Can Pontiac claim "Total Performance" without its own Sport Compact?
Pontiac Sunfire production has ceased, with nothing to replace it. That it is fading from dealership lots is not such a bad thing. "Old is old," and there's no getting around that. It might even be said the "economy car" philosophy behind the Sunfire and Cavalier (good, cheap transportation) - as opposed to the "premium compact" image of many imports - might have helped to spark the whole dichotomy and harsh split between Domestic and Import Sport Compact Tuners in the American car market that more often than not leaves GM FWD cars out in the cold at popular car shows like "Hot Import Nights".
But again, all things aside, the Sunfire is dead, and no replacement is forthcoming.
"There is nothing planned in the foreseeable future, in the next 18 to 24 months (for a replacement.) It will be some time after that if we were to figure out something that would make sense for us." -- Jim Bunnell, GM Pontiac/GMC marketing - Sourced From: Automotive News, January 24, 2005
First, let me say that I was very pleased to hear: "We are not interested in badge engineering." -- from Bunnell regarding not bringing over a Pontiac version of the Chevy Cobalt sold in Canada, the Pontiac Pursuit.
Of course, I wish Jim would have had that same thought before they rebadged the Equinox as the Torrent and the Uplander as the Montana SV6, but that's another discussion.
Don't get me wrong - I like the looks of the Pursuit. But unless Pontiac had planned to put a turbocharged engine or something UNIQUE like that into it, it would have only made Pontiac that much less relevant as a separate and distinct brand in the US market (and further set it as a disposable brand, and onto the road to Oldsmobile's Fate). And when you can go to the high volume Chevy dealers and get the same thing with a volume discount (on top of GM rebates, etc.) - you have to ask "why?"
Pontiac has enough Chevy rebadges as it stands. If Pontiac must get rebadged product, at least mix it up a bit and don't make so many of them Chevies. A Pontiac Sport Compact would need to be something that stands out as unusual and worthy of the "performance" tag.
The Vibe Factor
Yes, the Pontiac Vibe could be considered a "Sport Compact", especially in GT form. But I must say that the Vibe is not what I consider the best choice for a Pontiac entry level volume sales car representing the brand to the Youth Market. Most buyers of the Pontiac Vibe are most probably internet-saavy and aren't fooled into thinking they are driving a GM designed vehicle with GM parts. Respect for one Automaker's brand / product cannot be solidly built upon the engineering work of its competitor. Is the Vibe a convenient product for Pontiac dealers to sell that might bring Import Enthusiasts or people who wouldn't otherwise consider Pontiac into GM showrooms? Sure. But are they there to purchase a GM product? Not if they've read just about every Pontiac Vibe article in existence out there, which makes it clear that the Vibe is a Toyota for the most part, with a little GM cosmetic design here and there. If they think highly of their their Vibes, that they know to be Toyotas, and see them as "reliable", will they be more likely to buy a Pontiac or Toyota product? GM can only hope it is the former.
Potential Replacements for the Sunfire...the "G4"?
So what's the cure? What can Pontiac do to get itself on the buying list of young Americans looking for a compact car with street cred?
Here are a few ideas:
1. A mildly restyled Opel Astra design - built alongside the Cobalt
With the Opel utilized 2.0-liter turbo - offered right from the first year, tell me this looker wouldn't be a hit. The problem with this option is, as a more premium compact car, it might end up competing directly with the Vibe. I wouldn't mind seeing the Vibe go somewhere else (like back to Japan), but GM Beancounters would have a fit, and changing the status quo and ditching the Anachronism that is NUMMI would also be difficult, I'm sure, and might not serve GM's bottom line very well.
The headlights also now have a "Saturn" look to them, and the changes required might be extensive. And since there is no hatchback version of the Cobalt currently in similar form to the Astra coupe, GM would have a lot of engineering to do to get the Opel sheetmetal design to work in its Cobalt factory.
