Matthew Romack profile picture Matthew Romack a year ago
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GTO, Solstice, and G8; Pontiac's Swan Song

GTO, Solstice, and G8; Pontiac's Swan Song - Blog

It was a cool and slightly breezy day in Lake Orion on November 25th, 2009. Most people didn’t mark it as a particularly important day. Some were busy preparing for Thanksgiving the following day, others were traveling, and still more were doing some last-minute shopping. As Phil Collins would say, merely “another day in paradise”.

But for the GM employees hard at work in the Lake Orion Assembly plant, it felt much colder inside than outside. The air was damp and heavy, and an aura of sadness hung in the air. Then there was a pause, and a collective sigh, as a white Pontiac G6 sedan passed final inspection and rolled off the line at 12:45 PM. While most of us were eating lunch, history had been made. After 83 years and over 41 million cars produced, Pontiac functionally, as well as officially, ceased to exist as an active brand. There was no press, no fanfare, no going-away party. GM didn’t invite owners to swap stories or say goodbye. They simply closed, and locked the doors. The workers went home, enjoyed Thanksgiving with their families, and went back to work finishing the last batch of Pontiac G3 Waves destined for the Canadian market. Then, the plant closed. It was a sad and anticlimactic end to the sad story that was Pontiac in the early 2000s, and an even sadder end to a once-great car company. Pontiac had risen from a stop-gap placeholder on the way to owning a Cadillac, to being the name synonymous with everyday performance. They gave us the GTO, Firebird, Fiero, and they made Burt Reynolds famous. In the end, Pontiac’s offerings included the G6, Vibe subcompact, and even a minivan. A book could be written about Pontiac’s fall from grace, but today let’s take a look back at the recent past, and Pontiac’s last grasp at greatness: the final 3 great Pontiac performance cars— the GTO, the Solstice, and G8. This is Pontiac’s swan song.

The GM lineup from 2000-2009 wasn’t much to write home about. The cars were generally slow and boring, with little sense of style to speak of. Pontiac was no exception, and with the Aztek forever tainting Pontiac’s reputation. Pontiac was in desperate need of a boost. The GTO 04-06, Solstice 06-10, and G8 08-09, were supposed to deliver that much-needed boost of fun and horsepower. They were all good cars, but a slowing and then crashing economy killed them before they had a chance to really shine. These cars were Pontiacs last-ditch effort to save their brand and their performance image.

GTO, retro name, modern muscle.

2006 Pontiac GTO
2006 Pontiac GTO

Few names in the car game carry more weight than GTO. This car was and is an icon of the muscle car era, classic examples are highly sought after, And still, turn heads everywhere they go. So when Pontiac wanted to revamp brand image with more power and jump on the retro craze of the early 2000s. Bringing back the GTO only made sense. Everyone knew the name and knew what it meant. Fast and fun. But the new GTO, produced from 2004-2006, passed into relative obscurity. Ask most car guys my age and younger for their dream car list and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a GTO. The only time we tend to get excited, or even remember them is when we see a good used one on the road. I personally only remembered when on went on sale at my dealership. But the GTO was and still is a great car,
It followed the old GTO formula of a big engine putting out lots of power in a smaller car. The GTO had the specs to impress, with over 400 hp and 300ft of torque, the GTO went 0-60 in 5 seconds and hit 102 in 14 flat in the quarter-mile. Critics praised the handling of the GTO and thoroughly enjoyed the seats, not something many can say about sports car seats or any GM seats of that era. They did complain about the lack of options and mushy clutch. But that too was true to forum of old GTO, it was about driving, not tech. But the big problem with the new GTO was a combination of timing and economics. The GTO hit the market in 2004, GM was hoping to get people back into Pontiacs by invoking nostalgia with the GTO name. But Ford was also looking to invoke nostalgia with the new old Mustang. The 2005 Mustang was a radical departure from the previous Mustang and a look that was more true to the original car. The round headlights and the optional round lights in the grill gave the Mustang a look all its own while also looking like the classics. People loved them and ponied up for them. The GTO however didn’t look like a GTO of past. it was a rebadged Holden. It’s modern car that looked like a modern car. The only thing retro about the GTO was the badge. The Mustang offered retro styling and performance at a lower price, and consumers took notice. In 2004 13,569 GTOs were sold, but 15,728 were imported, that hurt. By 2006 the sales simply weren’t high enough to justify extending the limited run of the new GTO. But they live on with a cult following. The one at my dealership sold in one day.

Solstice, GMs Miata

2007 Pontiac Solstice
2007 Pontiac Solstice

When you think of a roadster, often the first car that comes to mind is the Miata. It’s like an old leather jacket: it might not quite fit, but it’s fun and familiar. GM was looking to spice up Pontiac’s lineup with a familiar leather jacket of its own, but this one would be new.

