5 Pontiacs We're Actually Going to Miss

April 27, 2009

While Pontiac fades into history--and takes with it most of the 5 vehicles that killed it--TheCarConnection.com is taking a moment to reflect on why Pontiac made sense at General Motors for a very long time, and why it no longer matters today.

The 83-year-old brand began as Oakland in 1909. GM acquired it and issued the first Pontiacs in 1926, but the brand really earned its modern reputation in the early 1960s, when wide-track cars and big V-8s transformed its mundane offerings into domestic exotica like the 1964 GTO.

Pontiac rolled through the Sixties and Seventies as one of America's most popular car brands on the strength of cars like the  Firebird. In 1978, its sold 896,980 cars--an unbelievable number that would account for all the sales of Pontiac, GMC and Buick combined today.

The heyday didn't last. Sales began to sputter in the early 1980s, and it showed. For every innovative (but half-baked) project like the Fiero came a badge-engineered Sunbird or a Bonneville. When Bob Lutz arrived at GM in the early part of this decade, he made it his mission to fix Pontiac, but it was too late. Instead of becoming America's BMW, as he envisioned, Pontiac staggered to only 267,348 sales last year and made a last-gasp effort at turning to small cars, a la Scion.

Now, Pontiac's terminal. Still, over the years, Pontiac marshaled some impressive cars--a couple of stars, in fact. Weighed against other efforts like the 2009 G3 and the forgettable Aztek and Montana, the performance cars weren't sustainable but they were menacing, and fast, and usually entertaining.

The Pontiac cars we'll truly miss are these five:

Pontiac GTO

What began life as a simple Tempest sedan turned into an exercise in horsepower to rival Ferrari--or, at least, that's how GM's John DeLorean (yep, that DeLorean) pitched the musclecar Pontiac Tempest GTO to the car magazines of the day. Pontiac chief engineer DeLorean put together a rocketship that could develop Ferrari-like power, though still trapped in the boxy Pontiac body. A massive 6.5-liter V-8 turned out 325 hp in base trim--and was a $269 option on the two-door Tempest LeMans. The GTO cast Pontiac's image as the performance spin-off of standard GM hardware and did it with the trademark twin-nostril grille. The later two-door 2004-2006 GTO--basically a Holden Monaro coupe with Corvette power--bested the original's speed, but not its allure.

2002 Pontiac Firebird 2dr Cpe exterior front left

2002 Pontiac Firebird 2dr Cpe exterior front left

Pontiac Firebird

Screaming chickens and Smokey and the Bandit--that's how most people remember the Pontiac Firebird, the vented and gilled twin to the Chevrolet Camaro. The Camaro lives on as a 2010 coupe, but the Firebird will get buried along with Pontiac. Alive and kicking from 1967 to 2002, the Firebird gave Pontiac its own coupe and convertible entry in the pony car wars against Mustang and Cougar. The late-1970s versions are maybe the most memorable, for the giant metallic decals available and the Burt Reynolds redneck romp, but Trans-Am versions were truly fast and furious. The final plastic-bodied, Canadian-built Firebirds were nearly as fun, but rattle-prone and a little too spacey to recall the F-Bird's glory days. It's hard to imagine a generation of hair bands and other 1980s nostalgia without the Trans Am--and it's no fun to imagine a future without the Firebird.

1988 Pontiac Fiero

1988 Pontiac Fiero

Pontiac Fiero

The long farewell for Pontiac may have begun in 1984 with the introduction of the Fiero--"strong" in Italian and "wild" in Spanish. The two-door, plastic-bodied Fiero was born from Chevette pieces and had a miserly four-cylinder engine at launch. First-year cars were famed for fires caused by inadequate oil delivery. In short, it was crap. Cool, but crap nonetheless. As time went on, GM fixed the problems, and by the 1987 1/2 model year, the Fiero had grown truly interesting, especially in V-6 GT form. Toyota's later MR2 owed a lot to the last Fiero's shape, and GM proved it could still take a shot at greatness--but with the execution lacking, Fiero sales nosedived until it got the axe in 1988.

2009 Pontiac Solstice

2009 Pontiac Solstice

Pontiac Solstice

It's not perfect--but there's nothing like the Pontiac Solstice in today's GM lineup that survived Bloody Monday (a.k.a., today). The Solstice--particularly in GXP and Coupe form--showed that Bob Lutz' hand in product development was still strong and capable, but hamstrung by cost-cutting. The gorgeous shape was outclassed only by the sister Saturn Sky in GM's sportscar constellation. The Solstice doesn't rate very highly here at TheCarConnection--it gets a 6.6 out of 10--but it's mostly docked for its complex convertible top, lack of interior room and lack of drivetrain refinement.  What was conceived as a Miata alternative ended up looking more intriguing than any Mazda roadster, and that's worth a spot in the annals of GM history, even if its nameplate no longer is.

2009 Pontiac G8

2009 Pontiac G8

Pontiac G8

The final brand-new Pontiac might be the brand's best "whole" vehicle ever. It's a shame the 2009 Pontiac G8 sedan arrived just as Pontiac's fate was sealed. The G8--derived from Australian Holden bits--is exactly the kind of vehicle buyers might have expected from the brand in the 1960s and 1970s. There's a powerful V-8 option, a roomy interior, and the added modern-day bonuses of secure handling, tons of safety gear and pretty good fit and finish. In all, it's enough to score an overall 8.4 out of 10 from TheCarConnection.com's editors. In six-speed manual GXP form, the G8 sedan truly lives up to the old Pontiac tagline, "We Build Excitement"--but shoppers ignored it and cued Pontiac's demise. If you're having trouble saying farewell to Pontiac, nab one of these at slash-and-burn prices as GM ushers the Pontiac brand into oblivion.

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