2. A Suzuki Forenza / Daewoo Lacetti with a tuned/improved engine and suspension.
What? Another GM Daewoo product!? Well, consider that Chevy has the cheaper, lower-end Aveo, and that it is the best-selling car in its class before you dismiss this idea. (Yeah, I remember all you Aveo naysayers out there ) The engine is lackluster in its current form, to be sure, and would need a horsepower bump before it would qualify as a "Total Performance" Pontiac, but my guess is that GM Daewoo has been watching its competition at Hyundai (which has upped the ante with VVT on its Lacetti-level car) and plans some engine upgrades of its own.
I like this idea a lot, because it would meet a low "entry level" price point, is technically "GM product", has already been modified for the US market by Suzuki, isn't very well known or recognized, and elevates Pontiac's entry offering above Chevy's, but just enough so it slots nicely under the Vibe. Not to mention it has crisp, pleasing modern lines, and judging by the different global front fascias it wears internationally, a twin-port grille would not be hard to do.
But can the engine be improved enough to make it a contender? Well, a modified version of the Lacetti (A Chevrolet) IS competing in Road Racing in Europe, so it is not inconceivable.
A similar idea would be the 5-door Canadian Chevrolet Optra, sold as the Suzuki Reno in the U.S. (also based on the Lacetti), which would also require a horsepower bump out of the same engine. I think the front fascia would do better with less 90's looking headlights, however.
If not, consider...
3.Market a stripper, manual transmission Pontiac G6 4-cylinder model as a Sport Compact of sorts
The main concern of course being, the weight. With a sedan Curb Weight of around 3300 pounds, this would be a hard thing to get around. But I haven't seen the weight specs on the 4-cylinder coupe yet - we could be pleasantly surprised.
A "Sport Tuner Package" or something could be offered on the G6 2.4L VVT 4-cylinder. It could eliminate insulation, put in lightweight racing seats, and otherwise get rid of weighty things that serious sport compact folks get rid of to make their rides more competitive.
4.A restyled Suzuki Aerio.
As a GM Alliance partner partially owned by GM, Suzuki is more "GM" than Toyota ever will be, and isn't a direct competitor. Like Alliance Partner Subaru making Saabs, and with the Tracker gone, Suzuki could use this to further strengthen direct ties once more with GM (not just indirectly through GM Daewoo). The Aerio is a great little car, but suffers from lack of volume sales and recognition in the US market. The bigger sales volume could help Suzuki justify the Aerio remaining in their lineup despite sluggish sales.
The 2.3L 155 horsepower engine in the Aerio is a feisty little 4-cylinder, and worthy of Pontiac's image. And the base price of the Aerio is only $13,499 - making it a good entry vehicle for the brand.
But if that plan flops...
5. Take the Pursuit after all, but differentiate the powertrain.
Let's face it - this is the most likely scenario, given GM's recent decisions to give Pontiac other Chevrolet rebadges. But need it be a complete rebadge?
Remember the Sunbird Turbo of the 1980s? It was different enough from the Cavalier of the time to give the Pontiac version a reason to exist - not just a "lazy" reskin like the Sunfire.
6. A whole new product or something entirely unexpected - like an affordable 2+2 coupe based on Kappa. Unlikely from GM, since at least publicly they are saying that they have no plans for a Sunfire replacement. Not unless you are willing to wait until 2010 to get it, or GM has some secret plans like a Torana or a more affordable Solstice-based hardtop coupe that they've not made us aware of. RWD, 4 seats, maybe even a hatch like the Chevrolet Kappa Nomad concept? Sounds good to me!
Sport Compacts are a Vital Part of "Performance" Today
Regardless of what Pontiac decides to go with of the above choices, they absolutely must consider that Pontiac's sales success with the Youth Market (as I see it) hinges upon the existence of a GM or GM Alliance Partner engineered product proving itself on the track and on the street as an affordable, light weight, and yes, even "aspirational" vehicle in the 15,000 dollar price range.
Bottom line - Pontiac has a void where the Sunfire was, and needs to think about filling that void with something appropriate, something affordable, moderately utilitarian (4 doors or a hatch), and something that says "Pontiac" and "GM" all over it.