,At the 2001 Detroit Auto Show, GM's Buick division unveiled the Bengal, its latest concept car. It was a stirring creation - a two-tone metallic-blue convertible roadster that reeked of power and dash. It looked fast. It was sexy. And in many ways (many of them good), it was strikingly unBuicklike.
The average age of people who buy Buicks is 62. The problem is, if you sell to them for too long, you can become overly cautious. You can start to think that those older people don't like change. So you never change, because it's too risky.
And so, the challenge: If Buick changes too much, its older customers might start buying Lincolns. But if the company never changes, it takes the risk that the fortysomethings that now buy BMWs won't graduate to Buicks in their 60s.
Dave Lyon thinks a lot about this dilemma. He is chief designer at the Buick Brand Center. It is his job to change the way that Buick imagines the future of its cars. The Bengal was his design.
"This used to be a very risk-averse place," says Lyon. "Car design was determined in focus groups. ... The idea was to take the risk out of the decision - just do what the customer wanted.
"But in focus groups, people seem to be more conservative than they really are. I think that people are more open-minded than we give them credit for. So instead of designing cars in focus groups, we've started using concept vehicles as a way to show where and how we can take risks. We take the car to auto shows, where people are tuned to think with an open mind. Then we come back with a strong public reaction - and in a much stronger position to negotiate.
"That's where the Bengal came from, and the LaCrosse [a futuristic, four-seat sedan] before that. We said, maybe we could make a vehicle that is dramatic enough to be noticed by younger people and that still appeals to older customers."