Pontiac on the Rebound?

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Can Pontiac perform?

General Motors’ self-described “excitement” division has struggled to meet expectations in recent years. Sales of its aging Firebird muscle car, a brand flagship, slipped so badly it’s been pulled from the lineup. And the edgy Aztek crossover proved more an embarrassment than an attraction.

But now, with “car czar” Bob Lutz taking a close and personal role in Pontiac’s revival, it could demonstrate GM’s commitment to a turnaround, especially on its passenger car side. In the coming months, Pontiac will debut an assortment of critical new products, starting with an all-new Grand Prix, its mid-size mainstay. It will shortly be followed by the eagerly awaited GTO, an Australian-made coupe, reviving one of the best-known names in Pontiac history. And more new models are in the pipeline.

“We have to earn our credibility back, says Pontiac General Manager Lynn Meyers, acknowledging that “If you don’t deliver, you’re not playing.”

Play the game

For a while, it wasn’t quite clear what game Pontiac was playing. The automaker seemed intent on ignoring the increasingly tough import competition, focusing only on its crosstown rivals. It seemed to believe that simply slapping cladding on the side of such products as the Grand Prix or the compact Grand Am would make it “sporty,” and distinguish its offerings from those of other GM divisions, such as less pricey Chevrolet.

Like much of GM, it was risk averse and even when it took a chance, critics contend, director of the Center for Automotive Research, it wasn’t clear what it needed to do. The much-maligned Aztek actually started out as a popular concept car. But the automaker’s design-by-committee system, along with a variety of other problems took what seemed a thoroughbred and turned it into the automotive equivalent of a camel.

“We all got carried away trying to make an edgy product,” Meyers concedes.

The negative reaction did generate a positive result, helping convince senior GM executives to hire Lutz, the former Chrysler president renowned for his reliance on gut instinct over market research.

Lutz is positioning Pontiac as a sort of “BMW for paupers.” His goal is to turn out high performance, high-margin products like those that made the German marque one of the auto industry’s most successful – but without the hefty price premium.

2004 Pontiac GTOThe reborn GTO is a clear example of both what he has in mind and how he hopes to achieve it. Though it brings back a classic Pontiac badge, the new car starts with an Australian-made, rear-drive coupe, rather than its own unique platform.

“They don’t need as many resources to do a car like this,” explains, Dr. David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research.

By sharing the basic platform and key components, Pontiac gets a car it can sell in low volume – GM will import just 18,000 GTOs a year to avoid angering its U.S. union – yet make plenty of money on.

The car’s jellybean styling has polarized potential buyers. While Ford is basing its next-generation Mustang on the classic ’67 model, Lutz is decidedly anti-retro. But while the new GTO isn’t a boxy remake, he insists it’s where the original car ‘s styling “would have evolved,” had it remained in production.

Few are complaining about the car’s road manners. Its big V-8 will blast it from 0-60 mph in less than six seconds, but unlike classic muscle cars, the new coupe will be able to corner and stop fast, as well.

“Muscle,” stresses Meyers, “has a whole new definition today,” all the more so if GM intends to redefine Pontiac’s mission to take on the imports.

Solstice for winter?

There could be more to come in this new, more international mold, starting with the Solstice. That’s the two-seat roadster that created such a stir on the 2002 auto show circuit. Bringing the car from concept to customer hasn’t been easy. It’s required significant engineering effort to stay true to the show car while still making a serious business case – all the more challenging for a vehicle likely to carry a base price of around $20,000.

Officially, GM insists it is still “studying” ways to bring Solstice to market, but as TheCarConnection has already reported, the project has been given an unofficial green light. A production car is all but certain for the 2005 model year. And even more, high-profile but low-volume models could follow, sources suggest.

Such specialty products will barely show up on the sales charts, but Pontiac expects them to provide a big halo, drawing customers into showrooms for more mainstream models.

One of those vehicles is the Grand Prix. Pontiac sold 140,000 in the U.S. last year. Its aspirations for the new model are simply to hold sales steady –but marketing director Bob Kraut insists that’d be a real achievement at a time when light trucks steadily lure away passenger car buyers.

With the exception of its minivan and the soon-to-be-scuttled Aztek, Pontiac intends to stay out of the light truck market. It doesn’t need to compete there because of its merger, a decade back, with General Motors’ upscale truck brand, GMC.

That pairing was critical, especially when one checks the numbers. Sales of Pontiac-badged vehicles have been falling steadily over the last few decades, from a peak of roughly 1 million cars in 1979, to just 516,832 last year. On the other hand, GMC had a record year in 2002, with its volume surging to 560,868.

The two nameplates are paired in a growing number of showrooms, so the Pontiac side can focus on what it does – or at least claims to do – best. And right now, with Lutz’s blessing, it may be in better shape to deliver than at any time in more than a decade. But as Meyers is aware, promises are one thing, execution another. So with an assortment of new products on the way, Pontiac will soon be put to the test.

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