The easy part of Mark Reuss' job was helping to develop and build the edgy Pontiac Aztek, a new type of crossover vehicle aimed at young, active buyers flocking out of Grand Ams and Sunfires. A more challenging task for the 36-year-old General Motors Corp. executive may be to ensure that Aztek's sister vehicle, the 2002 Buick Rendezvous, really meets the needs of a target audience which, in some cases, is 10 to 20 years older than he is.

"Actually, with the Rendezvous, we'll be looking at potential buyers from their early 30s through their late 50s, including people who never thought about owning a Buick in the past," says Reuss, who is the "vehicle line executive" in charge of Aztek and Rendezvous.

Reuss has been working the past two years with the designers, engineers and manufacturing experts to bring both vehicles from the drawing board to the assembly line. He's also networking with marketing officials at Pontiac and Buick to create buzz for the new products, and to make sure they measure up to the standards set by each brand.

Rendezvous is by far the more intriguing of the two vehicles. Built on the same basic set of components as the Aztek, the new Buick people mover - it's not really a van and not really a station wagon - is considerably more tasteful and appealing than its sibling, with the potential to attract a whole new cadre of buyers to the brand.

That's critical for Buick, which still has an intensely loyal following that also happens to be one of the oldest owner bodies in the business. It's also largely a domestic crowd that, for the most part, eschews import brands. So Rendezvous is really doing double duty for Buick - designed and positioned to attract younger customers and nondomestic owners. It's the same role that has been filled so well for Lexus by the RX300, one of the very first crossover vehicles and clearly a role model for the Rendezvous.

"We think of the Rendezvous as a new breed of SUV," says Reuss, son of former GM President Lloyd Reuss, "really an intelligent approach to a mature, fragmenting segment of the market. It's not really a latter-day Buick wagon, and it's definitely not a replacement for the old Roadmaster (wagon). This is a very contemporary vehicle for people who don't want another SUV."

Buick considered, then rejected a more conventional plan to offer a high-end minivan that would compete with the Chrysler Town & Country in the over-$30,000 segment. "The last thing Buick wanted to do was enter the high-end minivan market as a late comer," says Reuss. "So we tried to anticipate what people wanted next, but we didn't research it to death."

In fact, from several angles, it appears that Buick designers merely copied large portions of the RX300, adapting such Buick styling cues as the signature grillework. That actually works well on two levels - one, in copying a winner and two, in creating more distance between Pontiac and Buick.

This may be the most successful example yet of platform sharing at GM, which has been accused often of stamping out too many cookie-cutter designs - lookalikes like the Buick Century and Regal, which are all but indistinguishable from one another. The 2001 Aztek and 2002 Rendezvous share common chassis components, derived from the Venture/Montana minivan family, and each will be powered by the familiar 3.4-liter V-6. But exterior dimensions are significantly different from vehicle to vehicle, and each model has unique body panels and interior pieces.

By sharing components, GM was able to reduce development and manufacturing costs on both vehicles. That should enable Buick to price the Rendezvous aggressively - undercutting its Japanese rival by $3,000-$5,000.

Aztek and Rendezvous will be built on the same assembly line at Ramos Arizpe, Mexico. Despite the fact that the Rendezvous has a different wheelbase than the Aztek, both can easily be assembled on the same line, with common engines rakes, steering and suspension components sourced from the same suppliers.

While Azteks should begin reaching Pontiac showrooms in May and June, Buick dealers won't get the first shipments of Rendezvous until spring 2001. The good news is that both two- and four-wheel-drive versions should arrive simultaneously at dealerships.

Reuss thinks the Rendezvous should bring in important new business for Buick, with two-thirds of the clientele migrating from other brands. The vehicle, he adds, also establishes something of a new styling theme for Buick - "more rugged, but still very elegant, very contemporary."

"Hey," says Reuss with a grin, "we need to bring Buick into the new millennium."

2002 Buick Rendezvous

Wheelbase: 112.2 in.

Length: 186.5 in.

Width: 73.7 in.

Height: 66.7 in.

Engine: 3.4 L V-6

Base Price: $29,000*