Saturday, February 7, 2009

A Future for Pontiac

It appears Pontiac's circling the drain.

They build excitement, all right...

It's certainly GM's prerogative to shut down a poor-selling brand that's largely a clone to Chevy. 20-something years of a brand identity consisting of plastic cladding and crappy fog lights will leave a mark that's hard to wipe off with the occasional decent car. I believe there's hope for the pointy-arrow brand. Let me play Al Sloan for a bit.

GM has a long history of getting it right when they want, particularly when it comes to parts-bin specials. These would be limited production, performance-oriented models largely based on existing platforms. Pontiac's future lies in performance-oriented versions of other mass-market GM products.

Certainly better than the Torrent GXP

The list is long and awesome. There was the Impala SS, a mixture of Corvette engine and cop car drivetrain. For those feeling a bit truckish, we have the Syclone and Typhoon evil twins. In recent times, Chevy's managed to give us the platform-mate HHR SS and Cobalt SS, sporting 260hp of turbocharged Ecotec goodness. Last but not least, there's the GNX, an uber version of the Grand National, itself a seriously juiced up Regal.

As much as it pains me to point them out, the Hummer H2 and H3 fit this mold as well. While Hummer has become the go-to brand for the those wishing to make the wrong statement about themselves, the potential was there. They could've skipped the ridiculous sheet metal and the terrible ad campaigns in favor of more ground clearance, but let's not dwell on it for the time being. The point is, GM has a wide array of powertrains and chassis' that can be altered from the factory for remarkable performance.

Back to Pontiac. With the exception of the G8, the entire Pontiac lineup is badge-engineered from other GM products, so why not add some upgrades in middle of the the copy-past operation?

Specifically, I propose two tiers of every Pontiac: a "base" that's still a notch sportier than the Chevy counterpart, and the GXP (do we really have to stick with GXP?) that's the over-the-top headline getter. The GXPs will be the attention getters and buzz-generators, but the base models will be the volume sellers (as it's always been).

Pontiac By Mad Science™ will need to break from the GM mold in a few key areas, however. Firstly, they must embrace manual transmissions. I know they only represent something like a 10% take rate and cost more to certify for CAFE and EPA, but if you're the performance brand, you need to offer three pedals in every model. Secondly, they're going to need to offer real, substantial performance upgrades and avoid appearance-only "sport" packages. Springs, shocks, swaybars and a decently constructed driver's seat will go farther than you could imagine (particularly when accompanied by a manual trans). Stickers, cladding, and enchaced seat fabric are The Devil's Tools.

Lastly, they must take front wheel drive (and even all wheel drive) performance seriously. GM knows how to build kickass RWD monsters, but the ability to build a legitimate WRX, GTI, MINI or Integra/RSX (RIP) competitor will be crucial going forward. $30-50k AMG and M slayers are great, but the $18-25k sport compacts will build your brand. Ask anyone who grew up in the 90s and now makes enough to purchase the car of their choice (hi mom!).

Let's move on to specific examples. Namely, the G5. The Pontiac G5 is a half-ass rebadge of the Cobalt. In my Pontiac, the base G5 would be the 171hp upgraded naturally aspirated Ecotec, with a GXP cloning the Cobalt SS.

Photo Courtesy member 1WhiteSSTC, via Wikipedia

However, in my GM, there would be no Cobalt SS, as Chevy is the everyman's brand and Pontiac is the performance brand. Any performance GM car that doesn't have a brand history (e.g., Camaro or Corvette) would be a Pontiac.

Lastly, even the much-ballyhooed Aveo/G3 cousinhood could bear tasty fruit. Take the VW Polo GTI or Fiesta Zetec S as a benchmark. Even low-end subcompacts can be a hoot with lively suspension tuning, 120-150hp and a manual gearbox. The G3 could be the Polo GTI in North America.

Why Not?

However, a niche Pontiac would be unlikely to stand on its own. Putting my Sloan hat back on, I see Chevy existing as a volume selling, complete brand with trucks, cars and performance all rolled into one. The other GM brands, as a group, would constitute a parallel brand, with less emphasis on volume and more emphasis on filling in niches left by Chevy. As such, Pontiac-Buick-GMC (-Saturn?) dealers won't feel left out in the cold.

So, could this work? I wouldn't have taken all this time out of my otherwise busy Friday night to draft this diatribe if I didn't think so.


Braff said...

I like it... good idea.
You could carry this over to Chrysler/Dodge as well with Chrysler being entry level up to "luxury" then let Dodge handle the performance versions...

I wonder if we could build up your blog and get some press cars in to review?

Mad Science said...

I'm working on building up some consistency. Trying to get 1-2 posts written every weekend, but it's been a bit hectic recently.

I've got a decent backlog of posts. Some along these lines, several about past cars I've had, and a few how-to type things.

I'm trying to build this as a portfolio to refer to should any of our favorite sites need contributors (or should things go south at my day job).

Suzie said...

Pontiac and I broke up after it started fooling around with the Aztek, and things have never been the same between us since...

Mad Science said...

The Aztek was really inevitable given the crowd Pontiac was messing with before that.

You should've seen the signs: the body cladding, the spoilers, the near-abandonment of RWD sportscars...

Troy Sherk said...

@Mad Science:

I know this post is old, but I just wanted to stand up for the spoilers on Pontiacs, lol. I own a '96 Grand Prix coupe and I've read that the spoilers are actually functional in that they improve the aerodynamic properties of the car by breaking up the airflow coming across the back window. They don't provide any significant downforce, but they at least do something.