How Pontiac Works


Of the four "companion" makes introduced by General Motors in the 1920s, Pontiac was the only one to survive past 1940. Yet its future was far from certain in the early Depression years. The first Pontiac, the 1926 Six, quickly boosted the popularity of its Oakland parent, pushing combined sales beyond 250,000 units within three years. But sales plummeted with the Great Crash, as elsewhere in Detroit, and Oakland was ditched after 1931 and just 13,408 cars. Pontiac bottomed out in 1932 at a bit over 45,000.

What saved Pontiac were the calm, confident policies of GM president Alfred P. Sloan, who combined Pontiac's manufacturing with Chevrolet's in early 1932, thus saving vast sums in tooling costs through increased sharing of bodies, chassis, and other major components. At the same time he merged Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac sales operations, requiring dealers for each make to sell the other two as well -- albeit often unwillingly. These belt-tightening measures continued through mid-1933, effectively reducing GM to three divisions: Cadillac, Chevrolet, and B-O-P.

The well-styled 1933 Eight completely turned Pontiac fortunes around, and production for that model year recovered to more than 90,000. By 1937, the division was back above 200,000, and would go on to rank among the top five or six Detroit nameplates well into the '50s.

A group of highly competent people contributed mightily to this resurgence. Among the most notable: former Ford executive William S. "Big Bill" Knudsen, division general manager in 1932-33 and GM president in 1937-40; chief engineer Benjamin H. Anibal, father of the Pontiac eight; and division design chief Franklin Q. Hershey, creator of the handsome 1933 and subsequent models.

Pontiacs of the 1930s

This 1934 Pontiac Eight "trunkback" sedan had built-in luggage compartments.

Mechanically, Pontiac's 1930-31 cars were virtual reruns of the popular 1929 "Big Six" models, retaining an orthodox inline L-head engine with 200 cubic inches and 60 brake horsepower. Offerings comprised the customary open and closed styles on a 110-inch wheelbase (upped two inches for '31) spread over a $665-$785 price range. Sedans and coupes sold best.

For 1932, the rough-running V-8 Oakland became a 117-inch-wheelbase Pontiac, but met with no more success: outsold more than 6-to-1 by "The Chief of the Sixes" on a new 114-inch chassis.

Wheelbase increased to 115 inches for 1933, when Anibal's new straight-eight arrived in a slimmer model group downpriced to the $585-$695 area. Though smaller at 223.4 cid, the inline eight was much smoother than the 85-bhp 251-cid Oakland V-8, and thus far more salable. Horsepower climbed for 1934 from 77 to 84, then to 87 with a bored-out 232 replacement for 1936. The straight-eight was further enlarged for '37, and would continue at that 249-cid size through 1949. A highly reliable engine, it would remain a Pontiac staple until the division's first modern high-compression V-8 of 1955.

Styling in these years followed industry trends. The 1930-32s were boxy and undistinguished, but the transitional '33s and the more fully streamlined '34 models were among the prettiest medium-price cars of the era. The latter jumped to a new 117.5-inch chassis and boasted a notable innovation in GM's "Knee-Action" independent front suspension. Though this was also featured on '34 Chevrolets, components were not interchangeable between the two makes.

Many other parts were shared by then, thanks to Sloan's corporate reorganization, yet the 1933-34 Pontiacs looked unique. Credit Hershey and chief body engineer Roy Milner. Hershey convinced GM styling director Harley Earl of the need for more-streamlined Pontiacs, and accordingly designed a Bentley-type radiator and skirted front fenders with horizontal "speed streaks."

Milner gave open models (including Pontiac's last roadsters in '33) a smooth deck and beltline moldings different from Chevrolet's. With this, Knee-Action, and Anibal's straight-eight, the Pontiac Eight was a pleasing package. Though it couldn't quite keep pace with a Ford V-8 or Hudson Terraplane, it didn't lag them by much. Pontiac's future was now secure.

After two years of nothing but eight-cylinder cars, and with the market still sluggish, Pontiac reinstated sixes for 1935: Standard and DeLuxe on a 112-inch wheelbase. Sized at 208 cid, their "new" six was really just a bigger-bore version of the old 200. Surprisingly, it made only four fewer horsepower than that year's eight: 80 in all.

Standard Sixes cost about $100 less than comparable Eights, which was a lot in those days, and for the rest of the decade they outsold the senior models by a wide margin. Eights were demoted to a slightly shorter 116.6-inch chassis for '35, and all Pontiacs boasted GM's new all-steel "Turret Top" construction that eliminated traditional fabric roof inserts.

"Trunkback" sedans with integral luggage compartments had appeared for 1934. These returned for '35, but bodies were entirely new. Styling was new also, by now of the rounded "potato" school. Pontiac gained added distinction with "Silver Streak" trim, bright-metal bands running forward from the cowl, over the hood, and down the front of the radiator. This has been variously credited to Hershey, "Big Bill" Knudsen, and a young designer named Virgil Exner, who would figure in early-postwar Studebakers and Chrysler's mid-'50s "Forward Look." No matter: Silver Streaks made Pontiacs unmistakable, and would continue as a make hallmark for the next 20 years.

After a mostly stand-pat 1936, Pontiac issued new styling for a trimmer 1937 line of DeLuxe Sixes and Eights on the corporate GM "B" body. Respective wheelbases lengthened five and six inches, which made for better proportions, and a racy reshaped nose with vertical streaks overlaid a more massive wrapped radiator, yielding a rather busy "face." A bore-and-stroke job swelled the six to 222.7 cid, where it would stay through 1940; horsepower stood at 85. The eight was stroked to achieve its aforementioned 249 cid, good for 100 bhp.

After five years of mostly steady gains, sales eased to just over 97,000 in recessionary 1938, pushing Pontiac from fifth to sixth behind Dodge. A four-door station wagon debuted in the DeLuxe Six series. Ads bubbled about all models' "New Silver Streak Beauty," but that was no more than a facelift consisting mainly of a barrel-like radiator with thick horizontal bars and vertical instead of horizontal hood vents.

The rebodied '39s were prettier, with wider "pontoon" fenders, reduced overall height, larger glass areas, and smaller pod-style headlamps well inboard of the front-fender crowns. Pontiac's face remained a bit confused, however, as Harley Earl applied his favored "catwalk" vertical trim between the fenders and a radiator bearing four groups of horizontal chrome bands overlaid with Silver Streaks. Still, there was no mistaking Pontiac for Chevrolet.

Rumble-seat styles and four-door convertibles were absent for '39, but a new series anchored the line: the 115-inch-wheelbase Quality Six. Sharing bodies with Chevrolet, it listed coupes, sedans, and a wood-body wagon in the $760-$990 range. Some $55 more bought the same cars (except the wagon) in new DeLuxe 120 guise: a six-cylinder version of that year's 120-inch-wheelbase DeLuxe Eight. Both DeLuxe lines included a convertible.

As ever, Pontiac's six was thrifty and reliable, its eight a bit thirstier but more refined, and potent enough. One English magazine opined that a Pontiac Eight "might be borne along by the wind" because it was so impressively quiet and smooth.

Depression gloom was lifting, though only because American industry was gearing up for anticipated war production. Still, Pontiac moved a creditable 144,000 cars in the improving 1939 economy to retain sixth behind Chevy, Ford, Plymouth, Buick, and Dodge.

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1940, 1941, 1942 Pontiacs

Pontiac's redesign for 1941 included higher, wider fenders, as shown here on the 1941 Pontiac Six Torpedo.

Series expanded to four for 1940: Special and DeLuxe Sixes and DeLuxe and Torpedo Eights. All listed four-passenger coupes and four-door sedans; Special and the DeLuxes added a business coupe and two-door sedan. There were also DeLuxe "cabriolet" convertibles and a Special wagon. All wore a heavy facelift announced by a more coherent face with a painted prow, still Silver Streaked, dividing a lower-profile horizontal-bar grille. Also in evidence were wider front fenders with fully integrated sealed-beam headlamps.

Wheelbase extended to 117 inches for Special; DeLuxes returned at 120. Sleekest of all were a new Torpedo coupe and sedan on a 122-inch span. Sixes gained two horsepower via light engine modifications. Volume moved up substantially, reaching 217,000 for the model year.

A corporatewide restyle for 1941 gave Pontiacs higher, wider, crisper fenders embellished with additional Silver Streaks, plus a near full-width horizontal-bar grille with prominent center bulge. Running boards were newly concealed via flared door bottoms (except on wagons). Pontiac's six took the form it would retain through 1954, being bored out to 239.2 cid for 90 bhp. The veteran straight-eight was tweaked to 103 bhp in 1940, where it would remain through '47.

Series now numbered six, all called Torpedo: six- and eight-cylinder DeLuxe, Streamliner, and Custom. DeLuxes, which garnered 155,000 sales, shared a new 119-inch-wheelbase A-body platform with Chevrolet and thus offered the most body styles. Among them was the attractive midseason Metropolitan sedan patterned after the previous four-door Torpedo, with "formal" closed rear-roof quarters.

Streamliners and Customs used the same 122-inch B-body as junior Buicks and Oldsmobiles, and included new fastback four-door sedans and two-door "sedan coupes." Convertibles, again DeLuxes, lacked rear side windows, a treatment that recalled certain Packards but made for awful top-up visibility.

Ever the next step up from Chevy on the GM price/prestige ladder, Pontiac was less luxurious than a Buick or Olds but carefully built to very competitive prices. Its cheapest model cost just $783 in 1940 and only $828 in '41; the costliest was the $1250 Custom Torpedo Eight station wagon of 1941.

After record volume of more than 330,000, Pontiac built about 83,500 of its heavily facelifted '42s, all but 15,400 in the closing months of 1941. Styling again followed GM trends: a gaudy grille, longer front fenders swept back into the front doors, and rounded "drop-off" rear fenders. Series were reduced to four: 122-inch Streamliner and 119-inch Torpedo, each offered as a Six and Eight. The '41 Streamliners had been divided into standard and Super submodels.

The '42s came in standard and Chieftain guise, each offering fastback "sedan coupe," fastback four-door sedan, and "woody" wagon. Chieftains cost $50 more than standards, which ran slightly above corresponding Torpedos. Eights delivered for only $25 more than Sixes, yet production split about 50/50.

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1946, 1947, 1948, 1949 Pontiacs

Pontiac's 1949 models, including this 1949 Pontiac Chieftain, sported all-new A-bodies.

Like most other makes, Pontiac issued warmed-over '42 models for 1946-48, but stylists made each succeeding version a little different. The '46s, which began streaming from Pontiac, Michigan in September 1945, had a big bell-shaped grille of vertical and horizontal bars.

The grille was simplified for '47, then became busier again on the '48s, which adopted round taillights and were the first Pontiacs to carry Silver Streak badges.

Otherwise, the 1946-47 Pontiacs were entirely prewar in design and specifications. A three-speed manual remained the only transmission available. Chieftain submodels did not return, though other prewar offerings did. Eights cost about $30 more than Sixes for 1946, and postwar inflation pushed all prices steadily upward through '48, when the spread reached $1500-$2500. A DeLuxe Torpedo convertible bowed for 1947 at $1853 with the six, $1900 with the eight.

Though still basically '42s, the '48 Pontiacs had some interesting distinctions. A DeLuxe trim option for most models delivered chrome fender moldings, gravel guards, wheel discs (except on wagons), and other embellishments for $78-$90. Also, the eight was inexplicably uprated by one bhp.

But the big news that year was the introduction of Hydra-Matic Drive as a $185 option. This was a key factor in boosting Pontiac's model-year volume to near 235,500 because it so well-suited the eight-cylinder models that buyers increasingly preferred. Indeed, Eights outsold Sixes for the first time in 1947, and were far ahead for '48, when Hydra-Matic was ordered on 64 percent of Sixes but 77 percent of Eights.

This activity suggested that Pontiac would grow from a "big Chevy" into a lusher medium-price car -- and so it did. Along the way, Pontiacs were transformed from ho-hum to hot.

