I’ve been saying for years that Pontiac’s problem (and Buick’s) is they’ve both lost their former reasons for existing.
The Sloan/GM brand strategy of Chevy at the bottom and Caddy at the top - with a person working their way up the chain over the course of life - just doesn’t make sense anymore. GM controls less than half the market share it once commanded - and there are a dozen-plus competitiors on the scene today that didn’t even exist 20 odd years ago (Lexus, Acura, Infiniti ) or were minor presences that didn’t directly threaten GM then - but today surely do.
A pretty compelling argument can be made, in fact, that Toyota is the modern car industry’s Buick — selling a line of competent but generally nondescript “safe” cars (in terms of image and re-sale value and so on) that appeal to middle class family-type buyers. The very sort that once lined up to buy Park Avenues and LeSabres — yesterday’s Camrys and Avalons.
As for Pontiac — which in a former life was GM’s “upscale performance” division — Nissan, Mazda and Audi have that pretty well covered. Yet Pontiac keeps trying to jump-start its past with hastily tossed together badge-engineered cars like the “new” GTO (which is in fact an old Holden, updated with Pontiac styling cues) and the admittedly attractive (but duplicative) Solstice — which GM also sells under its Opel and Saturn nameplates. In general, it can’t seem to get out of the rental car rut — and has a long way to go if it hopes to be considered co-equal with Nissan, Mazda or Audi. Let alone BMW.
Also, both Pontiac and Buick long ago became “shell” divisions - having lost their independent powertrain and engineering departments. In the past, when you bought a Pontiac, you actually got a car with a different (and Pontiac-built) engine - not one with the identical (and Chevy-built, “corporate”) engine you’d find in other cars sold under different brands. Thus, the difference involved more than price and styling gimmicks — as it often does today. You got a substantially unique vehicle, with a personality and feel all its own. Those old enough to recall the mid-1970s, for example, will remember that even among corporate “twins” like GM’s F-cars (Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird) there was a meaningful difference in how each car drove. The Firebirds of the era offered very high-torque, large-displacement V-8s built by Pontiac (the 400 and 455 series) while the Camaros (excepting a handful of early “big block” SS models) featured smaller-displacement, higher RPM “small blocks” with wildly different power curves and operating characteristics.
All that’s gone, now. A Solstice is a Sky is an Opel GT. Identical drivetrains — different badges. Why does GM persist in this? You don’t see Toyota selling the Camry three different ways. Toyota may use the underlying platform more than once — but it doesn’t bald-facedly try to re-sell the same basic car under three or more nameplates.
The good news for GM is at least two of its formerly terminal divisions are making a comeback. Cadillac is a respectable luxury-sport brand — and Saturn is making progress with models like the VUE sport-utility, Sky roadster and the new Aura sedan — which received accolades at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. And Chevy trucks are poised to replace Fords as “America’s trucks” — for good reason. They are powerful, strong and (lately) incredibly sharp on the inside.
But GM still needs to cut the fat if it hopes to seal the still-leaking bulkheads and correct the list that’s been growing since the 1990s.
A respectful retirement party for Buick and Pontiac would be a great place to start.
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