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|Recently Deceased: The Top 10 Reasons Why Pontiac Failed|
|Written by Jim Brennan|
|Friday, 29 May 2009 11:42|
Automotive Traveler takes a David Letterman-like look at why GM's brand once known as The Excitement Division will soon be exiting stage left.
This is a sad time for those of us who love automobiles. The bankruptcy of General Motors is imminent; it will most likely come over the weekend as it has for many of the financial institutions that have preceded it into government-supported reorganization. For GM, it will mean shedding brands including Saab, Hummer, Saturn, and Pontiac. Of the four, it's possible that Pontiac's death may have been most avoidable. For more than a decade, Pontiac has stumbled from one product and marketing misfire to another. Yes, we all know Pontiac is dead so it's time to look back at the top 10 reasons why Pontiac failed. It's not a pretty sight; much of it is slathered in grey-colored body cladding.
The Excitement Division of General Motors was doing quite well throughout the eighties, even with an uninspired product line. Advertising of the period showcased the Firebird and Trans Am, the hot little Fiero, the Sunbird convertible, and Pontiac's best seller, the Grand Am. With the exception of the Fiero, each of them was styled just a bit differently than their corporate siblings, with brand-specific engines, wheels, trim, and interior furnishings. The Grand Am was virtually a clone of the Buick and Oldsmobile versions, with just a little more visual eye candy on the outside and blazing-red instrumentation on the inside. The same could be said for the Sunbird (Cavalier) and the Firebird (Camaro). However, beginning with the dawn of the nineties and well into the new millennium even these unique Pontiac styling elements started to fade. The difference between a Pontiac Torrent and a Chevy Equinox is basically the head- and tail-lamp fixtures and a grille. There is very little difference between a Cobalt and a G5 coupe. The only unique Pontiacs available today include the Australian import, the G8 sedan and the G6 which is offered in a two-door coupe and convertible not shared with any other division. Ultimately none of these would help Pontiac survive.
9--The Fiero and Solstice
The Fiero was never supposed to be a sports car; it was sold to GM management as a two-seat commuter car. The parts borrowed to make this mid-engined commuter car were decidedly bottom of the barrel, Chevette steering and suspension components and a wheezing 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It was innovative only in its plastic body panels on a space frame chassis which over the years have made it a favorite for kit car builders. There were engineering shortcuts taken to get this car into production, but it was starting to become a true performance bargain with the introduction of a V6 in 1985, the fastback body style in mid-1986, and new chassis componentry for its last year in production for 1988. It was discontinued after a short five-year run just as GM got everything in sync.
The Solstice picked up the two-seat Pontiac sports car banner in 2006. This was a unique chassis (Kappa) designed just for this car, with the excellent EcoTec 4-cylinder engine in either normally aspirated or turbocharged versions. Unfortunately, General Motors decided that the Solstice could not survive on its own, so a "badge engineered" version (see point 10) was quickly created for the struggling Saturn brand called the Saturn Sky. There is also a version created for GM's European brands, Opel & Vauxhall. All this did was dilute any distinguishing characteristics that the model generated for the Pontiac brand. Although it's all water under the bridge at this point, wouldn't it been a smarter move to offer the Solstice as a Roadster and the Sky--calling it something different--as a coupe?
8--Body Side Cladding
Pontiac styling was taken into a new direction with the introduction of the 1985 Pontiac Grand Am. GM stylists wanted a bold look for the Grand Am; this usually clashed with accounting and to a degree engineering, who wanted to save as much money as they could by sharing as many body panels and components with sister divisions. Therefore, to have the distinctive character the stylists were looking for while managing wherever they could to cut costs, plastic body cladding was used to achieve a distinctive look. This wasn't the first time that body cladding was used, but Pontiac was the division that used it the most, and on almost every model. It was used on just about every Grand Am from 1985 right up to 2004, and heavily on Pontiac's Bonneville from 1987 until it was discontinued in 2005. The Pontiac minivans and the unloved Pontiac Aztek were not immune. Plastic body cladding became a styling cliché, and while the latest G6, Grand Prix, and G8 have almost no plastic cladding whatsoever, this styling exercise will be permanently associated with Pontiac for years to come.