But that was still some years off when Pontiac unwrapped its 1949 models, which fared quite well in GM's first postwar redesign. All-new A-bodies, now on a single 120-inch wheelbase, were attractively styled under Harley Earl's ever-watchful eye. Highlights began with a lower full-width grille bisected by a modest horizontal bar above little vertical teeth. Silver Streaks still adorned hood and rear deck, but front fenders were now flush with the bodysides and the pontoon rear fenders snugged in closer.

Body types divided between Chieftain and Streamliner, the latter with fastback rather than notchback profiles, plus four-door wagons. Exclusive to Chieftain were a business coupe, long-deck sedan coupe (a.k.a. club coupe), and convertible. Both lines offered the usual choices of six- or eight-cylinder power and standard or DeLuxe trim except for the DeLuxe-only convertible. DeLuxes wore chrome headlamp rings, extra side moldings, fender gravel guards, and full wheel covers.

Newly optional high-compression heads lofted the six to 93 bhp and the eight to 106. Overall performance was little changed, however, as the '49s weighed a bit more than the '48s.

Continuing postwar inflation pushed prices considerably higher for 1949. The Chieftain DeLuxe Eight convertible jumped by $134; the woody wagon cost more than $2600. As at Chevrolet, the Pontiac wagon switched from part-structural wood to more-practical all-steel construction at mid-'49, though there was no change in price and little change in appearance. Despite the heftier price tags, model-year volume rose to nearly 305,000, the second-highest total in Pontiac history.

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1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955 Pontiacs

Up-to-date styling, an improved chassis and a modern overhead-valve V-8 highlighted Pontiac's 1955 lineup. The 1955 Pontiac Star Chief is shown here.

Except for larger, taller grille teeth and reshuffled trim, the 1950 models were predictably much like the '49s. However, the long-running eight was bored to 268.4 cid, good for 108 bhp standard or 113 with high-compression head.

Chieftain gained an important new body style in Pontiac's first "hardtop-convertible." Called Catalina and sold in DeLuxe or new Super DeLuxe trim, it accounted for 42,305 sales, nine percent of the division's total model-year volume. As in past years, an illuminated countenance of Chief Pontiac continued as a hood mascot; like other such devices of the day, it glowed when the headlights were on.

Production rose again, smashing the 1941 record at more than 446,000. Still, Pontiac ran fifth overall, as it had since '48 and would continue to do until 1959.

Volume sank to about 370,000 for 1951 as all Detroit began feeling the effects of the Korean War, yet that was Pontiac's second-best total ever. Fastbacks were fading from favor, so the Streamliner four-door was dropped, soon followed by the sedan-coupe. The most noticeable change was a "gullwing" grille bar below a prominent medallion. Engines were tweaked: the six to 96/100 bhp, the eight to 116/120 bhp.

A busier grille and new DeLuxe side trim were the main alterations for 1952. Horsepower crept up, too. Korean War restrictions and a nationwide steel strike limited model-year output to only 271,000 units.

A major reskin of the '49 A-body and a two-inch longer wheelbase gave 1953's new all-Chieftain line a more "important" look. Once more, buying patterns had prompted these and other changes. Catalina hardtops, for example, now accounted for nearly 20 percent of sales, and automatic-transmission installations had climbed to 75 percent. The '53s were shinier and larger in most every dimension. Key features of the new look involved kicked-up rear fenders, a lower grille, more prominent bumpers, and a one-piece windshield.

Newly optional power steering made the '53s easier to park; more horsepower made them faster. The six now delivered 115 bhp with manual transmission or 118 with Hydra-Matic; corresponding eight-cylinder outputs were 118/122. A lowish rear axle ratio of 3.08:1 was specified for smooth top-gear performance with Hydra-Matic. A mid-1953 fire in the Hydra-Matic plant hampered supplies, however, so 18,499 Pontiacs were fitted with Chevrolet Powerglide in 1953-54. Overall production remained strong at nearly 419,000.

Nineteen fifty-four brought a minor facelift of 1953's major one. Rearranged side moldings and a narrow oval in the central grille bar were the main changes. The big news was Star Chief, a top-line eight-cylinder hardtop, convertible, and four-door sedan on a new 124-inch chassis. These were the plushest Pontiacs yet -- and the priciest ($2300-$2600), another sign of the make's steady push upmarket. Star Chiefs sold well, but Pontiac's total volume slipped to just below 288,000, suggesting it was time for something different.

The all-new '55s were precisely that. Among their claimed 109 new features were fully up-to-date styling, an improved chassis and -- the really hot item -- a modern overhead-valve V-8, Pontiac's first. Dubbed "Strato-Streak," the new engine bowed at 287.2 cid, but could grow much larger and soon did. Standard horsepower at first was 173/180 (manual/automatic); an optional four-barrel carburetor yielded an even 200.

A strong oversquare design with five main bearings, the Strato-Streak was somewhat related to Chevy's all-new 1955 "Turbo-Fire" V-8. Though not quite as advanced, it would serve Pontiac admirably for more than a quarter-century.

As on other '55 GM cars, Pontiac styling was rather boxy but quite trendy, especially the wrapped "Panoramic" windshield taken from recent Harley Earl showmobiles. Equally au courant were cowl ventilation; bright solid colors and two-tones; and a longer, lower look despite unchanged wheel- bases.

A blunt face was the one dubious aspect. As before, Pontiac shared its A-body with Chevrolet, but maintained distinct wheelbases. The shorter one again carried two Chieftain lines: low-priced "860" and midrange "870" sedans and wagons, plus an "870" Catalina hardtop. Star Chief returned on its extended chassis with base-trim convertible and four-door sedan and a Custom sedan and Catalina.

Mounting the Chieftain chassis but officially a Star Chief was an exotic new wagon, the Custom Safari, a "hardtop-style" two-door based on Chevy's new '55 Nomad. Chevy designer Carl Renner recalled that "when Pontiac saw [the Nomad] they felt they could do something with it.…Management wanted it for the Pontiac line, so it worked out." Like Nomad, the original '55 Safari continued with successive facelifts only through 1957, after which both names were applied to conventional four-door wagons.

Two-door Safaris naturally cost more than Nomads -- a stiff $2962 for '55 -- and thus sold in fewer numbers: 3760, followed by 4042 for '56, and a final 1292.

On balance, 1955 was a vintage Pontiac year. Its cars were a solid hit with dealers and public alike, and the division built about 554,000 of them, a new record. But some rough times lay ahead, and Pontiac wouldn't better this figure until 1963, after which it set new records.

At least three factors figured in the interim slump. Buick's Special and the base Olds 88 were priced more aggressively; demand for lower-medium cars shrank as import sales expanded in the late '50s; and the 1956-58 Pontiacs weren't particularly exciting, though they were competitive in most ways and faster than ever.

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1956, 1957, 1958, 1959 Pontiacs

Pontiac produced only a limited number of 1957 Pontiac Bonnevilles; the model was basically a promotional piece for dealers.

The '56 Pontiacs were mildly restyled, and four-door Catalina hardtops arrived in each series. Styling was less distinctive -- tester Tom McCahill said the '56 looked like "it was born on its nose" -- and ride comfort wasn't the best. A bore job stretched the V-8 to 316.6 cid, but didn't yield much more power: only up to 205 for Chieftains and 227 bhp for Star Chiefs (though at midyear, a 285-bhp option was offered).

Pontiac settled for '56 volume that was well down on record-shattering '55, declining to 405,500 and a sixth-place industry finish.

July 1956 ushered in a new Pontiac general manager who would prove crucial to the make's near-term fortunes. This was Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, son of '30s division chief "Big Bill" and the youngest leader in Pontiac history. GM brass told Bunkie to do what he could with the existing design for '57, and he hustled, instituting longer rear springs in rubber shackles, 14-inch wheels and tires (ousting 15-inchers), pedal parking brake, and a V-8 stroked to 347 cid for 227-290 bhp.

Stylewise, the grille became a massive bucktooth affair; two-toning switched from 1955-56's half-car patterns to missile-shaped bodyside areas; and Bunkie did the unthinkable by banishing Silver Streak trim as old-hat (it did, after all, hark to his dad's day). Series were reorganized into low-end Chieftain and new mid-price Super Chief on the shorter chassis and Star Chief on the longer 124-inch wheelbase.

Where Bunkie really made his mark was the Bonneville, a flashy Star Chief-based convertible launched in mid-'57. Packing 310 bhp thanks to fuel injection and aggressive cam, this $5782 limited edition was the costliest Pontiac yet. Unfortunately, a hefty curb weight of nearly 4300 pounds dulled performance somewhat. Still it was no slouch: A Bonnie was timed at 18 seconds in the quarter-mile.

Because it was basically a promotional piece for dealers, the '57 Bonneville saw only 630 copies. But it gave Pontiac a whole new performance image even as the Auto Manufacturers Association came down against factory-sponsored racing. (Several '57 "Ponchos" did run well in NASCAR, but they were strictly private entries.) Yet the lack of race wins didn't hamper buyer demand. While Chevy, Olds, and Buick all lost sales to rival 1957 Chrysler products, Pontiac built some 333,500 cars to move within 51,000 units of fifth-place Olds.

Expansive new styling should have helped the '58s sell even better, but a sharp national recession held deliveries to some 217,000. Unlike some '58 GM cars, Pontiacs remained reasonably tasteful, with a simple mesh grille, quad headlights, and side-spears made wider and concave toward the rear. Bodies were lower but not much longer or wider; wheelbases were unchanged.

Offerings now included no fewer than seven Catalina hardtops with two or four doors. Bonneville became a regular series, and sold 12,240 convertibles and hardtop coupes. A 370-cid V-8 was now standard across the line, delivering 240 bhp in stickshift Chieftains/Super Chiefs, and up to 285 in Hydra-Matic Star Chiefs and Bonnevilles. Optional across the board were a 300-bhp triple-carb "Tri-Power" unit and a 310-bhp "fuelie."

Then came the first Pontiacs to fully reflect Bunkie's boldness. The '59s were not just startlingly new; they established the performance pattern that would carry Pontiac to undreamed-of glory in the 1960s. Crisp styling on a brand-new body introduced the split-grille theme that remains a Pontiac hallmark to this day, plus modest twin-fin rear fenders and minimal side trim. Wheelbases were again unchanged, but the wheels spread farther apart on a new "Wide-Track" chassis that made Pontiacs among the most-roadable cars in America.

The V-8 was again enlarged, the cube count rising to 389, a number destined for greatness. Horsepower ranged from 345 with Tri-Power down to 245. There was also a detuned 215-bhp "Tempest 420E" for economy-minded buyers, capable of up to 20 mpg.

Ridding Pontiac of "that Indian concept" was still part of Bunkie's plan, so Chieftain and Super Chief gave way to a new Catalina line on the shorter wheelbase; Bonneville again shared the longer chassis with Star Chief, which would hang on a good long while. Bonneville, bolstered by new Safari wagons and flat-top Vista hardtop sedans, garnered some 82,000 sales. Total volume for the model year rose to near 383,000, boosting Pontiac into fourth place for the first time.

Pontiac show cars of the '50s were always interesting and often predictive. The smooth 1954 Strato Streak previewed the pillarless four-doors of '56. Also shown in '54 was the first Bonneville, a Corvette-like two-seater with canopy-type cockpit on a 100-inch wheelbase. Both cars carried straight eights.

The 1955 Strato Star was a two-door four-seat hardtop forecasting 1956 styling. Wildest of all was the 1956 Club de Mer, with "twin-pod" seating and dual-bubble windshields. Standing only 38.4 inches high, its aluminum body was painted Cerulean blue, one of Harley Earl's favorite colors.

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1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 Pontiac Tempest

Pontiac met with success in the 1960s, finishing among the top-three automakers for most of the decade. The 1962 Pontiac Catalina is shown here. See more pictures of Pontiac cars.

From mostly "also-ran" in the '50s, Pontiac became a consistent front-runner in the '60s, finishing third in the industry race every year from 1962 to 1970. Much of this was owed to three enthusiastic general managers: Knudsen through 1961, then Elliot M. "Pete" Estes (GM president in 1974-81), and finally John Z. DeLorean in 1965-69.

