Friday, January 11, 2013


I would love to observe a modern vehicle-planning consumer clinic. Not necessarily be involved in one: I think I'd rather just sit back and see what happens in the course of one of these events with a group of more mainstream people. (Besides, I'm not sure how valid my answers would be to most companies once they understand that my idea of the perfect car mostly relates to small-displacement roadracers from the Sixties and early Seventies.)

Photo: jfhweb
No, it would be fascinating to just watch both sides at work and try to parse the underlying intentions. The responses from the attendees would be intriguing, of course, with their views on what a car or small truck or crossover or [insert marketing term here] is supposed to be in the modern world, but the questions and guidance from the automakers would maybe be more illuminating. What do they want to know? How are things presented, and how might that lead to certain responses?

Is it a checklist of "Should we include this?" and "Would you like to see more of that?"? Is there ever an opportunity to say, "Is there really too much of something here?"? Do they ever try to get into the more metaphysical end of things, with ideas about how a car should feel? You set up a question a certain way and you can direct responses towards a certain result, even if it's a superficially neutral question.

Not to sell the preferences and viewpoints of the attendees short, though. It'd be great to get a read on the state of modern consumer consideration, especially to see if there's still any ripples of liveliness present. Has anyone ever really leaned forward during the discussion and said, "Y'know, what I really want is a brand-new version of my Integra GS-R/'90 325is/Cherokee Sport/240SX with as few changes as possible"? I hope so, although I worry that such an idealistic voice would be drowned out by those clamoring for self-driving maxi-crossovers with child-amusement/detention centers in the back.


If I could be on the org side and set up a consumer focus group (I'm sure there's some official statspeak name for these attendees, but if I've ever heard it I blocked it out) I'd like to try to do one with one specific group trait: people who had at some point owned Honda Civics made between about 1986 and 1995.

Photo: Honda
It's fun to talk with people who had one of those about their experiences, especially if they are not what anyone would call a gearhead. They sometimes get this weird happy look in their eyes, like they're remembering a great vacation or a really wonderfully intense relationship that just couldn't last. "Oh, that thing was so great. It'd cruise all day at 80 like nothing and got forty miles to the gallon and was just so nice...." Drift off to silence of fond memories.

"Nice" in this case can probably be best interpreted as being very close to "enjoyable to drive." No one ever said that their 1980s Oldsmobile inherited from a great-aunt was "nice," regardless of how cushy or feature-filled it was. Important thing: Those Civics were not bought because Honda was busy dominating Formula 1 or because they had charmed every grumpy auto writer on the planet into a state of giddy partisanship. They were just great small cars that were deceptively simple (not many parts, each profoundly well-engineered) and had a significant degree of fun - direct controls, nimble responses, eager motors - built in without much ado. Most people bought a Civic from that era because it was reliable and practical and sensible, but there was always another side to it: it always acted like a mostly dutiful Buddhist monk novitiate who constantly wanted to go outside and play soccer.

Maybe they should have pressed the fun factor a bit more; maybe more people would have realized what it was about and kept asking for it when someone needed to know later on. Especially if that someone was Honda itself.

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