7--Bonneville and Grand Prix "Updates"
Pontiac's roster of great nameplates is the stuff of legend, including cars with memorable names like Firebird, GTO, Catalina, Tempest, Grand Prix, and one of the most successful names of all, Bonneville. The name was chosen in 1957 for Pontiac's premiere performance edition of a full-sized convertible with one of the industry's first fuel injection systems in honor of the Bonneville Salt Flats, the location where many high speed records were set. The 1959 version shown here is credited with establishing the legend of the "Wide Track Pontiacs" and helped it reach the number three position in sales that year.
Throughout the years, Pontiac affixed the name Bonneville to their top-of-the line models. There was a period from 1971 to 1975 in which Pontiac's upper models were named Grand Ville, whatever that meant, and there was a time, from 1982 to 1986 during which the Bonneville name was attached to a forgettable midsized car while the full-sized one had the name Parisienne attached, but I digress. The Bonneville re-emerged in 1987 on the GM front-wheel-drive platform with distinctive styling and a new top-shelf offering, the SSE. The car was a solid sales success and was re-designed in 1992 with a greater emphasis on safety and performance, including a supercharged V6. The last model in this generation, the 1999 version, is shown here.
Unfortunately, the Bonneville was once again re-designed for the 2000 model year, and--you guessed it--the designers tacked on a lot of body cladding with different surface textures depending on the trim level. The look of the car changed considerably and sales tumbled, with the final year tally in 2005 of only 12,000 units sold. There were significant upgrades in this generation, but nothing could distract from the appearance. The GXP model, in which Pontiac re-introduced a V8-equipped Bonneville, had most of the body-side cladding removed, but it was priced out of the budget of what Pontiac buyers were willing to pay.
The Grand Prix has a very similar story to the Bonneville. The storied nameplate goes back to 1962, attached to a luxuriously appointed Pontiac Catalina two-door hardtop. The Grand Prix name was used for another 45 years, mostly as a personal Luxury two-door coupe, but eventually placed on a four-door, front-wheel-drive sedan in 1988, diluting the brand but increasing the sales. The 1997-2003 Grand Prix models logged record-setting sales numbers with clean styling and a new supercharged V6 installed in the GTP version. The coupe began to be outsold by the sedan and was eventually retired in the 2002 model year.
Pontiac saw fit to re-design the Grand Prix for 2004; it was actually nothing but a new body on an existing chassis. The styling was cartoonish, with larger headlamps, smaller grill, and coupe-like styling on a four-door sedan. Visibility suffered, interior furnishings were substandard, and it was one of those cars in which the re-design was actually worse than the car it replaced. The Grand Prix was replaced with the G8.
6--Killing Model Names with Built-in Brand Equity
Lately, the Detroit car makers seem to be on a kick as far as re-naming their models, and the Pontiac Division of General Motors seems to be on the same page. Once-great names like Bonneville and Grand Prix are being substituted for G6, G5, or G8. Why? It does nothing but confuse the car-buying public. Pontiac did this years ago, and it worked about as well then as it does today. For example, Pontiac sold a line of Chevy Monza Coupes called Sunbirds. While the cars were utter crap, the name was quite appealing. Then in 1982, the new GM front-wheel-drive "J" car was being introduced, and Pontiac decided to call it the J 2000, taking it a few steps further, calling their new A-body midsized car the 6000, and a badge-engineered Chevette the T 1000. These were crappy names for what turned out to be pretty much crappy cars. However, Chevy was selling virtually every Cavalier they could build, so Pontiac eventually renamed the J 2000 the Sunbird, while dropping the Chevette clone. The 6000 actually turned out to be a decent car, with an import-fighter STE version. Eventually, Pontiac offered all-wheel-drive.