These and numerous other "car guys" made Pontiac synonymous with high performance, great looks, superb roadability, innovation, and tasteful, comfortable luxury. No wonder Pontiac did so well.

A minor exception to that was the compact 1961-63 Tempest, significant for having GM's first postwar four-cylinder engine, a flexible driveshaft, and a rear transaxle (transmission in unit with the differential) allied to independent link-type suspension. One enthusiast magazine called Tempest "a prototype of the American car for the '60s," but no other U.S. make would have a rear transaxle and independent rear suspension until the Chevrolet Corvette and Plymouth Prowler of '97.

The original Tempests were fairly popular, but Pontiac felt a more orthodox design would sell far better. This appeared for 1964, and it did sell better -- much better. At that point, the original Tempest's 195-cid four, basically half of a 389 V-8, was abandoned for an inline six -- sensibly cost-effective, but hardly daring.

Like a speedometer cable, the 1961-63 Tempest's "rope" drive­shaft carried rotary motion through a long, gently curved bar beneath the floor. Thin, but lightly stressed within a steel case, it was mounted on bearings and permanently lubed. The driveshaft's slight sag allowed a lower transmission tunnel in front, though not in back; it also eliminated the need for U-joints and permitted softer engine mounts for better interior isolation.

The rear transaxle, a first for Detroit (but not the world), made Tempest less nose-heavy than conventional cousins Olds F-85 and Buick Special. But though its independent rear suspension was ostensibly superior, it was prone to sudden oversteer that could be alarming, especially on wet roads. Still, the Tempest handled well -- more so than Chevy's rear-engine Corvair, even though both used simple but tricky swing axles in back.

The initial 112-inch-wheelbase Pontiac Tempests used a unitized Y-body structure adapted from the first Corvairs, as did the F-85 and Special. The standard slant-four teamed with manual and automatic transaxles, and was offered in tunes to suit regular or premium gas. By 1963, horsepower was 115-166 (versus 110/130 in '61).

Optionally available for 1961-62 was the Special's 215-cid aluminum V-8 with 155/185 bhp. This gave way for '63 to a debored 326-cid version of the Pontiac 389 packing 260 bhp. So equipped, a Tempest could scale 0-60 mph in 9.5 seconds and reach 115 mph.

Tempest bowed with a single series listing standard- and Custom-trim four-door notchback sedans and four-door Safari wagons with one-piece rear "liftgate." Coupes arrived at midseason with bench- or bucket-seat interiors, the latter christened LeMans. Custom and LeMans convertibles were added for '62 and proved quite popular, prompting a separate LeMans series for '63.

Styling didn't change much. A twin-oval grille was used for '61, a full-width three-section affair for '62, a different split grille and squared-up body lines for '63. Prices also didn't change much, with most models in the $2200-$2500 region.

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1964, 1965, 1966 Pontiac Tempest

The 1964 Pontiac Tempest GTO was Pontiac's first "muscle car."

For 1964, GM redesigned all the B-O-P compacts on a 115-inch wheelbase, which made them intermediates. Pontiac's new Tempest wore taut, "geometric" lines on the resulting A-body shared with Chevrolet's new Chevelle, the Oldsmobile F-85/ Cutlass, and Buick's Special/Skylark.

But the real excitement came with the midseason debut of the Tempest GTO, the first "muscle car." That nickname was apt. With the right options, a GTO delivered unprecedented performance for a six-passenger American automobile. Most GTOs were "built" from the order form.

For 1964, you started with a Tempest coupe, hardtop coupe, or convertible, then checked off the GTO option: floorshift, 325-horse 389, quick steering, stiff shocks, dual exhaust, and premium tires, all for about $300. From there you ad-libbed: four-speed gearbox ($188); metallic brake linings, heavy-duty radiator, and limited-slip differential ($75 the lot); 348-bhp 389 ($115). Then all you needed was a lead foot and lots of gas.

Sports-car purists took umbrage at Pontiac's use of GTO, short for gran turismo omologato, the Italian term for an approved production-based racing car. But the outspoken Car and Driver bravely answered them with a mostly on-paper comparison of Pontiac's GTO and Ferrari's GTO. A good Pontiac, they said, would trim the Ferrari in a drag race and lose on a road course. But "with the addition of NASCAR road racing suspension, the Pontiac will take the measure of any Ferrari other than prototype racing cars…The Ferrari costs $20,000. With every conceivable option on a GTO, it would be difficult to spend more than $3800. That's a bargain."

The successful LeMans/Tempest formula saw relatively little change through 1967. Vertical headlights, crisper styling, and three-inch-longer bodies arrived for '65. The '66s had smoother contours, including hopped-up "Coke-bottle" rear fenders and, on coupes and hardtops, "flying buttress" rear roof pillars astride recessed backlights. Standard for the 1967 GTO was a new 400-cid extension of the 389 pumping out 335 bhp; 360 bhp was optional via "Ram-Air," a functional hood scoop.

For 1968 came a redesigned A-body with dual wheelbases: 116 inches on four-doors, 112 on two-doors. Styling borrowed even more big-Pontiac elements such as a large bumper/grille and, on coupes, a more rakish roofline with flush rear window.

Exclusive to GTO was a neatly integrated energy-absorbing front bumper sheathed in color-keyed Endura plastic that resisted dings and dents. One TV commercial pointed out its virtues by showing a group of white-coated Pontiac "engineers" happily hammering the proboscis to absolutely no ill effect.

The midsize Pontiacs continued in this basic form through 1972. Among the mildly facelifted '69s was a hotter GTO: "The Judge," actually an option package with colorful striping, loud paint, a 366-bhp Ram-Air V-8, and three-speed manual gearbox with Hurst floorshift. The 1970s received clumsier front ends, bigger rear bumpers, and pronounced longitudinal bodyside bulges above the wheel openings. The result was a heavier-looking Tempest, GTO, LeMans, and LeMans Sport. Collectors have since tended to prefer the tidier 1964-69 models.

The base engine on 1964-65 Tempests was a 215-cid inline six rated at 140 bhp. For 1966 came a surprising replacement engine, a European-style overhead-cam six developed by Pontiac. Sized at 230 cid, it delivered 165 standard bhp or 207 in "Sprint" guise (via Rochester Quadra-Jet carburetor, hotter valve timing, and double valve springs). The crankshaft had seven main bearings. The camshaft was driven by a fiberglass-reinforced notched belt rather than the usual chain.

With that, the '66 Tempest Sprint was a satisfying performer, if hardly in the GTO's league. It could do 0-60 mph in 10 seconds and reach 115 mph. With options like bucket seats, console, and four-on-the-floor, the clean-lined Sprint had the look and feel of a European grand-touring machine. A longer stroke took the ohc engine to 250 cid for 1968, good for 175 bhp or, in Sprint trim, 215 bhp (230 bhp for '69).

Sadly, it proved less than reliable and, echoing the Tempest four before it, departed after 1969 in favor of a conventional overhead-valve Chevy engine of the same displacement.

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1967, 1968, 1969 Pontiac Firebird

The 1968 Pontiac Firebird boasted a distinctive divided grille.

With Pontiac's performance image secure, division brass knew the Firebird "ponycar" had to be special -- particularly as it shared a 108.1-inch-wheelbase F-body structure with Chevrolet's new-for-'67 Camaro. But the Firebird was special, sporting a divided grille of the sort now expected on Pontiacs, and offering a "400" model with a 325-bhp V-8 of that size. The base-tune ohc six was initially standard; the optional Sprint version made for a sprightly, yet economical, Firebird Sprint.

Making its debut about five months behind Camaro, Firebird wasn't modified much for 1968. A change of engines made the 326 model a 350, and side-marker lights were added in accordance with a new government decree.

The '69s were restyled below the belt and gained a host of federally ordered safety items. Convertibles continued until "19701/2," when an all-new coupe-only second generation was introduced.

The hottest and most memorable early Firebird was the '69 Trans Am, a $725 option package announced in March. It was loosely inspired by the Firebirds then half-heartedly contesting the Sports Car Club of America's Trans-American road-racing series.

Special badges, white paint, twin blue dorsal racing stripes, and a decklid spoiler identified it. A 335-bhp Ram Air III 400 gave it great performance, and a heavily fortified chassis and brakes made for superb roadability. Only 697 of the '69s were built, including a mere eight convertibles and just nine cars with the optional 345-bhp "Ram Air IV" engine. But the T/A was destined for far greater sales very soon.

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Pontiacs of the 1960s

Pontiac's massive models included this 1965 Pontiac Grand Prix, which had a 121-inch wheelbase.

Pontiac was building some of the best-looking, best-handling standard cars in all of '60s Detroit. The public loved them. Sales were both strong and consistent, starting at about 396,000 for 1960 and reaching near half a million by '65.

Pontiac began the decade with facelifted versions of the successful "Wide Track" '59s, bearing high "twin-tube" taillamps and a Vee'd, full-width horizontal-bar grille. A fourth series was added that year, the Catalina-based Ventura, a hardtop coupe and Vista hardtop sedan priced just below Star Chief at around $3000. Ventura was dropped for '62 in favor of the bucket-seat Grand Prix, an elegantly tailored $3500 hardtop coupe, also on the Catalina chassis.

GP sales flirted with the 73,000 mark in 1963, then gradually eased off through '68 with the exception of a tiny spike in 1967, when a convertible was added. Offered only that year, the ragtop has since become a minor collector's item, as only 5856 were built.

Big-Pontiac styling kept improving, at least through '66, thanks to the efforts of William L. Mitchell, who had replaced the legendary Harley Earl as GM design chief back in 1958. Pontiac's distinctive split grille returned to stay for 1961, along with crisp new styling on shorter wheelbases: 119 inches for Catalina/Ventura and all wagons, 123 for Star Chief/Bonneville. Catalina added an inch for '62.

Even cleaner machines with stacked quad headlamps and narrow, split grilles were issued for 1963-64. The '65s were well executed but massive, with a bulging front and billowy bodysides. Wheelbase was lengthened to 121 inches for Catalina/Grand Prix/wagons and to 124 for Star Chief/Bonneville. The forceful looks were slightly muted for '66.

Regrettably, the '67s had a heavy look highlighted by bulky, curved rear fenders. Model-year '68 introduced a huge bumper/grille with a prominent vertical center bulge and a return to horizontal headlamps. The snout was toned down for '69, when another inch was tacked on to wheelbases. The following year brought an upright twin-element grille faintly reminiscent of the '30s, but far less graceful.

Full-size model choices in these years were as consistent as their popularity. Catalinas in all the usual body styles were offered throughout, as were the midrange Star Chief sedan, hardtop sedan, and -- from '66 -- hardtop coupe.

 The latter three types, plus a convertible and four-door Safari wagons, made up the top-line Bonneville group. (A four-door sedan joined in for 1968.) A bucket-seat "2+2" option package bowed for 1964's Catalina convertible and two-door hardtop; it became a distinct series for '66, then vanished after 1967 in the fast-fading market for sporty full-sizers. One change involved Star Chief: It tacked on the Executive name for '66, which then replaced the Star Chief label through 1970.

Big-Pontiac V-8s were equally consistent in the '60s, with numerous horsepower variations but just four basic sizes -- two large and two "small" -- all based on the original '55 block. The small ones comprised a 389 available through 1966 and a bored-out 400 from '67. These were base equipment for all full-size models. Power ranged from 215 to 350, with the latter standard for Grand Prix starting with '67.

The larger mills, optional on most models, were a 421 for 1963-66 and a 428 for 1967-69, after which a huge 455 took over. Horsepower peaked at 390 for 1968-69, then began waning with federally mandated emission controls. A "Super-Duty" 421 powered a handful of dragstrip-oriented lightweight Catalinas built in 1961. It then became a bit easier to obtain and eventually topped 400 bhp, but it was expensive, rarely ordered, and thus dropped after a few years.

