GRAZ, Austria - General Motors wants to lure younger buyers for the new Astra with an advanced design and better value.
GM aims to re-position the Astra as more sophisticated, with better quality and driveability and more technology than its predecessor, said Manfred Schroeder, assistant brand manager for Astra.
Sales of at least 1 million units worldwide are targeted by 2000. GM marketing executives say that styling is the key to increasing sales. The new Astra has a more dramatic look than the new Volkswagen Golf but not as radical as the Ford Focus that will replace the Escort.
'This brings excitement into the segment,' said Christian Gruppe, Adam Opel board member for sales and marketing. 'We've really differentiated ourselves in exterior styling. It was a very deliberate decision to lure younger buyers with a more exciting three-door.'
Gruppe said the five-door version of the outgoing Astra appealed mainly to buyers in their late 40s. The Astra station wagon - still the leader in its segment in Germany - appeals to families.
GM still expects half of Astra sales to be station wagons. But it hopes to lure younger buyers from the Corsa supermini into the three-door Astra, which was designed to look like a coupe.
GM is also betting on pricing.
In Germany, the Astra's biggest market, the average cost of options offered as standard is DM3,000 ($1,650). Astras sold in Germany come with side airbags, a new suspension, four disc brakes, power-steering, a galvanized body with a 12-year warranty, and colored bumpers.
All of western Europe will get the body color bumpers except the UK, where fleet sales are high and a more functional bumper is demanded, said Schroeder. Bumpers in the UK will be half black. GM says it is an example of how the Astra brand team is targeting individual markets with features.
Airbags will be an option in Italy, where they are less in demand than Germany. But ABS will be standard.
In Spain, where airbags are normally optional, GM will offer standard driver and passenger bags, but the side bag will be an option.
Tailoring features for markets is an attempt 'to give the customer more than he expects,' without the expense of a fully equipped car throughout Europe, said Schroeder.
The sales battle in Germany will be intense. The market-leading Volkswagen Golf has a loyalty rate of 65-70 percent, according to Gruppe.
'We are No. 2 but we are getting stronger,' said Gruppe. 'I would like them to feel us breathing on their necks.'
GM spent DM4.1 billion ($2.2 billion) on the Astra, with DM 1.5 billion for development and the rest for factory tooling and refurbishing.
Development took 40 months for three versions of the basic platform, said Peter Hanenberger, head of product development for GM International Operations. Several months were added to the development cycle because GM focused heavily on production quality, said Hanenberger.
Astra will have at least seven body styles. Three- and five-door models and the station wagon will go on sale on 20 March. The four-door follows later this year and the Zafira minivan next January.
Gruppe said demand is strong. GM received 50,000 orders in Germany before prices were announced to dealers in January. The launch of the Zafira was delayed because production of each minivan takes about twice as along as the other versions, and GM wanted to keep up with demand.
Coupe and convertible versions will arrive in late 1999. They were designed by Bertone and will be built at Bertone's factory near Turin.
'They will do a lot for image and profits,' said Gruppe.
GM tried a new marketing approach with the Astra. Beginning last September at the Frankfurt show, advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi talked with potential buyers and began a direct mail campaign.
Formal advertising was launched on 10 March with a teaser campaign across Europe touting the car's 'excitement and driveability,' said Gruppe.
'We are taking a different approach than Golf and showing the sheer excitement of Astra,' he said.
The Zafira will be marketed as a sign of Opel's creativity. Advertising will focus on the seven-seat configuration that can easily be turned into five seats or less.
'This is the major reason for giving the vehicle a separate name and identity,' said Gruppe. 'If Astra represents Opel quality and excitement, then Zafira stands for creativity.'
The new coupe will be marketed as a sports car like the Calibra, the Vectra-based coupe that was discontinued last year. GM gave a sneak preview of the coupe at its Geneva show press conference.