Detroit At The Crossroads, Part 1: The Death Of Pontiac

With today's announcement of the death of Pontiac, I figure it's time for me to say something about GM, Chrysler, and the American auto industry in general. First up: General Motors.

First off, I'm sorry to see Pontiac go. I've never been much of a GM man, but of the traditional five GM divisions (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac) I always liked the Pontiacs the best. With a few exceptions (cough, Aztek, cough) their design seemed to appeal to me more. Unfortunately for Pontiac, not enough Americans agreed with me.

It's hard to imagine now, but there was once a time when the divisions built their own engines and ran with a great deal of autonomy. Those days are long gone, of course, and that is one of the reasons that Pontiac was given a death sentence today. It's one thing when models are shared across divisions--that sort of thing has happened for decades, and not too many people had trouble telling the Chevrolet Chevelle from the Oldsmobile 442, Buick Skylark, and Pontiac Grand Prix (or, for our friends in the Great White North, the Beaumont Acadian). It's another thing entirely to bolt on a new grille and taillights, replace the marque badges, and call it a different car, which is precisely what has been happening with Pontiac. Sure, the G6 has its own bodywork, but the G5 is a Chevy Cobalt with a split grille, the execrable G3 is a barely-disguised Chevy Aveo that's really a Daewoo, and the Torrent is a Chevy Equinox. Even the Solstice, arguably the best-looking of the bunch, is also sold as a Saturn Sky. And finally, the G8, as good as it is, is really an Australian Holden Commodore under its red arrow badges, although since the Commodore isn't sold here under its own name, the badge engineering is less objectionable. At least it was an improvement over the Bonneville.

But with all that platform sharing, the question begs to be asked: why have a Pontiac division at all? 40 years ago, when GM still held a majority of the American auto market, it made sense to have variations on a theme, the better to capture more buyers. If you didn't like the swoop of a chrome strip on the Chevy version, you could have a Pontiac. And so GM was able to capture buyers who might otherwise have bought a Plymouth or a Ford. In today's shrinking automotive marketplace, however, all that duplication became a liability. As GM's market share shrunk to historic lows, it faced competition from the juggernauts that are Honda, Nissan, and Toyota, each of whom has exactly two sales channels apiece in the United States (Toyota's third brand, Scion, is sold exclusively through Toyota dealers). In the compact segment of the market, where Honda fields the Civic, Nissan the Sentra, and Toyota the Corolla, GM has been attempting to counter with 3 vehicles: The Chevy Cobalt, Pontiac G5, and Saturn Astra, all of which are built off the same basic GM Delta platform. The Astra, which is built in Belgium by Opel, is a rebadge of the Opel Astra, also sold in the UK by Vauxhall and Australia by Holden. Its predecessor, the Saturn Ion, was also a Delta-platform product. The strategy appears to be that if you can't compete with the imports on quality, you can baffle your customers with complexity. (Granted, Toyota also sells the Matrix, which is based on the Corolla; but the Matrix is sufficiently different enough to appeal to a different segment than the Corolla sedan.)

It's an interesting strategy, but not one that appears to be working very well. With a mishmash of confused marketing messages, GM is trying to sell one vehicle to a whole bunch of different people, and to convince them at the same time that they're not the same thing. Good luck with that. Show the average consumer a side view of the Cobalt, the G5, and the Astra, and most of them won't be able to tell the difference. A G5 looks like a Cobalt coupe, and even the Astra, while a hatchback instead of a three-box sedan, bears the telltale marks of platform sharing (hint: look at the shape of the rear side window frames and compare to a Cobalt sedan).

All of that duplication is senseless, of course, which is why we've arrived where we are today. Pontiac, once the "We Build Excitement" division, was reduced to selling indifferently-built Korean econoboxes and rebadged Chevrolet SUVs, and had to rely on our Australian friends for its flagship sedan. You can blame it on GM management, who for years have figured that if something sells as a Chevy, it'll also sell as a Pontiac; you can also blame the dealers, who wanted to sell a "full line" without regard for whether or not it damaged the brand. Small wonder that it received its death warrant today. It'll be strange not having Pontiac around, but it can fairly be said that it's been dying the death of a thousand cuts for years now. At least someone finally had the courage to do the decent thing and put a bullet in it.