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Pontiacs of the 1970s

looked similar to this 1976 Pontiac Astre model.
looked similar to this 1976 Pontiac Astre model.
In 1975, Pontiac introduced a subcompact in the U.S. called

The 1970s was Pontiac's most difficult decade yet. A decision to outproduce and "out-price" Chevrolet (generally ascribed to division head DeLorean) while simultaneously reaching into Buick/Oldsmobile territory contributed to a startling slip in workmanship. These policies also contributed to a confusing succession of models that left many buyers wondering just what a Pontiac was.

Not surprisingly, sales sagged. After falling to fourth in the '71 rankings, Pontiac finished fourth or fifth, usually behind Olds, most every year through 1986. Even Buick was often a threat, closing to within 27,000 units for 1972. By 1980, Pontiac trailed both: Buick by nearly 84,000 units and Oldsmobile by more than 140,000.

But not all was gloom. Given the ponycar market's rapid decline after 1969, Firebird was a surprising bright spot, the Trans Am in particular. The brilliant second-generation design of mid-1970 was good enough to last all the way through 1981 with just three styling updates -- for 1974, '77, and '79. Through it all, the Trans Am kept Pontiac's "hot car" image simmering -- to the point where, as the division later ruefully admitted, Trans Am had higher name recognition than Pontiac itself.

Like Camaro, Firebird almost died after 1972 due to GM's doubts about the future of performance cars, aggravated by a factory strike that severely cut that year's production. But Pontiac kept the faith and reaped the rewards. While Chevy dropped its hottest Camaro, the Z28, for 1975-76, Pontiac retained the T/A as the most-serious model in the line. As a result, the T/A soon moved from peripheral seller (only 1286 for '72) to become the most-popular Firebird of all (more than 117,000 for '79).

Pontiac also helped Firebird's cause by fielding the same four models each year: base coupe, luxury Esprit, roadworthy Formula, and T/A. (Chevy fiddled with the Camaro lineup in this period.)

Formula and T/A lost horsepower for 1978 to help Pontiac meet that year's new corporate average fuel economy mandates (CAFE), but they never relinquished their V-8s and never failed to deliver lively motoring. An optional turbo­charged 301, issued for 1980, had a bit less go than the big-blocks of old, but was somewhat easier on gas.

Higher-than-ever fuel prices were but one legacy of the 1973-74 Middle East oil embargo, though gas was becoming costlier well before that. Renewed buyer interest in thrifty compacts -- and Pontiac's lack of same -- prompted the division to put a different nose on Chevrolet's 111-inch-wheelbase Nova to create the Ventura II. Launched in March 1971, it evolved parallel with Nova through 1979 (minus the Roman numeral after '72), but always saw lower volume.

One interesting difference is that the hallowed GTO became a Ventura variation for 1974 -- actually a $195 option package for the workaday pillared two-door comprising hood scoop, a different grille, chassis enhancements, and standard 350 V-8. Purists moaned, but Pontiac moved 7058 of these pretenders before bringing the curtain down on a great tradition -- a year too late, many said at the time.

In line with sister X-body compacts, Ventura adopted a more European look for 1975 -- and promptly withered on the sales vine. Inept marketing and mediocre build quality were as much to blame as competition from within the Pontiac line and elsewhere. An upmarket version called Phoenix arrived for mid-1977, with plusher interiors and a busier front end; the Ventura name vanished the following year. Unhappily, Phoenix was just as much an also-ran, and remained so even after it switched to GM's front-drive X-body for 1980.

Another "lend-lease" deal with Chevrolet produced the subcompact Astre, arriving in the U.S. for 1975 after being marketed in Canada from mid-1973. This was little more than a modestly restyled twin of Chevy's ill-starred Vega, and thus inherited most of its faults.

Pontiac varied the model program a bit with base and semi-sporty SJ hatchback coupes and two-door wagons. (A budget S series, which also included a two-door notchback sedan, was added during '75.) There was also a GT package option combining the low-line interior with the SJ's performance and handling features.

Astres were confined to a single series for 1976. So were the last-of-the-line '77s, but they were treated to Pontiac's new 151-cid (2.5-liter) "Iron Duke" four, a nickname chosen partly to counter the horrendous durability reputation of the all-aluminum Vega engine it replaced.

Chevy had introduced its sporty Vega-based Monza coupe for 1975, and Pontiac got into this act a year later with the Sunbird. But unlike other editions of this corporate H-Special design, the Pontiac bowed only as a notchback two-door akin to Chevy's Monza Towne Coupe. The 2+2 fastback body style was added for 1977 as the Sunbird Sport Hatch, followed for '78 by the ­little two-door wagon from the deceased Astre line.

Bolstered by various option groups, including a sporty Formula package, Sunbird eventually became Pontiac's top seller, though it was looking old by then. It hung on with no further change of note through 1981; the final cars sold were actually 1980 leftovers.

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1970s Pontiac Grand Am and Pontiac Grand Prix

The personal-luxury Grand Prix was a top-seller in the 1970s, including this 1974 Pontiac Grand Prix shown here.

The story of the larger 1970s Pontiacs is about as exciting as rust -- which many of them did all too quickly. Basic designs were inevitably shared with sister GM intermediates and standards, but workmanship often seemed half a notch lower.

By late decade, though, both the LeMans/Grand LeMans and Catalina/Bonneville had evolved into more sensible, solid, and saleable cars much better suited to the times than the aging hulks that Chrysler and Ford still peddled.

Midsize Pontiacs quickly turned from their assured roadability of the 1960s to an emphasis on luxury and convenience. One bright exception was the Grand Am. Introduced as part of the redesigned 1973 line with "Colonnade" styling, this LeMans-based coupe and sedan were billed as combining Grand Prix luxury with Trans Am performance, hence the name.

The idea was largely owed to assistant chief engineer Bill Collins, who'd been heavily involved with the original GTO, and chassis wizard John Seaton. Their aim was to approximate European sedans like the Mercedes 250/280 and the BMW Bavaria at a third to half the money.

While some features strained at mimicry -- a Mercedes-like jumbo-hub steering wheel, for instance -- the "G/A" was, on balance, one of the most impressive big Detroiters in a generally dull Detroit decade. But it failed to make a strong impression in a market where most buyers looked for either everyday transport or as much glitz as their money would buy.

Grand Am attracted only some 43,000 sales in its debut year -- mainly coupes -- then plunged to 17,000 for '74 and only 11,000 or so for '75. To no one's surprise, it subsequently disappeared. Curiously, the name resurfaced on a coupe and sedan in the downsized 1978 LeMans line, but these cars were nowhere near as grand and were similarly short-lived, the sedan canceled after '79, the coupe a year later. But the Grand Am name would be back later.

Rivaling Firebird for '70s success was the personal-luxury Grand Prix -- in some of these years Pontiac's single best-selling model. It had been reborn for 1969 as a lighter, quicker midsize coupe on a 118-inch-wheelbase "A-Special" platform that Chev­rolet would crib for its similarly posh (and popular) Monte Carlo.

Offered with both 400 and 428 (later 455) V-8s, the new GP was a handsome brute, with a short-deck notchback profile and a distinctly Pontiac face ahead of a mile-long hood. Inside was an innovative curved instrument cluster bringing all controls within easy driver reach.

Cribbing Model J and SJ nomenclature from the revered Duesenberg was a vain attempt at cachet, but the public applauded this Grand Prix, snapping up nearly 112,500 of the '69s. Sales were healthy through the end of this design generation in 1972, when just under 92,000 were retailed. Styling didn't change much, and although horsepower went down a bit after 1970, big-block performance remained quite good.

Pontiac continued this successful formula through GM's 1973-77 Colonnade intermediates, when the GP went to the same 116-inch wheelbase as Monte Carlo. A vertical grille and a roof with a '67 Cadillac Eldorado-like crease through the backlight set these GPs apart. Interestingly, Grand Prix notched a new all-time sales record for 1977, close to 288,500. The '78, unfortunately, was much more like LeMans, downsized to the same new 108.1-inch platform and looking less distinctive.

Yet sales weren't vastly affected: some 228,000 for the model year. Clearly, the GP had succeeded in a way that various gussied-up Luxury LeMans and Grand LeMans variations couldn't. Without it, Pontiac wouldn't have weathered the ups and downs of the '70s nearly as well.

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Pontiac Recovers in the 1980s

The 1979 Pontiac Trans Am came out earlier in the year, just before a sharp downturn in auto sales throughout the latter half of 1979.

Pontiac's troubles were far from over as the 1980s dawned. Workmanship still wasn't all it should have been, and increased model sharing with Chevrolet had only made Pontiac's confused image even fuzzier. Adding insult to these injuries were the deep national recession and accompanying sharp downturn in auto sales that began in late 1979 when the Shah of Iran was deposed, triggering a second "energy crisis."

Pontiac suffered as much as any Detroit make. In two years division output plunged by nearly a third, to around 620,500 for '81, then slipped below 500,000 two years later -- a sorry situation for a make that had averaged better than 700,000 cars a year since the mid-1960s.

But better times were at hand. Having floundered under four general managers since '69, the division got back on course under William Hoglund, who took the helm in 1980. Taking a cue from history, Hoglund and a bright young team of designers and engineers began steering Pontiac back toward the sort of driver-oriented cars that had been the foundation of its high success in the '60s.

Events played right into their hands. The economy recovered, the gas shortage became a gas glut, and the market went crazy again for performance. Proclaiming "We Build Excitement," Pontiac turned the corner, and by 1984 it was solidly back over the half-million mark.

Hoglund left in 1984 to head GM's developing Saturn Division, but Pontiac kept picking up steam under a new captain, J. Michael Losh. For 1986 it sailed past 750,000. Then, a year later, it surpassed a bumbling Olds Division to grab third place for the first time in 17 years. Pontiac repeated the performance for '87. The 1989 tally was an impressive 801,600, nearly 300,000 better than a recovering Buick.

The amazing part of Pontiac's resurgence is that it was managed mainly with compacts, intermediates, and the Firebird. Unlike Buick and Olds, big cars were never significant to Pontiac sales in the '80s. In fact, the division's 1982 lineup had no traditional full-size cars at all.

Catalina and Bonneville had been redesigned for 1977 as part of GM's first-wave downsizing program, but didn't sell as well as their B-body cousins at Buick, Olds, and Chevy. Believing buyers were ready to forsake even these smaller biggies in another fuel crunch, Pontiac canceled the line after '81 and substituted a restyled LeMans sedan and wagon called Bonneville Model G (the letter denoting a redesignated A-body platform).

But what looked like a smart idea in 1980 seemed just bad timing once big-car sales turned up again, so Pontiac decided to revive a B-body line during 1983. As there was no longer any production room stateside, U.S. dealers got a slightly modified Canadian version -- which had never been dropped -- under its north-of-the-border name, Parisienne.

If these moves recalled the great Dodge/Plymouth debacle of 20 years before, they weren't nearly so disastrous. But they weren't that successful, either. Bonneville G peaked at about 82,800 sales in '83, then tailed off to around 41,000 by its final appearance for 1986. Parisienne averaged about 83,000 yearly sales for 1985-86, after which the sedan departed (the B-body two-door coupe hadn't returned) and annual sales ran below 13,200 for the lone Safari wagon marketed through 1989.

Design, engineering, and yearly changes for both these lines virtually duplicated those for counterpart Chevys, the intermediate Malibu and full-size Caprice/Impala.

Another up-north idea was the subcompact T1000, a Chevette clone by way of Pontiac Canada's Acadian model. Announced in April 1981, it immediately attracted 70,000 buyers, then fell to an annual average of 25,000 or so after 1982, when it was called just plain 1000.

Black window frames and a prominent arrowhead grille emblem were the main design elements that set it apart from the littlest Chevy. Naturally, the 1000 evolved in parallel with Chevette through 1987, then gave way to a new front-drive LeMans (which is beyond the scope of this book, being a Korean-built sister of a German Opel Kadett). The 1000 was just a token nod to the econocar market and never a big money-spinner.

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Pontiac Phoenix and Pontiac 6000

The 1985 Pontiac 6000 fared well against sporty European competitors.

The second-generation Phoenix was the least popular of GM's four front-drive X-body compacts, likely because the same package was available with more model/trim choices as a Chevy Citation or with more nameplate prestige as a Buick Skylark or Olds Omega.

