Yesterday, I started this series with the bottom 4 reasons why I thought Pontiac Failed that included Badge Engineering, The Fiero and Solstice sports cars, Plastic Body Side Cladding, and the badly designed “Updates” to the last Bonneville and Grand Prix models. Today, lets take a look at numbers 6 through 2, and see if you agree with any of them, or if you think I’m full of it.
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 this model.
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 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.
In Part 3, read about the number one reason why I think Pontiac Failed, and read some reader rebuttals from my original article on Automotive Traveler.