~ Anne deVille and Lloyd Kinnett and their Pontiac Solstice sports cars. The couple met online at Solsticeforum.com. ~
Automakers hope love for car equals love for brand
For Anne deVille and Lloyd Kinnett, it was love at first sight.
No, not for each other. They did fall in love, but that process took a few weeks. Rather, their hearts pitter-pattered from the start for the Pontiac Solstice.
It was the new little sports car that led them to meet, online through a website devoted to Solstice. And the car — they each have one — has propelled their social lives ever since.
"People stop you and want to know all about the car," says deVille, 48, a medical receptionist from Homewood, Ala. "I've met so many new friends."
For deVille, Kinnett and thousands of others, the Solstice isn't just a car. It's a must-have. A 177-horsepower fun machine. An emotional statement on wheels.
Solstice is, in auto-industry speak, a "halo car."
It's one of those rare models that can draw a halo around a brand, bringing into showrooms potential buyers who, ultimately, may drive off in a totally different vehicle from the same nameplate.
Halo cars are hot and sexy. They generate buzz even before they go on sale. They often pack a wallop under the hood. They may echo hallowed automotive names or conjure up happier days.
"It has to have meaning, and it has to be beyond cool, timeless in its appeal," says Ford Motor's design chief, J Mays.
Most of all, halos have drop-dead good looks capable of stopping traffic. They are the cars for which "kids would drag their moms out of grocery stores" for a peek, says General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz. Almost always, would-be owners have to endure waiting lists to get one.
By now, just about every brand has produced a model with the magic touch. The New Beetle revived a fading Volkswagen. Miata sexed up Mazda. Viper ravaged pavement for Dodge.
But the halo is no recent creation. Just ask anyone who bought a Corvette in the '50s or a Mustang in the '60s.
Automakers test out their best halo ideas by introducing candidates as concept cars at auto shows. Jaw-droppers get built. Yawners don't.
Not all halos succeed. Chevrolet never scored with its SSR nostalgia pickup. Ford's Thunderbird redux saw so-so sales. Pontiac's latest GTO became a fallen angel when it failed to quicken younger buyers' pulses.
Yet, there's no stopping the search for the next big halo. Officially, GM is weighing whether to build a splashy new version of the Chevrolet Camaro that was the hit of Detroit's North American International Auto Show in January. The outlook appears bright. Similarly, DaimlerChrysler is deliberating over whether to let loose with Dodge Challenger, another 1960s throwback.
If Camaro and Challenger are put into production, the goal will be to project a golden glow on the whole lineup. Witness Nissan, which plays on the mystique around its Z line of sports cars — the latest incarnation being the 350Z — to hawk everything from Sentra compacts to Quest minivans. "We want people to think there's a little Z in everything," says Vice President Robert Bradshaw.
In the '60s, Ford Motor's Cougar became such a hit that the single model became the advertising hook for every Mercury dealership. Buyers were urged to visit "the sign of the cat."
A successful halo car "brings in looky-loos and serious buyers alike, people who would never otherwise come there," says Gordon Wangers, an auto industry marketing consultant. They "generate word of mouth, excitement and buzz ... for the whole line."
That's what Solstice is doing for Pontiac. In the first three months of the year, the one car alone accounted for nearly half of all visits to Pontiac dealers. For a brand that has had trouble attracting younger buyers, the average age of showroom visitors coming to see Solstice is 41. Before the car arrived, the average age was 54.
"Just to get somebody under 50 to go into a Pontiac showroom is a feat all by itself," says Art Spinella of CNW Marketing, which tracks car-buying shopping trends.
There's no magic elixir to creating a successful halo. It's usually a concoction of several ingredients:
Retro rules. Almost all the recent halo cars have been updated versions of classics. Solstice is an exception.
Almost invariably, designers reach back to the single decade that's a touchstone for today's wealthy boomers — the 1960s. BMW's Mini, the latest version of Mustang and, if they are built, Camaro and Challenger all fit the mold.
"Every good halo car has its roots in the '60s," says Ford's Mays. It's not just looks, he says, but rather being born of "rebellious times" with bold styling.
