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Pontiac tries to revive brand

By MATT NAUMAN

Knight Ridder Newspapers​


DETROIT - Pretty soon, the Fremont-built Vibe sport wagon will be the oldest vehicle in the Pontiac lineup.

That says a lot about the pace of change at Pontiac, because the Vibe is still something of a newcomer. It first went on sale as a 2003 model.

''We call this our Pontiac renaissance,'' Dennis Maraone, Pontiac's product director, said last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. ''And 2005 is the apex of that renaissance.''

General Motors executives used to tout Pontiac as its ''we build excitement'' brand, and now they want it to return to its performance roots.

One analyst likes what he sees.

''I'm fairly impressed with the direction that brand is going,'' said Mike Chung, a pricing and market analyst with edmunds.com.

''They're doing a lot to focus on a new generation of buyers that really do care about styling.''

Of course, you might need a scorecard to keep track of the comings and goings at Pontiac.

Bonneville: Production of Pontiac's large sedan ends in the summer. Pontiac first raced a Bonneville in 1957, and first sold a car with that name to the public in 1958. Sales peaked at 135,401 in 1966, and last neared 100,000 more than a decade ago. Only 29,852 Bonnevilles were sold in 2004.

Sunfire: Very similar to the also-departing Chevy Cavalier, the entry-level Sunfire ends its run in June. It has only been a two-door model in recent years. In 2004, dealers sold 36,095 Sunfires.

Aztek: Critically panned, and Exhibit A of what was wrong with how GM brought vehicles to market in the '90s, the Aztek sport-utility is this generation's Edsel. Only about 17,000 were sold in 2004, and production of the final 2005 models ended in December.

Montana/Grand Am: Production of the previous-generation Montana minivan ended in September. The Grand Am sedan is now sold only to fleet buyers, while production of the old-style Grand Am GT and GT1 coupes ends next month.

Now, the arrivals:

G6: It made its debut with a televised splash in the fall, as TV talker Oprah Winfrey gave away a few hundred of them to her delighted audience members. The mid-size sedan has attracted a higher-income, higher-educated buyer to Pontiac showrooms than the Grand Am it replaced, Maraone said. ''It's much more of an aspirational brand,'' he said.

A G6 coupe arrives in late spring, while a G6 hardtop convertible goes on sale early in 2006. Each will offer what's called 2plus2 seating, meaning they have back seats with 35 inches of legroom and longer doors that allow for easier entry and exit. GT models will carry a 200-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6, while GTP variants will have a 240-horsepower, high-output 3.9-liter V-6. The GTP versions offer a six-speed manual shifter.

Combined, the three G6 models will sell about 200,000 units a year, GM says.

Torrent: This compact SUV shares GM's Theta architecture with the Chevy Equinox and the Saturn Vue. It replaces the Aztek in Pontiac's lineup, but it's a different kind of vehicle in a different segment. In fact, Pontiac publicists insist on characterizing the Torrent as Pontiac's ''first SUV.''

''It's a much more sport-tuned type of vehicle,'' Maraone said. ''It has Pontiac looks. It's a true Pontiac that rides and handles very well.''

It'll be sold in front- or all-wheel-drive models, each equipped with a 185-horsepower, 3.4-liter V-6 and a five-speed automatic transmission. It's six inches longer, two inches narrower and about the same height as the Aztek it replaces. The Torrent's size -- ''it's one of the largest sport-utilities in the small segment class that it plays in,'' Maraone said -- and its flexible seats and large storage capability are its selling points.

Production of the 2006 Torrent starts in midsummer, and they'll start arriving at dealerships in late August or early September. Pricing hasn't been announced. The Aztek sells for $21,530 to $24,445. Chevy's Equinox sells for $21,220 to $24,560. Saturn's Vue sells for $17,055 to $24,315.

Solstice: A whole new type of vehicle for Pontiac, and the one likely to carry the torch as the new face of the Pontiac, the two-seat Solstice roadster arrives in late summer as a 2006 model.

''We think it'll be a phenomenal product,'' Maraone said. ''It embodies what Pontiac is all about.''

Stylish with a low, wide stance, the Solstice closely resembles the concept version that first appeared at the 2002 North American International Auto Show. It's a rear-wheel-drive car with a 170-horsepower four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission. It's expected to cost less than $20,000.

It's the Solstice's design that stands out. It's a bit rounder than a BMW Z4, and a bit more aggressive than a Mazda Miata. It carries Pontiac's signature twin-port grille.

Or, as Lutz said, ''You have to go back to 'The Rockford Files' to find a Pontiac that looked this good.'' Seventies TV detective Jim Rockford drove a gold Pontiac Firebird.

Montana SV6: One of four new minivans being sold as cross-over sport vans by GM, the Montana SV6 is very similar to the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Relay. Each is sold in front- or all-wheel-drive models, and comes equipped with a 200-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 and a four-speed automatic transmission. A rear-seat DVD entertainment system is standard, while a remote starter, a 110-volt outlet, side-impact air bags and a 40-gigabyte hard-drive removable entertainment system called PhatNoise are options.

Three other vehicles carry on for Pontiac. The Vibe, built at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, got some cosmetic changes and new safety options such as side-curtain air bags and GM's StabiliTrak stability system for 2005. With a starting price of $17,130, the Vibe will become the cheapest Pontiac once the Sunfire ($10,895 to $15,205) departs.

Pontiac also sells the Grand Prix sedan and the GTO coupe, which got a 400-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-8 as well as bigger brakes, polished exhaust tips and an optional hood with twin air scoops for 2005. At $32,295, it'll become the most expensive Pontiac once the Bonneville GXP ends production.

The changes in Pontiac, which celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2006, began when it dropped its iconic Firebird model after the 2002 model year. It added the Vibe in 2003, put out a Grand Prix without body-side cladding and revived the GTO nameplate in 2004.

Brand spokesman Jim Hopson was only half joking when he said that, compared with Cadillac, Pontiac's renaissance has been ''not nearly as bombastic.''

And he's right. While the transformation of Cadillac from the seller of stodgy Devilles and Fleetwood Broughams to cutting-edge vehicles like the CTS sedan, XLR roadster and SRX sport-utility has been well-publicized, Pontiac's transformation has largely happened under the radar.

''We've been quietly changing what Pontiac means and what it is,'' Hopson said. ''Now it's back to what we've always believed it should be.''
 
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