Pontiac: Slouching Towards Brummagem, or headed for the Promised Land?
Editorial by Ming
Is Pontiac slipping into becoming nothing more than the car equivalent of GMC, a brand full of Chevrolet Truck clones but with the catchy marketing phrases like "Professional Grade" to set it apart? Is Pontiac's "Total Performance" car lineup of tomorrow based on twin-port grilles? Is GM trading real development dollars for 1980's style Badge Engineering?
Or, are recent efforts like the GTO, Bonneville GXP, Solstice and G6 enough to keep Pontiac different and fresh , despite the wholesale rebadged Torrent and Montana SV6?
While the GXP lineup shines as a ray of hope, a look at some of Pontiac's current and upcoming vehicles make one wonder:
1. Montana SV6: An out & out Chevrolet Uplander clone with a Pontiac grille and some other minor rebadging touches. Orange/red dash lighting a noticeable difference.
2. Torrent: From what we know of it so far, it looks to be every bit as much of a clone (of the Chevrolet Equinox) as the Montana SV6. Same powertrain, same basic sheetmetal from the Pontiac grille back, same Chinese-made, last-generation engine as the "all new" (ahem) 'Nox.
3. Grand Prix: The FWD V8 GXP idea sounds great, and different from Chevy at first glance, but haven't I read about the Chevrolet Impala preparing to do the same? Still, this car looks to be reasonably differentiated from its GM platform-mates.
4. Bonneville: The GXP engine idea was great - perhaps THE significant improvement and differentiator in a Pontiac within the last few years. But with the same basic interior from its 2000 debut, the Bonneville can't help but show its age, and where GM skimped. And its future is uncertain. Let's hope that it sells, and encourages further investment like this from GM.
5. GTO: A rebadged Holden Monaro, yes, but since we don't get any other Holdens in the U.S., this is a VERY good thing. And what a great driving experience. Sure, the jellybean styling, pleasing to Bob Lutz and his Cunningham tastes, looks dated compared to the newer Holden VZ Commodore (from which it would do well to consider borrowing a few styling tweaks). But with the GTO's lackluster sales so far, this might not matter in the end, and one has to wonder if we will lose this icon for originality in Pontiac's lineup when Zeta comes along.
6. Grand Am / Sunfire: Extremely outdated by the competition, lets hope these rental fleet favorites, and platform mates of the Chevy Malibu and Chevrolet Cavalier don't last much longer. Not immediately obvious or blatant rebadges of Chevrolets, the Sunfire and Grand Am had their own unique interiors (at least by 2003 on the Sunfire) and exteriors, and things like Ram Air helped the Grand Am differentiate itself even more from the Malibu. The Sunfire had its days of turbo engines and unique interiors, only becoming an obvious clone to the Cavalier in the mid to late 1990's. Regardless, these two are on their way out.
7. Aztek: Very different, and "look where that got us!", asks GM. The styling of this vehicle aside, GM cut corners on other essential things like the lackluster engine, hoping no one would notice, and hoping young Internet-saavy people would buy. Bad move. An unattractive vehicle powered by a minivan lump of an engine can't cut it, even with a versatile interior. Made for excellent rebates and fire-sale deals, though. Let's hope this one goes bye-bye soon.
8. Vibe: WIth all of its parts essentially Toyota (even sold in identical form in Japan as the Toyota Voltz), as a GM fan, its hard to get excited about this vehicle, even if it deserves it.
9. G6: The exception to the rule. Pontiac's own GMC Envoy XUV. The G6 is a great effort for Pontiac that doesn't at all resemble the Malibu, inside or out. With the promise of a great 3900 engine and the absolutely essential addition of a 6-speed manual transmission, the G6 is the car Pontiac should have been selling for the last 5 years, while hopped-up FWD cars were all the rage.
10. Solstice: This car embodies the promises of Pontiac to deliver driving excitement. No, its not a rude, crude, fire-snorting V8 with leaf springs in the rear - but the modern interpretation of a 1960's British Roadster, or a classic Porsche Spyder. It's a driver's car, pure and simple, and one to be enjoyed without the roller coaster rush of a massive engine. It's a different kind of excitement than what the GTO delivers, and rounds out the Pontiac performance portfolio.
It's tough to draw a conclusion from the above for what the future holds for Pontiac.
And it's hard to remain optimistic when Pontiac-GMC's general manager says this about the apparent Chevrolet Equinox clone, the Pontiac Torrent:
"The Torrent represents a new dimension of Pontiac's commitment to 'total performance'" said Jim Bunnell, Pontiac-GMC general manager. "Along with a spirited powertrain and a crisp handling package rarely seen in a compact SUV," Source: http://money.cnn.com/2004/10/29/pf/a...ntiac_torrent/
Who does Jim Bunnel think he's fooling? How is making an exact clone of the Equinox in any way a "commitment to total performance" for Pontiac? If that's his idea of "commitment" I'd hate to see what he considers a compromise! How is the engine that debuted in Pontiac's 1996 Trans Sport Minivan in any way part of a credible "spirited powertrain"? The Saturn VUE Redline might fit that description, but from what we've seen of the Torrent, it falls far short of that mark.
In a Wards Auto World article earlier this year Bob Lutz was quoted as saying:
"The Pontiac brand has been in decline because it hasn't been properly nourished over the years with exciting products," admits Lutz, noting that the Pontiac Aztek cross/utility vehicle and Montana minivan hardly create excitement. Souce: http://waw.wardsauto.com/ar/auto_judge_gto/
And the Torrent does? Perhaps Bob was taking a vacation in Europe when the Torrent clone was approved, along with the twin sister of the Uplander, the Montana SV6.
It makes one wonder if Bob Lutz had to trade his soul to the Corporate Devil for the chance to produce the Solstice.
And if so, was that a bad thing? Is a trade off acceptable?
If the benefit of picking up a couple of rebadged Chevrolets (Montana, Torrent) is the result of being able to produce the Pontiac Solstice, import the GTO, and put out more "GXP" versions of Pontiacs, is the trade-off worth it?
I would say yes, but only if things are carefully managed with the following:
1. Pontiac cannot give away its Solstice in a mildly repackaged form to Chevy or Saturn within the first 2 years of production.
2. Pontiac must limit its obvious rebadges to the Torrent and the Montana alone.
3. Pontiac must continue to release GXP models for most of its lineup, as promised years ago. One model every 2 years while phasing out the previous one won't cut it.
4. GXP must not become synonymous with Chevrolet's "SS" - in other words, if they make a Torrent GXP, they can't have a complete clone version Equinox SS at Chevy. Since the sheetmetal is different, they COULD do a GXP Torrent with platform-mate Saturn VUE Redline's powertrain, though its Honda roots would make me shed a tear. In other words, GXP must be uniquely Pontiac, even if it means digging in to the GM parts bin and mixing it up a bit.
5. GXP should not be primarily used as an attempt to bolster sales of an aging Pontiac model. It should be aspirational, and that can't be fully realized with a 4 or 5-year old interior (Bonneville GXP). A GXP model should arrive 1 or 2 years tops after a redesigned vehicle is introduced.
Of course, the optimum choice for Pontiac and the Torrent would be to take the Saturn VUE Redline's stance and handling, and give it the more powerful, modern 3500 engine with a little Ram Air boost for kicks, and take the Montana SV6 and give it the 3900 engine it demands to keep up with the competition like the Honda Odyssey.
In conclusion, I think that Pontiac, like Buick, is at a crossroads. It could easily veer down one path, where it fails to create many GXP models, drops the GTO for a Chevrolet Zeta twin, and ends up picking up so many rebadged vehicles from Chevrolet that it becomes nearly indistinguishable from the Bow Tie brand. GM Beancounters would do high-fives in Detroit at the prospect of cost-cutting, and would point to the sales success of the GMC brand to show that rebadged vehicles can sell. Pontiac fans everywhere would be let down, and many would move on to some other brand worthy of respect. If GM won't invest in the brand, why should we invest our hard-earned money into an arrowhead badge?
On the other hand, if kept in check, suffering through a pair of rebadged Chevies for the promise of more GXP models and the Solstice could make sense. Pontiac could prove to be the "excitement" brand it has always promised it would be with its many advertising tag lines. With the Internet as a research tool that over half of car buyers use these days, its essential in my opinion, that Pontiac head down this path. No more rebadges, no more pretense at performance, and no more marketing gobbledygook - just the pure, unadulterated pursuit of REAL excitement.