Pontiac tried to make the downsized Phoenix appealing by offering two-door notchback and four-door hatchback sedans in plain, luxury LJ, and sporty SJ trim (the latter two retagged LE and SE for '84). But nothing seemed to work, and demand fell off rapidly when numerous mechanical bugs began surfacing, with recalls to match. Phoenix never sold better than in its extra-long 1980 debut year: 178,000-plus. Volume dipped below 50,000 units for 1982 and dropped to under 23,000 cars by the 1984 finale.

Yet Phoenix was successful in a way, because it spawned a more rational and popular midsize Pontiac, the front-wheel-drive 6000. Arriving for model year '82, it was closely related to that year's new A-body Buick Century, Chevy Celebrity, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, but wore crisper, more "important" sheetmetal over the shared X-car-based inner structure.

Initial offerings comprised base and LE coupe and sedan, but Pontiac went a big step further with the STE (Special Touring Edition). Announced for the 1983 season, this enthusiast-oriented four-door represented a new Pontiac challenge to sporty European sedans from Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Saab, and Volvo.

The STE proved a surprisingly capable challenger. Quick-ratio steering and a fortified suspension with air-adjustable rear shocks and upgraded wheels and tires made the car supremely roadable. Appointments were tastefully understated, and equipment was generous (including even a leather-bound roadside emergency kit).

All it lacked was sparkling acceleration; the mandatory three-speed automatic transaxle strained the 135 horses of the standard "high-output" 2.8-liter/173-cid Chevy-built overhead-valve V-6. But the STE served notice that Pontiac was not only back to building driver's cars but could compete on a "best-in-class" basis against many comers.

Other 6000s bathed in the STE's glow, and by 1984 this line was Pontiac's best-selling larger car, bolstered that year by the addition of station wagons. Worthy improvements came almost annually: electronic fuel injection for the base 2.5-liter four (throttle-body, 1983) and V-6 (multipoint for all models by 1987); a more versatile and efficient four-speed automatic for selected models (1986); an S/E sedan and wagon offering much of the STE's panache for less money (1987); an all-wheel-drive option (AWD) and 3.1-liter V-6 for an extensively reengineered STE, plus optional five-speed manual (1988).

After dropping the 6000's coupe models for 1988, Pontiac gave 1989 sedans a restyled rear greenhouse and offered the STE only with AWD. The optional 3.1 V-6 picked up five extra horses for 140 total. By that point, the S/E was what the STE had been, yet was more price-competitive against comparable Japanese sedans at $16,000-$17,000. For 1990, the AWD became an S/E extra.

Amazingly, the 6000 was still around for '91, though that was its final year. It had served exceptionally well.

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Pontiacs of the 1980s

The 1982 Pontiac J2000 was Pontiac's version of a front-wheel drive, J-body subcompact.

Vying with the 6000 for divisional sales leadership was Pontiac's version of the front-drive J-body subcompact, which succeeded the old rear-drive Sunbird for 1982. At first, the name seemed to change more than the car, which debuted as J2000, then evolved as the 2000 (1983), 2000 Sunbird (1984), and finally just Sunbird again.

Pontiac had gotten into "alphamumeric" designations under Hoglund's immediate predecessor, Robert C. Stempel (named GM president in 1987 and chairman in 1990), but eventually backed away from them after buyers found them confusing.

There was no confusion about the cars, which were much like Chevy's Cavaliers down to the same body styles -- including a convertible from 1983. Though Chevy's 2.0-liter over- head-valve four was available for a time, Pontiac emphasized an Opel-designed overhead-cam engine imported from GM of Brazil. That engine became standard for 1983, with throttle-body injection and 84 bhp from 1.8 liters (109 cid), followed by a 150-bhp turbocharged option with port injection. Both versions grew to 2.0 liters for 1987, good for respective horse­power of 96 and 165.

Three trims were offered through 1985: base, plush LE, and sporty SE. The LE was canceled for '86, when turbocharged GTs arrived with a new front end highlighted by hidden headlamps. The 1988 GTs were trimmed to just convertible and coupe, the latter a restyled slantback two-door also offered in SE form. A new dashboard was the big event for '89.

By 1990, Sunbird and Cavalier were the only two J-cars left from the original five, and neither showed signs of going away. Pontiac kept Sunbird going with a handsome restyle featuring a smoother hidden-headlamp nose and various lower-body addenda for SE and GT coupes; the 1990 convertible came only as a cheaper but less-sporting LE.

With so much variety, plus attractive prices only a bit above Cavalier's, the 2000/Sunbird garnered well over 100,000 sales in most years, including a record 170,000-plus for '84. Demand remained healthy right through 1990, when output totaled just under 145,000.

As at Buick and Olds, the J-car was the basis for a new compact Pontiac to replace the unloved X-body after 1984. Resurrecting the Grand Am name, this rendition of the 103.4-inch-wheelbase N-body design promptly outsold its divisional cousins by emphasizing handling options and sporty appointments in the European mold. Demand was strong: more than 82,500 of the debut 1985 coupes, a stunning 223,000 coupes and sedans for 1986.

This Grand Am was the lifeblood of Pontiac dealers, accounting for better than 235,000 orders each model year through 1989 despite a constant stream of new competition. Not until the market turned difficult in 1990 did Grand Am sales dip below 200,000 -- and then not by much.

Again seeking individuality, Pontiac proffered a more overtly sporting SE in addition to the expected plain and luxury Grand Ams. The division also varied engines, making Sunbird's turbo-four a 1987 option, then replacing the original 3.0-liter Buick V-6 option with GM's new 150-bhp "Quad-4," America's first postwar production engine with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.

Buyers seeking a smaller sports sedan had every reason to look closely at Grand Am SE. Its monochrome exterior with color-keyed wheels, front spoiler, and perimeter lower-body extensions was aggressive but not childish. A well-planned cockpit, assured handling, comfortable ride, and brisk performance completed the package. As with the STE, Pontiac again seemed able to do more with a shared platform than either Buick or Oldsmobile, at least as far as enthusiasts were concerned.

The same could be said for the first front-drive Bonneville, unveiled for 1987 on the 110.8-inch-wheelbase H-body platform of the previous year's new Buick LeSabre and Olds Delta 88. Pontiac designers strove mightily to make this one different, too, and succeeded handsomely. There wasn't much they could do about the boxy roofline, but much smoother front and rear ends set Bonneville cleanly apart from its corporate cousins.

Here, too, there was a sporty SE, an option group with uprated suspension, larger wheels and tires, mellow exhaust, less exterior chrome, console-mount shifter for the mandatory four-speed automatic transaxle, a shorter final drive for snappier step-off, and a full set of large, legible gauges, including tach­ometer. With all this, you might forget the SE used the same 150-bhp 3.8-liter (231-cid) V-6 as base and LE Bonnevilles.

An improved 165-bhp engine arrived for 1988, when Pontiac went a bit over the top with a new top-line Bonneville SSE. It was visually contrived, with body-color wheels, grille, decklid spoiler, and rocker skirting set off by a gaudy grille medallion. More-worthy standards ran to GM/Teves antilock brakes (optional on other Bonnevilles for 1989-90), an electronic variable-damping system, and a leather-lined interior with multi­adjustable power bucket seats.

Still, most critics felt the more modestly trimmed SE a better buy: less costly, smoother-riding, slightly quieter to both ears and eyes. The public generally agreed, but liked all the new Bonnies to the tune of some 120,000 sales in 1987 and 108,000 in 1988 -- not far behind LeSabre and Delta despite lacking their coupe body style.

Only detail changes occurred for 1990, but the market was sagging and Bonneville demand skidded to just under 86,000 for the model year, down from some 109,000.

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1980s Pontiac Firebird

Firebird showed surprising sales strength in the '80s, averaging some 100,000 per year through 1986. But that only reflected the renewed interest in performance cars that began around 1982, making that year's all-new Firebird exceedingly well-timed. Inevitably, it shared a redesigned F-body platform with that year's new-generation Chevy Camaro, striding a trimmer, 101-inch wheelbase.

Though these ponycars were more alike than ever, Pontiac stylists under John Schinella maintained a distinctive Firebird look via a low-riding nose with shallow twin grilles and hidden headlamps -- the latter a first for Firebird -- plus full-width taillamps with a smoked lens on some models for a "custom" blackout effect.

Initially, the third-series Firebird was limited to base, midrange S/E, and racy Trans Am, all "glassback" hatch coupes, but the Formula returned as an option package for 1987, along with the "big" 350/5.7-liter V-8 of bygone years. That engine also powered an even meaner-looking Trans Am called GTA. Other developments largely paralleled Camaro's except that Pontiac wouldn't field another Firebird convertible until 1992; it also continued offering specific chassis tuning and trim/equipment mixes.

Styling was good enough to last through 1990 with only minor annual tweaks, many of which were exclusive to the Trans Am. Most noticeable was a grilleless "bottom-breather" nose for '84.

Recalling 1976's Limited-Edition T/A (for Pontiac's 50th birthday) and 1979's Tenth Anniversary Trans Am was yet another celebratory Firebird for 1989: the 20th Anniversary Trans Am. This involved a 1500-unit run of GTAs powered by the turbo­charged 231-cid/3.8-liter V-6 from Buick's recently departed GNX muscle coupe.

Though sold only with four-speed overdrive automatic, the "blown" Bird was the most-potent T/A in more than a decade, packing a quoted 250 bhp and an imposing 340 pound-feet torque (versus the V-8 GTA's 225 bhp and 330 pound-feet).

You could have any color as long as it was white, just like the '69 original; no racing stripes, though, just subtle "20th Anniversary" cloisonné emblems and "Turbo Trans Am" badges.

Performance was straight from "the good old days" -- better, really. Would you believe 0-60 in 5.4 seconds? Believe it: This Firebird was chosen pace car for the 1989 Indianapolis 500 and required no engine modifications for the task.

Price was reasonable, all told, at about $25,000 with included T-top roof and pace-car decals. In all, this was a glorious reminder that nobody in Detroit still cared more about hot cars than Pontiac.

Unfortunately, Firebird fell on hard times after 1986, with production fading to some 80,000 for '87, then to an average 63,000 a year through '89. The situation grew even more grim for 1990, when fewer than 21,000 were sold.

A little-changed basic design and fast-rising prices were mainly to blame (a new F-body wouldn't appear until 1993), but so were intensified import competition, rising hot-car insurance rates (Camaros and Firebirds were long notorious as frequent theft targets), and continuing lackluster workmanship.

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Pontiac Fiero

Pontiac spent four years developing the innovative 1984 Pontiac Fiero.

By far the most enigmatic 1980s Pontiac was the innovative but ill-starred Fiero. A 1984 newcomer, it was Detroit's first mid-engine production car and the first new series-built U.S. two-seater since the original Ford Thunderbird.

Fiero was broached in 1978 as a low-cost, high-mileage "commuter," but that was just a ruse to convince management that the project would help GM fulfill its CAFE obligations. The urge toward something sportier was irresistible, since the plan called for transplanting the front-drive X-body powertrain behind the cockpit to drive the rear wheels.

GM president Elliot Estes approved the concept in 1978, perhaps for sentimental reasons: He had pleaded for a two-seat Pontiac while he was division chief back in the '60s. Corporate cash-flow problems almost killed the Fiero program several times in 1980-82, but engineering director Hulki Aldikacti somehow persuaded decision-makers that this new "P-car" not only made financial sense but could also improve Pontiac's image.

What emerged was definitely sporty; a smooth but chunky notchback coupe on a 93.4-inch wheelbase, evolved under Ron Hill in GM's Advanced Design III section and finalized by John Schinella's production studio. A fully drivable steel space-frame chassis served as a skeleton for supporting body panels made of various plastics -- but not fiberglass -- making style changes cheap, quick, and easy.

To minimize production costs and retail price, steering, front suspension, and brakes were borrowed from the humble Chevy Chevette; rear suspension and disc brakes were retained from the X-car power package.

Announced at base prices carefully pitched in the $8000-$9600 range, the Fiero predictably generated lots of excitement. The division's Pontiac, Michigan home plant, fully retooled as Fiero's exclusive production center, happily cranked out nearly 137,000 of the '84s.