With sales trailing off, it was no time to start re-naming the product line with silly letters and numbers. Notice that they kept the names of the Grand Prix until last year, the Torrent until this year, and the Solstice. Great names will always trump meaningless numbers in my opinion. Just take a look at Lincoln or Acura if you want to see great product killed by meaningless alpha-numeric names. In the case of the G8, Pontiac finally offered a car worthy of the reputation established by the elegant Grand Prix offered in the sixties. Don't you think that the G8 would have sold better if it had been named Grand Prix?
5--The Holden Monaro and the New Pontiac GTO
The GTO was a great car that was poorly launched. Basically, all GM did was to re-work the Holden Monaro for left-hand drive--which was no small task--then replace the grille and add badging. Unfortunately, replacing the grille made the rather-pricey GTO look like the Grand Prix or Grand Am that you could pick up at the Avis rental counter on your next business trip or family vacation. It never really stood out from the crowd. The car was also priced above expectations with a retail price above $33,000. Dealers also tacked on a surcharge for the first vehicles to enter the country, though that didn't last, and 2004 models were selling at deep discounts late into 2005.
Some considered the car overpriced at $33,000, but ultimately, with rebates and especially if you had a GM-branded credit card, you could drive one away for the price of the then-new Mustang GT. Styling aside, the GTO, with its far more sophisticated independent rear suspension, was a more-than-worthy adversary to Ford's revitalized pony car at $26,000, again showing a classic GM marketing and positioning backfire. It wasn't helped by statements at introduction from Bob Lutz that the GTO was aimed at a new generation of enthusiasts, not those now-grown men who made the original GTO an American icon.
The 2005 and 2006 models received a different hood that helped, and a new 6.0L V8 was made standard, but sales failed to live up to the 18,000 per year sales target. In 2004, 15,780 were imported, a little over 11,000 for 2005, and just under 14,000 for the last year of 2006, a sad end for the most revered nameplate in Pontiac history.
4--The Pontiac Grand Am
For years the Grand Am was Pontiac's best-selling car, but the last versions from 1999 to 2005 were truly--as our British cousins would say--rubbish. On paper they looked like a good value, but their ergonomics, structure, and reliability were substandard. There were issues with their braking systems, electrical system shorts, and that body cladding had a tendency to fall off. On top of all of these issues, Pontiac decided to remove standard features like ABS and traction control and make them optional. One good move was replacing the 2.4-liter twin-cam four-cylinder with the excellent 2.2-liter EcoTec that produced higher mileage ratings and was much smoother. The interior looked sporty, but was rather uncomfortable after spending time in the driver's seat. The dash was over-styled with multiple circular air vents, deep instrumentation, and complicated audio controls, all glowing red at night. The ride was nothing to write home about, and the handling was just so-so. The car was basically sold on style, and the Grand Am had every styling feature tacked on. Useless driving lights, redundant reversing lamps located in the lower rear bumper, exaggerated rear deck spoiler, ribbed body side cladding, unidirectional alloy wheels, and a lot more.
There were virtually no repeat buyers for the Grand Am.
3--The Discontinuation of the Firebird and Trans Am
The Firebird was Pontiac's signature car, what we now call a halo car, intended to cast a positive glow over the entire brand. When you thought of Pontiac in the 70's, the 80's and the 90's, this was inevitably the car that popped into your mind. This was the car that was used in all those "Smokey and the Bandit" movies, the campy "Knight Rider" television series, and was the car in the forefront of all those "We Build Excitement" television commercials throughout the 90's. The Firebird is an icon, one in continuous use since 1967, and it all came to a halt in 2002 when the Camaro and Firebird were euthanized. Though Pontiac still made acknowledgments in its advertising during the 2003 and 2004 model years, it was more of a holding pattern until the GTO became available, and we all know how that turned out. (See point 5.)
With the pending introduction of the new Camaro, a new Firebird and Trans Am should have been on the drawing board. If there were ever an opportunity to properly design a badge-engineered version, substantially differentiated as were the originals, this was it. ASC, American Specialty Cars took that idea and ran with it; this Camaro-based concept was a step in the right direction. Now with Pontiac's passing, it's just another missed opportunity.
2--The Pontiac Trans Sport and Montana
The Original Tran Sport concept was in keeping with the Pontiac tradition of an exciting people-mover. In reality, the production version of the original Trans Sport, along with its corporate cousins, the Chevrolet Lumina APV, and the Oldsmobile Silhouette, proved to be anything but exciting, or even practical for that matter. They received some unfortunate names in the marketplace from "anteater", to "Dustbuster" (taken from the name of a Black & Decker hand held compact Vacuum cleaner). With their extraordinary windshields they looked like refugees from an episode of "Lost in Space." They were not competitive with other minivans as far as seating capacity, room for cargo, or even fuel economy, especially compared to the class-leading entries from Chrysler. In reality, all Pontiac needed to do, as did Kia a generation later, was to put a Chrysler minivan on the corporate Xerox machine, and send it to market. The Pontiac Trans Sport is a vehicle so forgettable that no product image bigger than 640 pixels wide exists either on the GM media website or on the Internet. That pretty much says it all.
The re-designed vans, introduced in 1997, went in the opposite direction as far as practicality, styling, and capacity. They went from outlandish to downright boring, but they sold a lot better. Pontiac went the obvious route of adding a lot of body cladding to distinguish its van from its corporate siblings from Chevy and Oldsmobile. They also decided that a van should be a semi-SUV-type of vehicle, and produced the only van to offer raised-white-letter tires. About a year later, Pontiac renamed the Trans Sport to Montana. However, Pontiac should have never introduced a minivan in the first place, since it was diluting the "excitement" of the division. The public saw right through the facade and purchased an almost-identical vehicle from the Chevy dealer down the street for less money. GM facelifted the vans to make them look more like the popular SUVs of the time in 2005 (shown here), and the Montana became the Montana SV6. It was an abject failure. It was only sold in the US for another year, though it continued on in the Canadian and Mexican markets until GM closed the Georgia minivan plant.
1--The Pontiac Aztek
The Aztek is arguably the number one reason for the failure of the Pontiac brand. Like the original Trans Sport concept, the Aztek concept was actually pretty radical and would have fit into the Pontiac stable quite nicely. Unfortunately, after the production engineers and the cost accountants had their say in cutting the budget, the end product was one of the most horrendous products ever to be put on sale.
When conceived as a concept, the planning engineers and stylists were visionary. They saw a market for a car-based SUV, available with all-wheel-drive, flexible seating, and plenty of cargo room, but with a car-like ride and fuel economy. The basic concept was quite sound with vehicles like the Highlander, Murano, and Edge taking pages from this playbook, but the execution was anything but a success. The vehicle was based on the GM minivan platform, the Montana to be precise, with an uncompetitive 3.4-liter V6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. The all-wheel-drive system was to be an electronic one--mounted within its own aluminum subframe--and never really worked as advertised. The body was covered in every Pontiac styling cliché, from an overabundance of cladding to the split grill with an over-styled spoiler at the rear. The interior, equally over-styled, actually incorporated a couple of good ideas including a drink cooler as a part of the console and an available tent that could be used for camping. However, the product development process and the marketing of the Pontiac Aztek will be used in business schools for decades to come. It's a lesson in how to dilute a once-proud brand into one that has outlived its usefulness. Instead of remembering Pontiac as the car company that produced the sleek Trans Am, the muscular GTO, the popular Grand Prix, or even the innovative little Fiero, it will be forever associated with the horrible Aztek which to many people has become the definition of hideous.