Dudder: 867-5309*

I was reading a copy of Forbes the other day when I ran across a piece on Ford highlighting the 2006 Fusion.

I was reading a copy of Forbes the other day when I ran across a piece on Ford highlighting the 2006 Fusion. Imagine my surprise when I read the first paragraph of the piece and saw the buyer Ford targeted for the car was a young woman in her 30s named "Jennifer." Could this be true? Jennifer? Had she grown up that fast? Why only six years ago she was Honda's 20-something target for the 2000—2005 Civic. Now she's moving up to sporty mid-size cars, though sticking with four doors for practicality. And—even more amazing —she's abandoning Honda for Ford.

Those familiar with this column—which includes a multitude of Honda personnel more than ready to hang me in effigy (at the very least)—will remember the fictitious young Jennifer (Honda's Descent Into Hell). Just a short mention of this virtual buyer was enough to deluge my inbox with missives from tuner companies in the midst of an unpleasant "Aha!" moment. They now understood what had happened to their beloved Civic, and why so many formerly loyal customers had abandoned Honda—and them—for car makers with more exciting wares. I had excoriated Honda for not being more adventurous with the Civic, and completely missing the opportunity to build on its street cred. Hindsight now suggests I should have saved my vitriol for Jennifer herself.

Or maybe the real villains are Jennifer's creators. This is, after all, a "woman" who exists only in virtual space as a composite of marketing studies drawn from countless interviews, psychographic profiles, and demographic trends. Interpreting this information is, in many ways, more important than the information itself. It takes experience, an innate understanding of the market, and the ability to determine which nuggets are gold—fools or otherwise. I also suspect it takes a healthy skepticism on the part of the vehicle team so it can pay lip service to the process while shaping the kind of car it knows the buyer wants, all the while making the "temperature takers" feel as though their contributions are invaluable.

One need look no further than the 2006 Honda Civic concept (2005 Chicago Auto Show) to realize that Honda learned its lessons from the "scientific" approach used to develop the present Civic to know it must trust its gut, and only look to the marketing studies for validation. I even suspect that Jennifer herself might appreciate what the 2006 model says about her personality and how she wants the world to see her. Only she's since gotten older and gone to Ford.

I hope this new, domestic (as in her citizenship, not her personal status) Jennifer variant is allowed to show some of the spirit the previous iteration lost in the move from data to personality profile. A smart, confident person with a sense of humor and a streak of mischief would be the perfect analogue for a vehicle that's both practical and memorable. It's unfortunate that Ford didn't latch on to Jennifer a few years back when the 500 and Montego were in gestation, or when Mercury was honing its ad message. Had that happened, a fine package would have turned into much more interesting cars, and half the population interested in Mercurys wouldn't have been elevated at the expense of the other 50%. It's just more proof that it's not only the information that's important, it's how you interpret it and put it to use.

*With apologies to Tommy Tutone (www.tutone.com).