But Fiero was flawed -- heavy and thus sluggish with the standard 92-bhp, 151-cid Iron Duke four; little faster with the optional 173-cid V-6; low, cramped, noisy, and hard to see out of; hard to shift; stiff-riding; indifferently put together. As it had with the X-cars, GM shot itself in the foot by selling a car before it was fully developed.

Word got around quickly. Fiero sales crumbled by more than 40 percent in the second model year, recovered to near 84,000 for '86, then fell by nearly half for '87. A further blow came in September 1987, when a spate of engine fires implicating some 20 percent of the '84 models occasioned a government-ordered recall.

With all this, plus a sharp drop in two-seater demand due to soaring insurance rates, GM announced in early 1988 that Fiero was dead, lamely claiming itself unable to make a profit at 50,000 units a year.

Ironically, Pontiac had just spent $30 million for an all-new suspension that greatly improved handling on '88 Fieros. Left stillborn were plans for a 1989 Quad-4 option and the more distant prospect of a lighter aluminum space-frame that would have done wonders for performance.

The V-6 S/E and GT models were the most desirable Fieros. The GT bowed for 1985 with a sleek nose inspired by a special 1984 Indy 500 pace car (of which a few thousand replicas were sold). Standard rear spoiler, "ground effects" body addenda, uprated suspension, and a deep-voiced exhaust made it a sort of mini-muscle car. Without the V-6, this package became the midrange S/E model for 1986, bolstered at midseason by a restyled GT with modified rear flanks and "flying buttress" fastback roofline.

Arriving in June that year was a five-speed manual transaxle, long promised as an optional alternative to the standard four-speed and extra-cost three-speed automatic. The main changes for '87 involved a reshaped nose for base and S/E, plus a larger fuel tank.

Though compromised in many ways and a relative commercial failure, the Fiero was a useful test bed for General Motors' new Saturn subcompact, which would also use a space-frame skeleton overlaid with dent- and rust-resistant plastic panels

Fiero also symbolized Pontiac's renewed commitment to interesting automobiles. A more successful expression was the all-new front-drive Grand Prix that replaced one of Detroit's dullest cars for 1988.

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1980s Pontiac Grand Prix

The 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix had sleeker styling and more sophisticated engineering than previous Grand Prix models.

Pontiac's personal-luxury coupe, the Grand Prix, had become almost invisible since its '78 downsizing, limping along after 1981 with somewhat smoother but still uninspired styling that strained at marrying "aero modern" with "middle-class traditional."

Engines were equally uninspired, mostly Buick V-6s and Chevy small-block V-8s, all economy-tuned. The trouble-prone Olds 350 diesel V-8 offered from 1981 to '84 only underlined the old-fogey aura of a car that was less important on the street than on NASCAR circuits (thanks to Richard Petty, and others).

But the GP's role as stock-car standard-bearer did lead to an interesting limited edition reviving the 2+2 handle. Introduced at mid-1986, this wore a wind-cheating body-color front instead of the usual stand-up brightwork, plus a huge "glassback" deck designed for smoother airflow to a bespoilered tail. GM Design concocted this configuration to counter Ford's more slippery new Thunderbirds in long-distance races.

But the GP's role as stock-car standard-bearer did lead to an interesting limited edition reviving the 2+2 handle. Introduced at mid-1986, this wore a wind-cheating body-color front instead of the usual stand-up brightwork, plus a huge "glassback" deck designed for smoother airflow to a bespoilered tail. GM Design concocted this configuration to counter Ford's more slippery new Thunderbirds in long-distance races.

As ever, NASCAR approval depended on building a set number of street models, hence this Pontiac and Chevy's similar Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe.

Showroom 2+2s carried a four-barrel, 165-bhp Chevy 305 V-8--fair enough, considering all period GM competitors in NASCAR ran Chevy-based engines. If any Grand Prix built between 1978 and '87 will interest collectors, this is the one, though it's generated scant interest so far.

Showroom 2+2s carried a four-barrel, 165-bhp Chevy 305 V-8--fair enough, considering all period GM competitors in NASCAR ran Chevy-based engines. If any Grand Prix built between 1978 and '87 will interest collectors, this is the one, though it's generated scant interest so far.

The all-new '88 was a very different Grand Prix. Though it premiered with the same W-body/GM10 coupe platform as the latest Olds Cutlass Supreme and Buick Regal, its looks were pure Pontiac: sleek, purposeful, and obviously more "aero" than its blocky predecessor. It was more sophisticated, too, with standard all-disc brakes and four-wheel independent suspension.

Though 7.8 inches shorter overall than the '87, the '88 rode a wheelbase only 0.5-inch shorter. This, plus a transverse drivetrain (nearly universal with front drive), made for a much-roomier interior than before.

For the base and midrange LE models, that drivetrain involved a 130-bhp 173-cid Chevy V-6 with port fuel injection driving a four-speed automatic transaxle; a five-speed manual designed by Getrag of Germany was optional.

The five-speed was standard on the sporty SE, which came with a beefed-up suspension and more comprehensive instruments set in a very busy dash. Automatic GPs were upgraded to a stroked 3.1-liter (191-cid) V-6 during 1989, but the big thrill was a McLaren Turbo model powered by a blown 3.1 producing 200 bhp.

The "McTurbo" was another limited edition, developed with ASC/McLaren and planned for only 2000 copies.

Finished in monochrome red or black with gold-color accents, it rolled on sizable 16-inch lacy-spoke wheels fitted with Z-rated high-performance tires (safe at over 149 mph). Wheel openings were suitably flared for clearance via specific lower-body panels with wind-cheating "spats" at each wheel, plus a grooved rub strip carried into the bumpers at each end.

Like Ford with its '83 Thunderbird, Pontiac had come up with a car to revitalize a tired name. The McLaren was arguably the best GP yet for all-around performance.

Workaday Grand Prixs made a good sales start with model-year '88 volume of about 86,000. The '89s fared even better at just under 137,000, with optional antilock brakes a new inducement to buy. The 1990 total was a bit lower at 128,000 -- disturbing, as that included two new sedans, an LE and a reincarnated STE. Each was shapely, but the STE was both sporty and lush.

Among its no-cost features were antilock brakes, handling suspension, upgraded rolling stock, analog gauges (replacing contrived digigraphic), buckets-and-console interior, and an available 205-bhp 3.1 turbo V-6 (offered on a Turbo coupe as well). Bodyside cladding cluttered appearance, a bank of running lights between the headlamps looked me-too next to the Mercury Sable (which had this first), and the standard powertrain teamed the unexciting 140-bhp 3.1 V-6 with mandatory four-speed automatic.

Still, it was heartening to see the STE continue, and the LE was a fitting replacement for the 6000 as Pontiac's mainstream family four-door.

Pontiac's personal-luxury coupe, the Grand Prix, had become almost invisible since its '78 downsizing, limping along after 1981 with somewhat smoother but still uninspired styling that strained at marrying "aero modern" with "middle-class traditional."

Engines were equally uninspired, mostly Buick V-6s and Chevy small-block V-8s, all economy-tuned. The trouble-prone Olds 350 diesel V-8 offered from 1981 to '84 only underlined the old-fogey aura of a car that was less important on the street than on NASCAR circuits (thanks to Richard Petty, and others).

But the GP's role as stock-car standard-bearer did lead to an interesting limited edition reviving the 2+2 handle. Introduced at mid-1986, this wore a wind-cheating body-color front instead of the usual stand-up brightwork, plus a huge "glassback" deck designed for smoother airflow to a bespoilered tail. GM Design concocted this configuration to counter Ford's more slippery new Thunderbirds in long-distance races.

But the GP's role as stock-car standard-bearer did lead to an interesting limited edition reviving the 2+2 handle. Introduced at mid-1986, this wore a wind-cheating body-color front instead of the usual stand-up brightwork, plus a huge "glassback" deck designed for smoother airflow to a bespoilered tail. GM Design concocted this configuration to counter Ford's more slippery new Thunderbirds in long-distance races.

As ever, NASCAR approval depended on building a set number of street models, hence this Pontiac and Chevy's similar Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe. Showroom 2+2s carried a four-barrel, 165-bhp Chevy 305 V-8--fair enough, considering all period GM competitors in NASCAR ran Chevy-based engines. If any Grand Prix built between 1978 and '87 will interest collectors, this is the one, though it's generated scant interest so far.

As ever, NASCAR approval depended on building a set number of street models, hence this Pontiac and Chevy's similar Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe. Showroom 2+2s carried a four-barrel, 165-bhp Chevy 305 V-8--fair enough, considering all period GM competitors in NASCAR ran Chevy-based engines. If any Grand Prix built between 1978 and '87 will interest collectors, this is the one, though it's generated scant interest so far.

The all-new '88 was a very different Grand Prix. Though it premiered with the same W-body/GM10 coupe platform as the latest Olds Cutlass Supreme and Buick Regal, its looks were pure Pontiac: sleek, purposeful, and obviously more "aero" than its blocky predecessor. It was more sophisticated, too, with standard all-disc brakes and four-wheel independent suspension.

Though 7.8 inches shorter overall than the '87, the '88 rode a wheelbase only 0.5-inch shorter. This, plus a transverse drivetrain (nearly universal with front drive), made for a much-roomier interior than before.

For the base and midrange LE models, that drivetrain involved a 130-bhp 173-cid Chevy V-6 with port fuel injection driving a four-speed automatic transaxle; a five-speed manual designed by Getrag of Germany was optional.

The five-speed was standard on the sporty SE, which came with a beefed-up suspension and more comprehensive instruments set in a very busy dash. Automatic GPs were upgraded to a stroked 3.1-liter (191-cid) V-6 during 1989, but the big thrill was a McLaren Turbo model powered by a blown 3.1 producing 200 bhp.

The "McTurbo" was another limited edition, developed with ASC/McLaren and planned for only 2000 copies. Finished in monochrome red or black with gold-color accents, it rolled on sizable 16-inch lacy-spoke wheels fitted with Z-rated high-performance tires (safe at over 149 mph). Wheel openings were suitably flared for clearance via specific lower-body panels with wind-cheating "spats" at each wheel, plus a grooved rub strip carried into the bumpers at each end.

Like Ford with its '83 Thunderbird, Pontiac had come up with a car to revitalize a tired name. The McLaren was arguably the best GP yet for all-around performance.

Workaday Grand Prixs made a good sales start with model-year '88 volume of about 86,000. The '89s fared even better at just under 137,000, with optional antilock brakes a new inducement to buy. The 1990 total was a bit lower at 128,000 -- disturbing, as that included two new sedans, an LE and a reincarnated STE. Each was shapely, but the STE was both sporty and lush.

Among its no-cost features were antilock brakes, handling suspension, upgraded rolling stock, analog gauges (replacing contrived digigraphic), buckets-and-console interior, and an available 205-bhp 3.1 turbo V-6 (offered on a Turbo coupe as well).

Bodyside cladding cluttered appearance, a bank of running lights between the headlamps looked me-too next to the Mercury Sable (which had this first), and the standard powertrain teamed the unexciting 140-bhp 3.1 V-6 with mandatory four-speed automatic.

Still, it was heartening to see the STE continue, and the LE was a fitting replacement for the 6000 as Pontiac's mainstream family four-door.

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Pontiac Strategy in the 1990s

In the 1990s, Pontiacs kept evolving more or less in step with related Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks, but contrived to seem sportier, even if driving reality didn't always match the division's new "We Build Excitement" ad slogan.

Sales tactics shifted greatly, as Pontiac added a minivan for 1990, then merged with the GMC truck division to create a "full-line" franchise like Chevrolet. The latter move was announced in February 1996 by Ronald Zarrella, recruited four years earlier from optics maker Bausch & Lomb to be GM's group executive for North American vehicle sales, service, and marketing.

In a press release, Zarrella touted the new Pontiac-GMC Division as part of a "continuing effort…to configure our organization to achieve the most effective, efficient results for our customers, dealers, and stockholders. Both Pontiac and GMC have long recognized the complimentary [sic] nature of their businesses …and the advantages inherent in a dual franchise."