Halos often rack up the ponies. Chrysler considers its SRT line of muscle cars, such as the 425-horsepower Dodge Charger SRT8, as halos. "The car sells itself," says Steve Bartoli, a Chrysler vice president. "When you're at a ****tail party on a Friday night, you start talking about it."
A big engine can't guarantee success, but lack of one can sometimes lead to failure. Wangers thinks Chevy's SSR and Ford's T-Bird both suffered from lack of a powerful engine. The SSR later got one, but it was too late.
Lutz disagrees. He says the problem with SSR wasn't power but price, close to $40,000. Mays says T-Bird isn't given credit for being one of the biggest-selling two-seaters ever made.
Some of the most talked about halo cars are hardly ever seen. They're produced in limited numbers, priced high or both. Ford is building only about 4,000 GTs, a $149,995 LeMans-type racing car that Mays calls "a pace car for the entire company." Only half have been sold, and production ends this year.
Likewise, Honda's Acura division sold only 8,981 of its $89,000 NSXs over 15 years. Yet, the car accomplished all that Acura wanted. Reaction was "nothing short of astronomical" when the car was introduced in 1990, says spokesman Kurt Antonius.
Though production ended last year, Honda plans to reintroduce NSX with a 10-cylinder engine instead of a V-6.
Limited production inevitably leads to shortages, enhancing a halo car's desirability. The wait for Solstice has been at least three months. Though regular Mustangs are available, Ford's 3,854 dealers are expected to be allotted only an average one to three of the Shelby GT500 version in its first year of production, spokesman John Clinard says. Mini buyers are experiencing waits of three to six months for delivery.
Toyota is already seeing two-month waits for its FJ Cruiser that went on sale in March. The FJ echoes the rugged, off-road Land Cruiser of the 1960s.
Some debate whether Toyota's hybrid Prius would qualify as halo, too. It's been in short supply, has a devoted following among a clutch of Hollywood celebrities, has a distinctive look, and casts an environmentalist glow over the automaker's line. But unlike many halo cars, it's produced in large numbers, having become Toyota's third-most popular car model.
Limited production and shortages mean that halos often do little to fatten an automaker's profits. With a base list price of $20,490 and production sold out through the 2006 model year, Solstice can't salvage GM's battered bottom line. But profits aren't the goal. Image is. Solstice aims to erase the impression of GM as a purveyor of dull cars and gas-slurping monster SUVs.
Lutz calls halos "shock therapy" for a brand. Sure, building cars in low volumes can be costly. But even if they only break even, a halo will grace magazine covers and become a "mobile billboard" as buyers snap them up. The investment is more worthwhile than advertising, he says.
To stand out, halos need edgy, even polarizing looks. Consider Chrysler's PT Cruiser. Some love it. Others hate it. The goal for designers is to push limits without overstepping. "You can be too far in front of consumer taste," says John Barker, president of DZP Marketing Communications, a New York ad agency.
Some consumers are happy to let others wear the halo. "A lot of people like to look at (halo) cars, but not everyone wants to own one," says Jack Nerad of Kelley Blue Book and former editor of Motor Trend,
which puts a halo car on the cover of virtually every issue. "They do not want to call attention to themselves."
Not deVille. Having lost a husband to cancer four years ago, deVille says she was ready to step out again and spice up her life. "I had a Pontiac Vibe, and all I could think of was loading my husband's wheelchair in the car," she says.
She and her late husband had always dreamed of owning a BMW sports car, so when the Solstice came along, "it just turned my life around."
Kinnett, too, was ready. "I just fell in love with the look" of the Solstice, says the 37-year-old electronics technician. "It was just drop-dead sexy gorgeous."
They met online at Solsticeforum.com after she messaged him to say how much she admired a video he had put together of owners having fun at a rally. She was attracted by the song it featured, Soulshine
by Warren Haynes.
Kinnett and deVille met on Super Bowl Sunday. And met again and again. Now, their silver Solstices grace the driveway of the home they share.
They picked out her engagement ring a couple of weeks ago.
It's true love, they say. Thanks to Solstice.
Source: USA Today
Posted 6/19/2006 12:38 AM ET
by Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY