IT'S A COMPETITIVE WORLD OUT THERE AND mainstream, high-volume manufacturers like Ford and General Motors make no secret that they're embarking on grass-roots marketing campaigns for their models.
Ford launched its new Focus by taking the vehicle to college campuses and other places where its target audience "hang out." It's now a hot seller. Other manufacturers talk of tapping into the loyalty and enthusiasm for the brand. Is that a nebulous idea for advertising in the modern-era? Perhaps not.
I was one of a few automotive journalists invited to the Michigan Speedway in Brooklyn, nestled in Michigan's scenic Irish Hills, to drive most of Porsche's product lineup on a makeshift road course, which included about half of the 2-mile high-banked oval.
This is the same place where Juan Montoya and Michael Andretti dueled just weeks before. This is the same place that attracts 200,000 screaming fans twice a year when Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and their NASCAR buddies come to town.
The stands were empty and an eerie quiet hung over the facility once owned by megadealer Roger Penske. Engines roaring to life broke the silence and five Porsche dream cars exited pit lane promising their drivers a "Porsche Driving Experience."
It was an experience any car enthusiast would enjoy. Driving some of the most nimble and powerful production vehicles ever engineered in a controlled racetrack environment is awesome.
It's exhilarating to strap yourself into a Boxster, Boxter S and 911 Carrera Cabriolet with the top down and test their (and your own) limits in acceleration, cornering and braking. At 125 mph on the high banks of Michigan, the sound and feel is incredible.
Driving the 419-horsepower 911 Turbo on the oval was another experience altogether at 150 mph. Inside the more-quiet coupe, the higher speed was less intimidating, but you still knew you were "bringing the mail," as my passenger, race driver Dave Donohue, says.
Even standing beside the track as the powerful Turbos zoom by is an experience to behold. They sound like passing jet aircraft.
While very few Porsche owners will get the thrill of driving their cars on even part of a super speedway, more people are getting the "Porsche Driving Experience." One reason is sales are better than ever for these high-end vehicles.
"The economy's good and the cars are good," explains Bob Carlson, manager of motoring press for Porsche Cars North American. "They go hand in hand."
Porsche sold 21,000 cars in the U.S. in 1999. "We'll increase that this year, but not by a double-digit number," says Mr. Carlson. "That's due to our allotment. We're on a 6-7% pace right now."
Jack Spencer, a salesman at Motor Classics in Reno, NV, which sells four or five Porsche's each month, says sales are brisk.
"We sell everything we get. Two-thirds are pre-sold," Mr. Spencer says. "They limit production to maintain the re-sale value. We very seldom ever have a demo."
Porsche says it'll sell more Turbo models next year than any other year in the car's history. Mr. Spencer says they're already selling briskly.
"Turbo is the hottest car in the world right now," he says. "I get calls from people in New York and California looking for Turbos."
Getting this rare opportunity to spend quality time with these amazing machines makes you understand how there can be 140 regional chapters of the Porsche Club of America. The car inspires interest and loyalty. And Porsche is taking advantage of that.
In addition to listing Porsche clubs on its web site, the company puts on the "Porsche Driving Experience" at the Road Atlanta race track. Top drivers like Hurley Haywood teach performance driving, evasive driving and autocross, just to name a few. Each is designed to teach owners how to get the most from their special automobiles.
Tapping into a vehicle's mystique is an effective marketing strategy. Chevrolet does it effectively with Corvette. Saturn does a good job of leveraging the owner loyalty inspired by its sales process.
Surprising as it may seem, there is some intense vehicle loyalty among consumers of even the most utilitarian vehicles. Think of how many Ford and Chevy pickups, for example, have rear window stickers of the cartoon character Calvin, er...well, relieving himself on the competition's logo.
This is the sort of emotion that manufacturers want to harness. Dealers can do it as well. Sponsoring local car shows is one way. Others include hosting race-related exhibits, car club meetings and open houses for owners of a specific model.
All it takes is a little creativity.