Indeed, some 55 percent of Pontiac dealers already handled GMC at the time. The combined division began with 3736 outlets and total calendar-year sales of over a million units. Of course, the goal for this wedding was plain: fewer but more profitable dealers.

Zarrella, named president of GM North America in 1999, espoused "brand management," long a staple at consumer-products companies like Proctor & Gamble. GM chairman John Smale, who once headed P&G, and president John F. "Jack" Smith were believers, too. Smale and Smith came to power earlier in 1992 in a board-instigated "palace coup" that ignominiously removed chairman Bob Stempel and president Lloyd Reuss, veteran GMers who were blamed for continuing losses in company market share and earnings.

Zarrella's mission was to turn things around. Under brand management, that meant sharpening the image of each GM make for more customer appeal and less intramural rivalry, plus weeding out similar and/or underperforming models throughout the corporate fleet.

But Zarrella's efforts, however well-intentioned, produced mixed results. Though recovery was evident by middecade, it stemmed more from a booming tech-driven national economy and fast-growing demand for high-margin trucks than fancy ads and design dictated increasingly by consumer focus groups.

Pontiac was less affected by brand-management antics than other GM makes save Saturn, which was in its own orbit anyway. In fact, Pontiac had been pretty well-managed before Zarrella came in. All it needed to do in the '90s was more of the same -- which it did to good effect, sales running at a half-million units or better each calendar year save 1998. Even so, an ominous downtrend set in as the new century neared.

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Pontiac Trans Sport

Although the 1990 Pontiac Trans Sport was regarded as a quality minivan, its futuristic design lacked appeal and generated poor sales.

The Trans Sport minivan was a peripheral player in the 1980s, generally drawing fewer than 30,000 yearly sales, a fraction of what the top-selling Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager achieved. GM had missed the minivan mark with its new-for-'85 rear-drive Chevy Astro/GMC Safari, so it drew up a Chrysler-like front-drive platform for Trans Sport, a new Chevrolet Lumina APV, and a luxury-oriented Oldsmobile Silhouette.

All placed plastic-like body panels over a steel skeleton like the late Fiero, unique among minivans but debatable here. So, too, was the shared "dustbuster" styling, with a long pointy snout grafted onto a practical minivan box.

Car and Driver likened the look to something out of "Star Trek." Equally weird was a dashtop that stretched way ahead to a steeply raked windshield flanked by large, fixed triangular side windows ahead of the front doors. Visibility, needless to say, wasn't the best.

More useful was available "2+2+2" seating for the uplevel Trans Sport SE. This involved lightweight individual seats for the second and third rows that could be rearranged to suit various passenger- and cargo-carrying requirements -- a bright new minivan idea.

More useful was available "2+2+2" seating for the uplevel Trans Sport SE. This involved lightweight individual seats for the second and third rows that could be rearranged to suit various passenger- and cargo-carrying requirements -- a bright new minivan idea.

At first, Trans Sport and company only had a 120-bhp version of GM's 3.1-liter V-6, with less-efficient throttle-body fuel injection instead of a squirter at each cylinder. That was hardly a selling point for a vehicle that could be loaded with seven ­people and/or lots of cargo.

But GM made amends for '92 by adding an extra-cost 165-bhp 3.8 V-6, plus available antilock brakes. The 3.8 gained five bhp for '93, when a pop-up sunroof, leather upholstery, and steering wheel-mounted audio controls joined Trans Sport's options roster.

The next year introduced a standard driver-side airbag and automatic power door locks, plus an optional power sliding right-rear side door -- and an oddly blunted nose paring 2.3 inches from overall length, an attempt to silence style critics. Optional traction control arrived late that season.

Progress slowed as a planned redesign drew near: just a shift interlock for '95, and a new 180-bhp 3.4-liter V-6 as the sole engine for '96. In all, these minivans were another example of how GM so often stumbles when attempting to innovate.

A redesigned Trans Sport arrived in 1997. Like that year's Olds Silhouette and new Chevy Venture, it reverted to conventional all-steel construction with mainstream minivan styling that might be termed "attractively forgettable." Buyers could now opt for five-passenger and extended seven-seat versions on separate wheelbases, a nod to the top-selling Chrysler Corporation minivans, themselves overhauled the previous year.

Also aping Chrysler's latest was an available left-side sliding rear door, which later became standard and could be electrically operated like the power right-side door GM had pioneered.

All the new GM models were widely judged the best-handling minivans. Trans Sport went furthest with a Montana Package comprising tighter suspension, alloy wheels and traction control, plus jazzy two-tone exterior.

Reasonably priced at around $1000-$1200 depending on model, this option proved so popular that Montana replaced the Trans Sport name for '99 (except in Canada), though most previous Montana features continued in a Performance and Handling option.

This new blend of minivan practicality, Pontiac flair, and affordable low-$20,000 pricing more than doubled Trans Sport sales for 1997. But volume went little higher afterward, and Dodge moved more than four times as many Caravans each year. Though all minivans were increasingly regarded as uncool "soccer mom" vehicles, with a consequent softening in overall demand, GM's entries had another problem in being visibly narrower than their rivals.

This reflected a basic design created partly for the tight streets of Europe, where it was sold as the Opel/Vauxhall Sintra. Most Americans didn't like their minivans so skinny, and thus shopped elsewhere.

A relatively static product didn't help Pontiac's cause, either. Indeed, the only changes of note after '97 were an optional "MontanaVision" rear-seat DVD video system (1999); standard OnStar (2001); and available fold-flat third-row seat, "Versatrak" all-wheel-drive, and ultrasonic rear-obstacle-detection system (2002).

The benign neglect was unfortunate. Like other GM efforts approaching the new millennium, the Trans Sport/Montana was basically a good vehicle, just not quite what the market wanted.

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1990s Pontiac Sunbird and Pontiac Sunfire

Though Grand Am and Grand Prix remained Pontiac's top sellers in the '90s, Sunbird contributed important volume, attracting more than 100,000 orders each model year through the end of the original J-car design in 1994. It was looking quite tired by then, but steady updating helped maintain its appeal.

The '91s, for example, replaced the gruff, growly turbo-four with the corporate 3.1 V-6, whose modest 140 horses seemed quite lively in this light subcompact. The V-6 was standard for the GT coupe, optional otherwise. A base-trim coupe and sedan were added at nearly $800 less than counterpart LEs, but they didn't get the V-6 or many other options.

For '92 came standard antilock brakes -- a real plus for the small car class -- plus no-cost automatic power door locks and a shift interlock for the automatic transmission. LE now denoted base-trim Sunbirds; SEs expanded to coupe, sedan, and convertible choices. A new fuel-injection system added 15 horsepower to the old 2.0-liter base four.

The flock saw even fewer changes for '93, though SE coupes gained an optional Sport Appearance Package that delivered a GT-style nose and bodyside cladding for less money. The '94 line comprised the LE trio and a V-6 SE coupe with Sport Appearance features, basically the departed GT with a lower price.

Everything changed for 1995, name included, as the Sunbird became the Sunfire on a heavily revised J-car platform shared with Chevrolet Cavalier. A curvy new look was common to both, but Sunfire stood apart with Pontiac's signature twin-port grille, plus a busier rear end, plastic-clad lower bodysides -- a growing Pontiac fetish at the time -- and even different coupe rooflines.

An SE coupe and sedan rolled in first, followed at midmodel year by a GT coupe and then an SE convertible with standard power top. SE base power was the 2.2-liter 120-bhp pushrod four that Cavaliers had used for some time already, while the V-6 gave way to the 150-bhp 2.3-liter twincam Quad-4 familiar from recent GM compacts and intermediates. The latter was standard for the GT, optional for the SE coupe.

Both engines mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission. Optional automatics were the usual three-speed with the 2.2, a new four-speed with the Quad-4. The latter combination included traction control, which was otherwise unavailable. At least all models finally shed annoying motorized "mouse belts" for twin dashboard airbags to meet the fed's requirement for front "passive restraints."

Sunfire shuffled powerteams for 1996. The 2.2 was now offered with the four-speed automatic and traction control. The Quad-4 got some internal tweaks, a displacement bump to 2.4 liters, and the prosaic name Twin Cam. Horsepower was unchanged, but the big four was newly optional for the four-door SE.

Changes for '97 centered on the ragtop SE, which got a four-speed automatic, cruise control, and electric defrosting for its glass rear window as additional no-cost items. There was little news for '98, while the main '99 development was shifting the convertible to GT trim.

Modestly freshened year-2000 Sunfires bowed in early '99. The longer model year yielded higher production on that basis, but calendar-year orders declined. The ragtop, never a strong seller, was phased out during the year.

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1990s Pontiac Grand Am

The 1992 Pontiac Grand Ams were based on a new N-body platform.

The vintage-1985 Grand Am said goodbye after 1991, when it added base-trim price-leaders, plus standard antilock brakes for top-line SEs. The latter were touted as America's most affordable cars with ABS, even though stickers swelled more than $1300 to $16,000-plus.

Engines, carried over from 1990, started with the old 2.5-liter Iron Duke four providing 110 standard bhp in base and LE models. Available for LEs and ­included on SEs was the gruff but game Quad-4 with 160 bhp when tied to the optional three-speed automatic, 180 if mated to the linewide-standard five-speed manual. LEs, now midline Grand Ams, offered a Sport Performance option with SE-like styling and Quad-4 power.

A somewhat overdue redesign put 1992 Grand Ams on a fresh N-body platform along with Chevrolet's Corsica/Beretta, redone Buick Skylarks, and Oldsmobile's new Achievas. Wheelbase was untouched, but length grew by more than half a foot. Only SE and GT coupes and sedans returned.

Despite the general industry move to airbags, Grand Am persisted with door-mounted "automatic safety belts" and promoted linewide-standard ABS instead. Styling was sleeker but rather exaggerated, with heavy lower-body plastic cladding on GTs -- which Skylark and Achieva designers had to work around -- and a sleeker profile for coupes.

The redesign also shook things up under Grand Am hoods. The base Iron Duke stepped aside for a single-cam version of the Quad-4 dubbed Quad OHC, tuned for 120 bhp. The Quad-4 itself returned unchanged, but a V-6 was made available for the first time since 1987. This Buick-sourced pushrod 3.3-liter unit had the same 160 bhp as the automatic-transmission Quad-4, but also boasted greater low-speed torque that made a better match with the three-speed slushbox, the only choice offered.

The makeover spurred Grand Am to some 208,500 sales for '92. Second-year changes were predictably minor: an optional remote keyless-entry system, a standard battery-rundown protection feature, and four-cylinder engines made slightly quieter. The fours were still rather unrefined lumps and they managed to lose five bhp.

Sales approached 255,000 for 1994, when updates were relatively monumental: a standard driver-side airbag at last -- just as most rivals were getting dual airbags -- an available four-speed automatic transmission, and a 155-bhp 3.1-liter V-6 to replace the 160-horse 3.3. Leather upholstery was a new extra, and the sometimes-hated automatic door locks could now be set for automatic unlocking, sparing occupants the trouble of flicking a switch.

After a short three-year run, the Quad OHC was canceled for 1995 Grand Ams and a 150-bhp Quad-4 became the new base engine, adding "balance shafts" for smoother running but losing its High-Output variant. Despite being a virtual carryover other­wise, Grand Am continued on a rising sales track, nudging past 291,000 for the model year.

Modest cosmetic tweaks and standard dual airbags in a reworked dash marked the '96 models. As with the Sunfire and other cars that used it, the Quad-4 became a 2.4-liter Twin Cam, gaining internal refinements but no more horsepower. The old three-speed automatic was dropped, and traction control was a new bonus when the four-speed automatic was ordered. Grand Am then stood pat for two full years, awaiting another redesign.

The redesigned 1999 Grand Ams started sale in early '98. Coupes and sedans continued, but the lineup was more confusing, with each body style offered in base SE, SE1, and SE2 versions, plus sportier GT and GT1 trim.

