GM loses some fine cars with death of Pontiac and Saturn

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Scott Burgess

GM loses some fine cars with death of Pontiac and Saturn

For years, General Motors Corp. has been accused of relying on trucks and not building enough cars.

Many say that’s why the company is on the verge of bankruptcy right now. So when last week’s announcement confirmed what has been percolating for months and the Saturn and Pontiac brands would be killed, it seemed like an oxymoron. These two brands have some of GM’s best cars and not a single truck in their lineups.

Sadly, these brands were murdered by General Motors Corp. over the course of two decades through neglect, indifference and arrogance. Technically, it was negligent homicide, but no charges will ever be pressed when Saturn goes down at the end of this year and Pontiac follows in 2010.

Hidden behind the low sales figures and global platforms are a handful of excellent vehicles that should have been homeruns but fell short of the fences due to consumer indifference, poor planning and a collection of other factors.

GM’s ineptitude created losers out of the Saturn Astra and Aura while Pontiac couldn’t bring sexy back to its image with the G8. At least these two brands will go down with their best –and most original — lineups ever.

Here are the best of what the world will lose when Saturn and Pontiac dealerships close:

Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky: The only affordable roadster built by any American automaker. When the Soltice arrived as a concept, it wowed so many people GM decided to build it. To make it affordable, GM created the Sky to go along with it, one of the best rebadging of any GM vehicle. In the past, a quick change to the front end would act as a way to say it was a different car.

Their little 2.4-liter four cylinder engine produced 173 horsepower and managed 25 mpg on the highway. They were comfortable, sporty and fun to drive, providing rear-wheel drive pleasure in a car that could drop its top in under a minute. Their high performance versions, the GXP and Red Line were even more outrageous on the road.

Saturn Aura: This should have been received as well as the Chevrolet Malibu. It’s a fantastic sedan. The interior impressed the critics and the customers, but it never hit high sales numbers. Now it could come filled with gold and people would opt for another vehicle.

I blame GM for this car’s failure to launch. When the Saturn first arrived, GM did not offer a four-cylinder engine. It came with a standard V-6. Didn’t anyone notice that more people buy midsize cars with a four-cylinder than one with six? A few years later, Saturn included a four-banger in the mix, but the damage was done. Saturn even introduced a new version of the Aura with a four-cylinder engine and six-speed transmission that reached 33 mpg on the highway — out performing much of the competition, but it’s not going to last.

The Aura also came as a mild hybrid, using an engine start-stop system. People may not realize it now, but eventually, every car and truck will use a system like this.

Saturn Astra: After many people clamored for European styling and performance, GM introduced the Saturn Astra. It is one of the best compacts available today. This car is the Opel Astra. It’s built in Europe. The only changes to it were the bumper and the speedometer. On the road, the Astra is a hoot to drive. The suspension is taut, the acceleration quick and its overall performance very sporting.

But no longer, all of that European styling and performance will have to go back to Europe.

Pontiac G8: This is a phenomenal car and the best sports sedan with a starting price tag under $30,000. The 6-liter V-8 model could launch like an Apollo rocket with its 355 horsepower and 384-pound feet of torque. Those numbers are insane for such a clean cut looking sedan. But it was the way the car could handle that much power that makes it so impressive. It has BMW and Audi type handling with more power.

The 3.6-liter V-6 model is almost nearly as impressive with its road manners and agility. Then there is the 400+ horsepower G8 GXP. The single best performance sedan GM makes. Seeing this car disappear is truly sad.

Pontiac Vibe: Next to the Astra, the Vibe was GM’s second best compact car. The little wagon, built along the same assembly line as the Toyota Matrix, was widely touted by consumer organizations for its versatility and performance. It’s high gas mileage (26 mpg city/32 mpg highway) made it an economical choice as well.

The car was redesigned for the 2009 model year and the improvements — inside and out — made it a better choice than the Matrix.

Saturn Outlook: I don’t know if anyone will miss the Saturn Outlook. It was one of the new generation large crossovers GM started building a few years ago. It also was the cheapest of the three, which includes the GMC Acadia, Buick Enclave and Chevy Traverse.

The big third row and user friendly features completed Saturn’s revamped lineup and gave it a vehicle for every purpose.

Saturn Vue: There’s nothing too original, as it is based on the Opel Antara. However, it’s heavy weight may have kept it from becoming a top performing moderately sized crossover/SUV. The real loss with seeing this vehicle disappear was that it would have represented GM’s first attempt at a V-6 two-mode hybrid. GM had planned to build a hybrid Vue with it’s 3.6-liter V-6 and electric motor. This system could have made it into more vehicles that use GM’s 3.6-liter engine — which is a whole lot.

Losing the Vue means losing another opportunity to develop a gas electric hybrid system, which has proved popular with many customers.

As dealerships close, and the cars become more rare, people will feel that sense of nostalgia that a Plymouth or Oldsmobile may stir. And Pontiac’s rich history, one that spanned more than 80 years, has a number of great cars. But that no longer matters.

Soon, die-hard, no-haggle Saturn customers and Pontiac enthusiasts will have to look elsewhere for quality coupes and sedans. So will GM.

The brands that once exemplified individuality in uniquely different terms will now join the host of others on a list of auto companies at the Henry Ford Museum with a line scored through their names. Rest in Peace.

But the shame isn’t the death of the brands that once brought us dent resistant doors and the GTO. No, the true tragedy is as they disappear, so do the vehicles that should have helped GM re-establish itself as a quality carmaker and not just a company that sells cars and makes trucks.

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