Pontiac–The excitement has faded from the line up

Consumer Reports News: April 30, 2009 01:34 PM

Pontiac will join Hummer, Saab, and Saturn as orphaned GM brands, likely to fade into history like Oldsmobile before it. Shock is the first reaction I felt upon hearing the announcement, even though there was much evidence showing that Pontiac relied on huge incentives and unprofitable fleet sales to move metal. After all, Pontiac sold more cars than Buick and Cadillac combined in March 2009. In fact, Pontiac about tied Buick, Cadillac, Hummer, and Saab sales combined, thanks to the rental fleet staple and Oprah giveaway fave, the G6.

After reminiscing about GTOs and Firebirds past, and all the tires I’ve turned to smoke by Poncho power and a heavy right foot, it seemed worthwhile to take a closer look at Pontiac’s products today. The portfolio is an odd assemblage of models, most borrowed and straining to find “excitement” by any definition.

Today’s Pontiac
Links to vehicles below point to the model overview pages, where online subscribers can find ratings, road tests, reliability, owner cost, pricing data, and much more.

Working through the model range in alpha-numerical order, we find the G3 hatchback, a rebadged Chevrolet Aveo sold in Canada brought to the U.S. when fuel prices threatened to become European in scale. The Aveo, itself a Daewoo design, is an inferior model that trails its segment by most measures; it scored only a 31 out of 100 points in our tests). Even fuel economy (26 mpg) isn’t impressive. Finally, predicted reliability is worse than average. Pontiac sold just 141 G3 Waves last month in the United States. Apparently, the word is out, and the Wave caused nary a marketplace ripple.

The G5 is a rebadged Chevrolet Cobalt coupe, itself a lackluster small car. It sold just 532 examples last month. Despite my travels, I have not seen one on public roads.

The sales-leading G6 was launched with much hype, but it proved to be utterly lackluster and failed to build upon the promise of the retired Grand Prix. Instead it became a rental fleet mainstay. GM, in its infinite wisdom, made two versions of the G6 convertible--a power-operated rag top and a power retractable hard top–both of which must have been expensive to develop and manufacture. Our last tested G6, a $32,660 folding hardtop convertible, creaked like a haunted house.

The G8 sport sedan is a true high point in today’s product line and daresay in Pontiac history. This rear-drive Holden Commodore doppelganger is more than a worthy heir to the original and recent GTOs. Unfortunately, its timing could not have been worse as it was hit by rising gas prices and tight credit. It is a current hot rod and may be a future collectible. Shame it isn’t about to be rebadged as the next Chevy Impala, as the GXP would make a great SS.

The Solstice roadster and recent coupe are daring models, filled with promise but delivering more disappointment than excitement. Notable wind noise, a cumbersome folding top, poor top-up visibility, so-so shifter, and scant interior and trunk storage space make the Solstice a hard car to live with every day. Plus, reliability has been much worse than average, according to our latest subscriber survey. Sales are down 74 percent comparing this March against March 2008.

The Pontiac Torrent is another classic example of badge engineering, with precious little distinguishing it from the mediocre Chevrolet Equinox. In a competitive segment, neither vehicle is likely to make a shopper’s short list, as sales of just 1,100 examples last month attests. Clumsy handling, unrefined base engine, uncomfortable front seats, and subpar fit and finish are just the beginning. (The redesigned 2010 Chevrolet Equinox looks to be a marked improvement over the current generation, but the alternative version goes to GMC this time around.)

A mechanical twin to the Toyota Matrix, the Pontiac Vibe is an appealing, practical and affordable tall hatchback/wagon that has earned good marks in our testing. It isn't as polished as some competitors, with an unsettled ride, a boomy engine, an interior that feels cheap, and compromised rearward visibility. Fuel economy is impressive, and it packs a solid roster of safety equipment, including standard stability control.

Today’s Pontiac is an odd assortment of models, with Chevrolet, Daewoo, Holden, and Toyota products repackaged with twin-nostril grilles and dart-shaped badging. The brand has for decades provided a product roller coaster, with highs and lows marring an enviable reputation earned in the 1960s. Its inconsistency and memorable disappointments have left today’s buyers without a brand worthy of blind devotion and a product line that can’t stand on its own merits.

Jeff Bartlett

Read: "Personal picks: Pontiacs, modern and classic."

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