End of the Line for Pontiac?
By J. Smith
Since this story was posted, GM has sent us a link to a press conference scheduled for 9 AM EDT Monday, April 27. The link to live video of the press conference is available here starting at 9.
Pontiac, which began life as an offshoot of General Motors’ long-defunct Oakland line of cars, looks to be headed for a visit with fellow Detroiter Jack Kevorkian. According to as-yet unconfirmed reports from CNN. Although still billed as the “excitement” division of GM, recent decades have seen a slew of not-so-exciting products, many that were thinly veiled knock-offs of other GM offerings, from the Chevette-based T1000 to the Pontiac G3 Aveo clone, and others which were bizarrely undesirable like the Aztek.
Although an of-shoot of Oakland, Pontiac soon surpassed its parent, which was axed in the midst of the Great Depression. Pontiac now seems poised to become a victim of the Great Recession, although years of confusion and neglect have taken it to this point. Alfred Sloan’s five division structure for GM had Pontiac slated above Chevrolet and below Oldsmobile (RIP, 2004). For the decades following its birth, it was the Buick of its day, appealing to elderly and conservative buyers.
Under Bunkie Knudsen and John Z. DeLorean, Pontiac introduced high-performance “wide track” models beginning in the mid-to-late 1950s, shedding its geriatric image with models like the tri-power 1958 Bonneville, which sported three two-barrel carbs. It captured the hearts of baby boomers with what many consider to be he first true muscle car, the 1964 GTO, with “three deuces and a four speed, and a 389,” as phrased by Ronnie and the Daytonas. On the strength of attractive Coke-bottle styling and a performance image, it catapulted past Plymouth (RIP, 2001) to take third position in the US market, behind only Chevrolet and Ford.
Another notable Pontiac from the 1960s was the Tempest, a compact based on the Oldsmobile F-85. The Tempest featured a rear transaxle and a unique flexible “rope drive” driveshaft that eliminated the driveshaft hump bisecting most cars. It achieved a near 50-50 weight distribution and had four-wheel independent suspension, which was unique among American cars of the day. For power, it relied on a large (3.2 liters), slanted inline 4, which was simply a 389 V-8 cut in half. The Tempest became mid-sized in 1964, spawning the GTO.
In the 1970’s, as performance faded and American automakers moved to “personal luxury” vehicles, adding baroque elements like opera windows, plushly cushioned seats and ever-more ornate hood symbols, Pontiac fell behind other GM brands like Buick and Oldsmobile, but stubbornly clung to keeping the Firebird a genuine performance car through the mid-1970’s, until that too had no more scream than the stylized, chicken-like bird that adorned millions of Trans Am hoods.
Although it claimed “We build excitement” throughout the 1980s, it pumped out a plethora of Phoenix (nee Citation), Sunbirds (nee Cavalier), 6000s (nee Celebrity), Bonnevilles (nee Caprice) and other GM derivatives that were distinguished only by a split grille and packed notably unexciting “Iron Duke” inline fours and wheezy 2.8 liter V-6s. The only truly unique product Pontiac had at the time was the ill-fated Fiero, whose strong first-year sales literally went down in flames amidst numerous engine fires. Nonetheless, Pontiac regained the number three position in the US market in 1988, displacing a rapidly fading Oldsmobile line.
In the 1990s, Pontiac’s sales remained strong, mainly on the back of the success of the Grand Am. Although the Grand Am was and is derided for its superfluous body cladding, it was the most popular compact car for a decade. When GM tried to shed its downscale image with the G6, which was much better than the car it replaced, it alienated former Grand Am buyers but failed to score conquest sales, ending up as queen of the airport rental car lot.
In addition, the rise of the SUV and light trucks marked a shift away from Pontiac’s bread-and-butter sedans. Its attempt to get into the minivan market with the Montana was unsuccessful. But its try at the SUV market with the Aztek, GM’s first crossover vehicle, was truly disastrous. Outlandishly unattractive, the Aztek signaled not only Pontiac’s marketing confusion and ineptitude, but GM’s inability to gauge the market. Its repugnant styling, a cynical gesture to get “hip” Gen Xers into the Pontiac fold with “bold” styling utterly failed. Most telling, the Firebird, even with scorching performance, ended production in 2002.
Pontiac then revived the GTO nameplate with a captive-import Holden Monaro. Although it boasted hairy performance, styling was bland. A restyled Bonneville fell far short of the mark, and the Grand Prix bit the dust after the 2008 model year.
Pontiac added some genuine excitement with the G8, another rebadged Holden, this time a Commodore. Although the G8 has received rave reviews—Motor Trend called it “the best-performing, most well-balanced production Pontiac ever”—sales have been slow to say the least. The GXP reaches 60 mph in 4.5 seconds, at a low $39,900 base price and lesser models are also tastily quick, but it has found few buyers in a depressed market and with a parent on the verge of bankruptcy.
Another nice product is the Solstice, a beautifully styled two-seater that is very fast in turbocharged GXP form. The Solstice generated considerable traffic upon its release, but interest quickly waned. The low price translated into many cut-corners, and it doesn’t quite match the Mazda Miata for refinement, handling or all-out fun.
Pontiac rounded out its lineup with the G3, the G5 and the Torrent, all badge-engineered versions of Chevrolets. Lately, Pontiac has been matched up with Buick and GMC dealerships.
In 2008, Pontiac sold 267,348 vehicles. Needless to say, 2009 sales will be considerably lower, even if GM retains it. All in all, a sad state for a once proud brand of cars.
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