The Solstice, and its alternatively branded cousin the Saturn Sky, was a direct competitor to the long-toothed Miata, and a fun, albeit slower alternative to the soon-to-be discontinued GTO. The Solstice was a small roadster with strong lines and a very sporty appearance. It was something new and fresh for GM: bold, fun, and hell, even a bit exciting. For the first time in a while, Pontiac generated some buzz. The car was well received at auto shows, and GM shortly started production. Sure enough, the car was an instant hit. Sales for 2006 topped out at 19,710, outpacing the Miata’s 16,897 units. Reviews were positive too. Motorweek compared the Solstice and Miata directly, and found the American newcomer to be a nice surprise. They praised the handling, ride, composure, and looks of the Solstice. The only real complaints were a small trunk, and a top that could only be folded away from outside of the car. They loved the look too: it flowed better than the then-current generation Miata, which appeared a bit bulbous, and too closely resembled the last-gen car. The Solstice also had one other advantage over the Miata: a turbo option. The Solstice GXP put out 260HP and 260ftlbs of torque, blowing away the 166HP the Miata produced. The Mazdaspeed Miata went away in 2005, and Mazda had no plains on returning it to the market. So the GXP reigned supreme in the small sportscar class, and the Solstice seemed to be driving into a bright summer ahead. Unfortunately, autumn chilled the Solstice too soon, in 2008. As both Pontiac and Saturn were axed by the newly bankrupt GM, the Solstice was caught in the crossfire, and never saw a second generation. The Solstice was simply a great car at the wrong time— nothing more, nothing less.

G8. German Performance from the land down under.

2009 Pontiac G8
2009 Pontiac G8

The BMW M3 is perhaps the best known performance sedan of all time. It’s fast, composed, stylish, fun, and well built (well, for a BMW.) Nothing in GM’s lineup in the early 2000s could compare or even touch the M3. Sure, the corvette was technically faster, but it also costed more. GM at the time mainly built slow, boring, and uninspired cars and SUVs. Even Pontiac was dragged into the mediocratic morass. Though the GTO and Solstice offered a small dose of fun, the rest of the lineup was grade A, USDA choice boring.

In a last-ditch effort to bring passion back to Pontiac, GM looked down under for some inspiration. Holden, for many decades and until very recently GM’s Australian subsidiary, had a long history of making fun and fast cars. In fact, it’s what Holden was best known for. As a part of the happy GM family, it was a simple proposition to bring some of the cars over. And certainly not for the first time— the revived GTO itself was also rebadged Holden.

GM chose the Holden Commodore to export, for a couple of reasons. First off, it was a full-sized car but not as big as other full-sized offerings. This allowed for better handling and composure in corners. The plan was to have the Commodore, rechristened the G8 in the states, replace Pontiac’s last full-sized offering, the Bonneville. The Commodore itself also had a very versatile platform. The Ute, the awesome sports truck thing synonymous with Aussie motor culture, shared a platform with the Commodore, and a sportwagon variant was also available. If sales of the G8 took off, the option was even open for Pontiac to import and rebadge the other Commodore models in the States.

But sadly, these dreams were not to be. The G8 was offered for sale in 2008, in Base, GT, and later GXP trims. The base got a V6 and an automatic transmission, which was still adequately fun when paired with the upgraded suspension package. The GT offered a V8 making 361HP, also paired with an automatic. If more power was needed, the GXP offered it and more: a V8 making 415HP, and an optional 6-speed manual! This car moved, and then some. A 0-60 of 4.5 seconds insured highway on-ramps would be your new best friend. What’s more, it handled just as well, sticking securely to the road. Steering feel was also impressively good, and it tore through corners much like a certain German car. Some reviews dared call it the American M3. As with the Solstice, sales were stronger than expected, with over 15000 units moved in 2008 and over 23000 in 2009. But the money simply wasn’t enough to save Pontiac. GM had been losing money hand over fist for years, in 2007 GM reported an abysmal loss of 38.7 billion dollars. With the crash of 2008, people, and especially GM, simply didn’t have the money to spend on a G8. The G8 died as it lived: hot and fast.

GTO, Solstice, and G8; Pontiac's Swan Song - Blog

Pontiac’s transformation from the simple passenger cars shown above is stunning. While the death of Pontiac was slow and painful to watch, it did at least go out with a bang. The GTO reminded us that Pontiac could still flex some classic muscle. The Solstice reminded us that they knew how to have fun, with GM’s first true compact sportscar since the 1955 Corvette. And the G8 reminded us Pontiac could also build a world-class sports sedan. While the demise of Pontiac was a quiet affair, its last gasp of breath was still the roar of a V8, and that’s one hell of a swan song!