Pontiac Should Have Been Great. GM Killed It Instead.

By automotive-mag.com 14 Min Read

Even at 92, Bob Lutz doesn’t mince words when talking about Pontiac.

“The Aztek was a tragedy. The execution was bad, the interior was bad, it was unspeakably awful. I couldn’t believe it, I said ‘How was it possible that a bunch of automotive professionals could put something like that before the public?’ It was insane.”

The former Vice Chairman of Product Development at GM recognized Pontiac’s problems from the moment he walked through the door. Even though the company was still selling nearly half a million cars by the turn of the millennium, Pontiac was tired, its lineup dated, and at that point, nearly every model was a rebadged Chevrolet. The Aztek certainly didn’t help. But where exactly did Pontiac go wrong?

You can trace the problems back to the late 1980s. A new Firebird in and the Fiero in 1984 helped boost sales to a record 850,000 cars that same year. But it started to taper in 1990 as the rest of the Pontiac lineup moved to shared front-wheel-drive platforms. Pontiac went from 850,000 cars sold in 1984 to 636,000 in 1990. Then Pontiac saw its worst year in three decades; The company sold just 479,000 cars in 1996.

“There was a period in the late ’80s and all through the ’90s when General Motors did not take care of its brands,” Lutz tells Motor1. “And it was sort of a one size fits all, all the sedans were pretty much the same, the Pontiac Grand Am was the same as the Oldsmobile—it was a differentiation in some body panels. Pontiac gets all the cladding, and the advertising message said, ‘We build excitement.’ Well, we build excitement how?”

The Fiero only lasted four years before Pontiac pulled the plug on its affordable sporty car, and the fifth-generation Firebird introduced in 1993 wasn’t well-received—nor was its mechanically identical sibling the fourth-generation Camaro. Pontiac continued its run of unappealing, front-drive-based economy cars into the millennium.

“The advertising message said, ‘We build excitement.’ Well, we build excitement how?”

But in 2001, GM hired Bob Lutz. Again. Lutz started his career at GM in 1963, working for its European division before leaving for BMW in 1971. He saw firsthand what the Pontiac brand was capable of: The Tempest, the Grand Prix, the GTO. His mission was to fix a brand that had lost its way.

“I remember the days when Pontiac was arguably the most exciting brand within GM and had cars like the GTO and the Judge… and I saw no reason why we couldn’t bring that back,” Lutz says.

Pontiac Tempest Sport Coupe

Lutz wanted to make Pontiac something like GM’s version of Dodge. It would have a coupe rivaling the Challenger, a rear-wheel-drive sedan to take on the Charger, and a sporty two-seater acting as a Viper competitor. And of course, with GM’s repertoire of powerful engines, a Hellcat alternative was just a phone call away.

True to that thinking, Bob’s first order of business was a new GTO. Bucking the trend of boring, front-wheel-drive cars, the new GTO was based on the rear-drive Australian Holden Maloo. It had a 350-horsepower LS1 V-8 when it debuted in 2004, and when that engine was retired, Pontiac swapped in a more powerful 400-HP LS2. The re-badged Holden was a quick fix for Pontiac, an easy way to inject excitement into the brand without starting from scratch.

“[Holden] felt their mission was very similar to Pontiac,” Lutz says. “Popularly priced, beautifully styled cars with a rich racing heritage and high-performance variants. That’s what Holden was. Every now and then, Car and Driver or Road & Track would bring over one Holden, and they’d test it, and the cover story would say, ‘Good news: the best car General Motors builds. The bad news: you can’t buy it.’ I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? Why can’t we fix it so the American public could buy it?’ So Holden was the center of excellence for reasonably low-cost, rear-wheel drive sedans, wagons, utes, and coupes.”

Pontiac GTO

The Pontiac GTO was a triumph on paper, at least—huge power, excellent rear-drive proportions, and great handling. It was everything Lutz dreamed of for the US. But when it showed up two years too late with outdated styling and an inflated price tag, Americans rejected it. What should have been a $25,000 high-performance coupe turned into a $34,000 outdated muscle car. Production lasted just two years until 2006.

But in that same year, Pontiac would replace the dated Grand Am with a new G6. The G6 debuted with a 200-horsepower V-6 engine and more standard equipment than most of its competitors—things like air conditioning and a power driver’s seat. It was a success.

Pontiac sold 124,844 units of the G6 in its first full year on sale in 2005, peaking at nearly 160,000 units the following year. It would get a convertible variant in 2006 that was questionably received, a revamped engine lineup in 2007, and a four-cylinder in 2009 as the rest of the market downsized, too.

