus RX and the same Ford but now wigged out with (what I would assume was) Lincoln trim. This was NOT so nice. I was to look at just the Ford/Lincoln, and only in general at the exterior.
The Lincoln version had two tone paint - dark down low and that ugly yellowish-cream color that luxo makers like. I m guessing old people buy that color, because I never would. The clean, bold grill of the ford was replaced by a messy super-shiny mesh with flourishes and doo-dads. Perhaps this was the Who-ville option package. The simple and open rims of the Ford were now bright-chrome and fussy. The tail end had a plastic red bar that went all the way across the back making a mono-brow tail-light unit. The Ford version may be more thought out since they are not as far along with the Lincoln iteration. That had better be the case since the Ford was ten times better. The Ford (the color helped) looked like it was carved from a single block of steel, the Lincoln was a hodgepodge of wanna-be upscale design cues.
We then say down and looked at rim choices (which was odd). Then they asked us if we would want the rims more if they were some alloy/cladding combo that was corrosion resistant. That question must be for people that live where rust is an issue. We looked at photos of things like watches and cell phones and rated which of these matched our style. Lots of questions. I was ready to go. This was about 1.5 hours into the survey.
Then our computers showed us charts of the five manufacturers with prices and rebate amounts and we were asked to pick one. A 35k Subaru versus a 36k Nissan with $1000 back or a 34k Ford with $500 back. Then again with different prices and cashback amounts. No reference to what models or features - just manufacturer, price and rebate amount. Seriously, how was I to judge? Was this a loaded Ford versus a stripped down Toyota for the same price? Vice versa? Just click the answer so I can go and see King Kong. There must have been fifteen of these questions and I ended up just picking the Nissan or the Toyota without really thinking about it. They got some shady data from me on that one, let s hope they don t read too much into it.
It was an interesting experience overall. They seemed focused on a handful of things on the Ford. The storage bin in the center, the moon-roof and the cashback financing stuff. Does this mean Ford is planning on starting this vehicle out with rebates? That doesn t sound good.
The performance specs on the Ford looked good. Nice HP and AWD is good for me. A 6-speed auto also seems appropriately high tech. The interior is key, but that was not done yet. I got my $125, turned in my tablet computer and headed home.
Ford Releases Advance Image of 2007 Edge Crossover [internal]