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How Pontiac Works


Pontiacs of the 2000s

Change wasn’t easy for Pontiac in the new century. For example, the little Sunfire and sister Chevy Cavalier would have been all-new for 2000 or 2001, but a prototype design bombed with consumer focus groups and was duly shelved. That left the existing Sunfire to carry on with few noteworthy changes.

An exception was 2002, when the passé three-speed automatic transmission option was finally junked (the four-speed continued, of course) and the old Twin Cam four-cylinder was replaced in Sunfire GTs by a tuned 140-bhp version of the newer 2.2 "Ecotec." Despite costing 10 bhp, the swap had little affect on performance or refinement.

This engine became standard for 2003, when the sedan and GT left and a lone SE coupe got satellite radio and front side airbags as first-time options. A bare-bones coupe was added for 2004, sold only with manual shift and no options for under $11,000, a meek response to new value-priced small cars from South Korea.

Moving in the other direction was a pair of 2005 SE Sport Appearance Packages providing firm suspension, 16-inch wheels and various interior dressings for $600 or $800.

Interestingly, there was no direct replacement for Sunfire in the U.S., but there was in Canada: the Pursuit sedan, built on the Delta platform of the two-year-old Saturn Ion and the 2005 Cobalt. But GM evidently had second thoughts here too, as a Delta-based U.S.-market G5 coupe was rumored for 2007 as this article was prepared.

Yet none of this seemed vital when Pontiac already had an appealing small car called Vibe. Beginning sale in 2002 as an early '03 model, this compact four-door wagon was close kin to Toyota's new Japan-sourced Matrix. It was built at the joint-venture GM/Toyota plant in California called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., still going strong after ­nearly 20 years).

Basic engineering came from Toyota's latest Corolla subcompact sedan. Pontiac influenced the styling. All models used four-cylinder 1.8-liter twincam engines. The base Vibe offered front-wheel drive and 130 bhp or all-wheel drive and 123 bhp. (A more realistic rating method adopted for 2006 ­netted 126/118 bhp, though the engines themselves were unchanged.) A sporty GT came with 180 bhp (later 164), front-drive, and six-speed manual gearbox. Other models listed five-speed manual and optional four-speed automatic.

Vibe was noisy but fun to drive. It was practical, too, with a versatile interior and good people space, thanks to a high-profile body. Though younger buyers tended to favor Matrix for the many virtues associated with Toyotas, Pontiac's version was quite popular.

Sales in the long debut season topped 84,000, followed by ­nearly 57,000 in calendar '04 and 72,000 in '05, this despite only detail changes. Though the GT and AWD were dropped after '06 for various reasons, Vibe was one of Pontiac's few bright spots in this period.

Bonneville sales, by contrast, were stuck in reverse, suffering more double-digit losses in calendar 2002-03 -- hence the above-mentioned rumors of the model's imminent demise. But the big front-driver had a final fling with the GXP, the first V-8 Bonneville in nearly two decades. A mid-2004 replacement for the supercharged V-6 SSEi, it targeted fancy V-8 European sports sedans with a 275-bhp version of Cadillac's ever-impressive 4.6-liter twincam Northstar engine.

Also on hand were uprated suspension and brakes, Stabilitrak antiskid/traction control, performance tires on 18-inch wheels (versus 16s or 17s), plus a suave leather/suede cabin with pseudo "satin ­nickel" accents, 12-way power front seats with side airbags, and everything else marketers could stuff in. Contrived styling was out now that Bob Lutz was calling the shots, so the GXP was the cleanest Bonneville in years.

Price was attractive, too -- initially $35,270 to start -- and Pontiac claimed credible 0-60-mph performance of 6.8 seconds. Yet for all this, the GXP didn't feel very different from the SSEi, and everyone knew "real" sports sedans had rear-wheel or all-wheel drive -- and a more prestigious badge. But it was all academic. GM had already signed Bonneville's death warrant.

Montana got a reprieve through a 2005 makeover. This was initially labeled Montana SV6 to mark a transition from the out­going minivan, then just SV6. "SV" meant "sport van," which in turn meant an extended-body model with squared-up snout and other styling cues intended to make buyers think "SUV" or "crossover." Though minivans were still big business, marketers everywhere now tried to avoid the "minivan image." GM's whizzers thought a new Montana costume would work sales magic.

It didn't. Instead, sales fell sharply despite some nice new interior touches, added safety features, a larger V-6, and little-changed prices. There were two problems. First, SV6 was just more old wine in another new bottle, obviously built to GM's basic 1997 minivan design. Second, there were more wine bottles on the corporate shelf, with a new Buick Terraza and Saturn Relay joining a renamed Chevrolet Uplander. As differences among the four were superficial, this was '80s-style "badge engineering," and it still didn't work.

In fact, demand was so weak that just a year after launch, Pontiac said SV6 would bow out early, probably by 2007. The entire exercise was likely a write-off, money GM could ill-afford to squander.

More badge engineering produced a nicer midsize Pontiac crossover, the 2006 Torrent. Replacing Aztek, this was a somewhat sportier rendition of Chevrolet's popular Equinox wagon, though differences here, too, were mostly skin deep. Still, Torrent quickly drew a fair number of new customers to Pontiac dealers, who'd been pleading to get in on the fast-rising sales action for untrucky SUVs.

How it ultimately fares still remains to be seen, but Pontiac needed sales help as this article was written, and Torrent provided timely assistance.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

  • Pontiac New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Pontiac Used Car Reviews and Prices