Pontiac G6 Sedan

“I caught [the G6] in time to where I was able to eliminate a lot of the bad-taste stuff,” Lutz says. “The body was actually very pretty, but the interior was a disaster. So I had them redo the interior, add some little touches of bright trim on the inside, tasteful little wood inserts on the door panels, and that was a step in the right direction.”

The G6 was positioned as Pontiac’s savior. In a world where Pontiac still exists, the G6 would have been its halo car—a four-door Camaro, a Blackwing for the masses. Unfortunately, GM’s Alpha platform wouldn’t be ready until well after Pontiac had been put to rest.

“The next stepping stone, which would have been the final step in the rehab of the Pontiac brand, was the next generation G6 based off the Cadillac Alpha chassis. And that underpins the current Camaro… The G6 was going to get that same architecture. De-premium-ized a little bit from Cadillac to save some costs, remove some sound deadening, etc. But it was basically going to be the smallest Cadillac with a totally unique Pontiac body, lightweight, agile, powerful V-6 engines, or a high-performance four. And I think that would have put Pontiac back on the map. And that would have given the brand a meaningful differential in the GM lineup.”

“And I’ll tell you, the Cadillac Alpha-based G6 would have been a smash hit,” Lutz says.

A year after Pontiac revamped the G6, Lutz introduced his first real pet project. The Solstice debuted in production form at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show and went on sale the following year. The Solstice was the first Pontiac two-seater since the Fiero and an absolute design boon for the brand.

The man responsible for its sophisticated sculpting was Franz von Holzhausen, who helped it win design of the year. These days, von Holzhausen is smashing windows of Cybertrucks and designing the entirety of Tesla’s lineup. But that’s another story.

For Lutz, at least, the Solstice was exactly the car he imagined for the Pontiac brand. Even if it wasn’t designed to be a high seller.

“[The Solstice] was almost my first official act when I got to GM,” he says. “The goal was to kick off a low-priced two-seat sports car for Pontiac. It was basically the same trick I pulled at Chrylser with the Viper. It wasn’t about how many you sell and how profitable it is, but it was all about revitalizing the brand, getting attention back on the brand, and creating some genuine excitement around the brand.”

Pontiac Solstice

The Solstice was a smash hit in its short time on sale. More than 7,000 customers ordered one during its first 10 days on sale, and another 6,000 orders came in just before winter. The Solstice was so sought after that GM had to increase production. They sold 65,724 of them in just four years, about as many C8 Corvettes Chevrolet sold in its first two years on sale.

The Solstice felt like the first major turning point for Pontiac under Lutz’s watch. The tumultuous ’90s left the brand a shell of its former self, but an affordable sports car akin to the hugely successful Fiero was exactly the injection Pontiac needed to kickstart a more-profitable future.

Bob looked yet again to Australia as Pontiac unknowingly inched closer to bankruptcy. This time, salvation came in the form of a big-bodied sedan—the Holden Commodore. Pontiac would import it as the G8 early in 2008, and it would become one of the brand’s most powerful modern cars with the 415-hp GXP trim in 2009.

“I still think [the G8] is one of the most-beautiful, beautifully proportioned, best-surfaced—It’s one of the prettiest sedans ever. And with the 6.2-liter engine and the six-speed manual, it was just one hell of a great sedan.”

Pontiac G8 GXP

By 2008, Lutz’s transformation was nearly complete. Pontiac had a fully fleshed out, highly competitive lineup; the G5, the G6, the G8, the Grand Prix, the Solstice, and a Chevy-based SUV for the masses. Even with a financial crisis looming, the company was moving more than 350,000 cars a year.

And then the bottom fell out.

On April 27, 2009, Pontiac was no more. Spurred on by a global financial crisis, three of GM’s other worst-performing brands would go with it: Hummer, Saab, and Saturn. For all of Lutz’s hard work in a relatively short seven-year span, it was too little too late. Struggles with upper GM management and slow sales of newer models eventually sealed Pontiac’s fate.

Pontiac would keep selling cars well into bankruptcy due to high demand, with the final G6 rolling off the production line in 2010. And with that, the Pontiac brand was relegated to a file cabinet deep within the annals of the Renaissance Center. An unjust death.

Pontiac Grand Prix Badge

But what would Pontiac look like if it still existed today? According to Lutz, we’d all be driving around in supercharged sedans and sports cars, ripping clouds of white smoke at every stop sign and red light. With a sporty SUV or two, of course.

“It would be a family of rear-wheel drive sedans,” he says. “The Solstice would unquestionably still be around, just in a new generation. The G6 would still be around, probably a second-generation body off of the Cadillac Alpha architecture, and then—because sedans aren’t very popular anymore—the Holden-based sedans would probably be gone, and because Holden is gone too. And then there would probably be a couple, or three, high-performance Porsche Cayenne-style Sport utilities.”

What a dream that would be.

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