Wheelbase lengthened 3.6 inches to 107, rangy for a compact. Overall length was little-changed, but width swelled almost three inches (to 70.4). Powertrains, alas, weren't much changed. SE2s and all GTs came with the hoary 3.4-liter pushrod V-6; ­others used the 2.4-liter Twin Cam until 2002, when they followed Sunbird to the newer 2.2-liter "L850" corporate four-cylinder, eventually known by the "Ecotec" name used in Europe, where it originated. Four-speed automatic remained the only transmission until 2000, after which four-cylinder models got a standard five-speed manual supplied by German gearbox specialist Getrag.

Grand Am styling was now much like Grand Prix's, but on a smaller scale and with lots of geegaws larded on. Car and Driver judged appearance "overwrought and exaggerated," especially on GTs. "Only the roof panel is devoid of scoops, spoilers, strakes, and other 'character' lines…Even the GT's five-spoke alloys are cluttered with little cartoonish speedline indentations on each spoke. One or two of these cues might be acceptable, but together they're too much."

The rest of the car wasn't enough. Despite a performance-sapping automatic, C/D's test GT sedan ran 0-60 in a brisk 7.7 seconds and scored well for handling, but lacked the poise and polish of most import rivals. Ride was generally judged good on any model, but noise levels were only average and workmanship needed, well, work.

Value was an asset, but that didn't offset all the debits for Consumer Guide®. Said CG's Auto 2000 issue: "Unless sporty looks are your top priority in a family compact, you'd be well advised to scout the competition." Many people did, and Grand Am sales fell steadily thereafter.

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1990s Pontiac Grand Prix

The midsize Grand Prix was honed through 1996, its basic 1988 design updated as new engines and features emerged from General Motors labs.

Of course, the same held for the W-body Buick Regal and Olds Cutlass Supreme. Yet the GP, perhaps because of Pontiac's hipper image, usually sold the best, if not quite as well as Chevrolet's more affordable W-body Lumina. Worrisome, though, were see-saw sales in these years, dropping from more than 197,000 for 1990 to 100,000-150,000 per model year. The exception was swan-song '96, when early release of redesigned '97s held volume below 84,000.

Grand Prix's 1991 program reprised LE, SE, and STE sedans, but not the turbocharged STE. The Turbo coupe was gone too, replaced by a nonturbo GT and uplevel GTP, the latter dressed in aggressive body cladding. (The plastics industry must have loved Pontiac in these years.) While some mourned losing the turbocharged V-6, Pontiac consoled them with GM's new normally aspirated Twin Dual Cam V-6, a 24-valve 3.4-liter rated at 210 bhp with five-speed manual or an even 200 with that year's new four-speed automatic option. Standard for GTP, this engine was available for other models save the LE sedan.

Also on the card were a base 140-bhp 3.1 V-6 and a 160-bhp 2.3 Quad-4. LE sedans also missed out on the ABS that was newly available on other '91 GPs. The Quad-4 departed for '92, when ABS became standard except on LEs, and all sedans took on the STE's front light bar. Linewide-standard automatic power door locking was the main change for '93.

Catching up with many rivals for 1994, Grand Prix added standard dual airbags in a redesigned interior, the year's only W-body so blessed. More surprising was a lineup pared to just a pair of well-equipped mainstream SEs. The 3.1 V-6 added 20 bhp for 160 total. The five-speed manual transmission was discarded, but the options list still had enough of the right stuff to approximate the sportiness of the discontinued GT and STE.

Interestingly, the more overt family focus boosted GP sales by some 31,500 units over model-year '93. The '95s drew only some 4700 fewer orders despite little change. There was even less news for the abbreviated '96 season, though the 3.4 V-6 tacked on five bhp.

A mostly new H-body Bonneville sedan began an eight-year run for 1992, distinguished by a billowy new look that not everyone liked. That might explain why sales followed the Grand Prix pattern, with a first-year peak (some 124,000), a lower midlife plateau (fewer than 100,000 through '94), and a still-lower level through series end (75,000 at best).

Pontiac soon began renewing its bread-and-butter models, starting with Grand Prix for 1997. Previewed two years before by the 300 GPX concept, it was one of the handsomest Ponchos since the '60s: purposeful, curvy, near frippery-free. The sedan showed particularly dramatic change in a new coupelike profile.

Even better, "Wide Track" was back, as ads loudly proclaimed. Like Buick's latest Regal on the same ­updated W-body platform, the GP was little longer than before despite a three-inch-longer wheelbase. But Pontiac went for a broader stance, upping track width by two inches fore, three inches aft.

Grand Prix offered three V-6 models for '97: a mom-and-pop 3.1-liter SE sedan with 160 bhp and an enthusiast-oriented GT sedan and coupe with GM's ever-improving "3800" engine and 195 standard bhp. An optional GTP package delivered a muscular 240-bhp supercharged 3800, plus beefier four-speed automatic transmission, somewhat firmer suspension, stickier tires, modest decklid spoiler, and discreet identification.

All models boasted standard all-disc antilock brakes and traction control, though the latter was denied GTPs until 1998, when a stouter system was adopted across the board.

Car and Driver had good things to say about the '97 GTP sedan. Topping the list were a zippy 0-60-mph time of 6.8 seconds, fine skidpad grip (0.79g), safe and predictable front-drive moves, a roomy and comfortable cabin with generally sound ergonomics, and lots of features for only about $25,000 delivered. There were faults, to be sure, but C/D dismissed them as "relatively minor carping. We were expecting the 1997 Grand Prix to be a better car than the previous model, but we weren't expecting it to be this much better."

Buyers also responded favorably, snapping up about 159,000 GPs for the extended '97 season. Though the extra selling time helped pump up the volume, this was Grand Prix's best model-year performance in two decades. Demand eased for '98 to a bit over 142,000, but the '99 tally was 155,000, and model-year 2000 output climbed to near 173,000. Interim changes helped keep buyers interested.

The GTP proved popular enough to win separate-model status for '99, when the base V-6 added five bhp. For 2000, GM's useful OnStar communications and assistance system became available, the base V-6 got another 15 bhp, and all models added an engine immobilizer that disabled the ignition if starting was attempted by devious means.

Grand Prix was chosen as the pace car for the 2000 Daytona 500, and Pontiac reeled off 2000 replicas, all silver GTP coupes with unique 16-inch aluminum wheels, functional hood vents, special interior, and Daytona insignia inside and out.

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1990s Pontiac Bonneville

The most exciting Bonneville of the 1990s was the new '92 Bonneville SSEi, offering a supercharged version of GM's evergreen 3.8-liter V-6 with 205 bhp. An unblown 170-bhp standard engine was shared with midrange SSE and base SE models. All boasted a driver-side airbag.

The SSE added ABS, buckets-and-console interior, and alloy wheels. The SSEi looked pricey at $28,045 to start, but came with a passenger-side airbag, automatic climate control, 12-way power front seats, and a racy head-up display (HUD) that projected speed and other data onto the windshield ahead of the driver.

But the SSEi's most important feature was its standard traction-control system. This helped tame unruly, unwanted front wheelspin by throttling back power and/or applying the brakes in response to signals from the ABS wheel-speed sensors. Sporting owners appreciated traction control. Then again, few cars in this class needed it so much. Indeed, enthusiasts still blanched at any front-drive car with handling compromised by a surplus of power, as this Bonneville was.

Curiously, the SSEi's flagship appeal was diluted for '93 by giving the SE standard ABS and an SLE package option with SSEi-style grille and body addenda, 16-inch "lacy spoke" wheels and other amenities. In addition, the supercharged V-6 was newly available for the SSE.

Pontiac was after more competitive price points, a motive that also figured in the SSEi's 1994 demotion from separate model to SSE option. At least that year's blown V-6 got an extra 20 bhp, and all Bonnevilles benefited from included dual airbags. Price pressure also prompted a special SLE option for California-bound '94 SEs, an alleged $4500 value tagged at just $1371. Exclusive to the SSE option list was GM's Computer Command Ride (CCR), basically sensor-linked shock absorbers that automatically changed from soft to firm damping in hard cornering or braking maneuvers.

Tech again dominated news for 1995. An extensive internal revamp evolved the base V-6 into a smoother, quieter "Series II" engine with 205 bhp, and the supercharged mill was newly optional for SLE-equipped SEs. The blown engine became a Series II for '96, adding 15 horses with it, and all models ­sported a subtle facelift.

But none of this affected sales very much, nor did further fiddling for 1997-99. Though Bonneville still ran a strong second to Buick's LeSabre in H-body sales, it had been eclipsed for style, space, and roadability by the "cab-forward" Dodge Intrepid and Chrysler Concorde/LHS/300.

Larger new import-brand sedans were also stealing the big Poncho's thunder -- and customers. Indeed, Consumer Guide® demoted Bonneville from "Best Buy" to "Recommended" status after 1997. Like Grand Am and Grand Prix, the 1990s Bonnie had slipped into the "rental car" trap: OK for a week's vacation, maybe, but not the top choice for a long-term relationship.

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1990, 1991, 1992, 1993 Pontiac Firebird

Firebird was left to carry the "we build excitement" banner in the 1990s. As ever, it was the most stirring thing in Pontiac showrooms, and promptly became even more so -- mainly because it had to.

Firebird began its 1991 season in spring '90, about six months early. Base, Formula, Trans Am, and GTA came back with another deft facelift of the familiar vintage-1982 design, announced by a smoother snout recalling the recent Banshee show car.

A new Sport Appearance option gave the low-liner much of the T/A's show, but not the go. Engines ranged from a budget-grade 140-bhp 3.1 V-6 to a 240-bhp 350-cid/5.7-liter V-8. Though everyone knew a fresh Firebird was just two years off, Pontiac sprang a surprise at mid-1991 with its first convertible ponycar in more than two decades. Offered in base, Formula, and T/A guise only, the droptop Firebird was naturally much like the rag-roof Chevy Camaro that had been around since 1987. It spurred a modest sales recovery as a bridge to '93.

That season also began early, and why not? Abetted by a recent concept preview and fuzzy spy photos in newspapers and "buff" magazines, Firebird fans were clamoring for the fourth generation of their favorite. They weren't disappointed. Bowing in spring '92 with coupes only, the 1993 Firebird was a real looker: slick, slinky, even a bit menacing. Wheelbase was unchanged, but flowing new contours gave greater visual distinction from F-body cousin Camaro.

Fiero experience paid practical dividends in the use of dent-resistant plasticlike material for the front and rear fascias, front fenders, doors, roof, and rear hatchlid. Beneath was a spaceframelike structure that improved rigidity so much that the optional twin T-tops could be replaced by single lift-off panel -- the first Firebird "targa" coupe.

Powerteams were drastically simplified. Base models came with the corporate 3.4 V-6, here tuned for 160 bhp and linked to five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmissions. Formula and Trans Am shared a new-generation small-block V-8 dubbed LT1, still a 5.7 but chockablock with engineering improvements. Also found in Camaros and Chevrolet Corvettes, it delivered a 275-bhp wallop via the automatic or a newly standard six-speed manual gearbox.

Chassis changes were equally extensive, though the all-coil suspension was much the same in concept. The factory changed too, with F-body production moving from Van Nuys, California, to a more ­modern GM plant in St. Therese, Quebec, Canada.

All 1993 Firebirds came with dual airbags and ABS, a sop to insurance companies and the high premiums that still dampened demand for many sporty cars. Unfortunately, those additions pushed sticker prices much higher. A base Firebird previously listing at $12,505 with automatic now started at $13,995 with manual. Given that, plus surprisingly strong, sustained competition from an aged yet seemingly ageless Ford Mustang, the brand-new Firebird was no sales smash.

A slow production ramp-up for the sake of build quality held model-year '93 volume below 15,000 units. Yet even when production did hit stride in 1994, sales recovered only to the 50,000-unit level achieved by the last third-generation cars of 1992.

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1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 Pontiac Firebird

Blue dorsal striping and monogrammed white leather seats were just a few of the features for the 25th anniversary 1994 Pontiac Trans Am.

Firebird started 1994 with a "decontented" and downpriced Trans Am, though the previous T/A was still around as the Trans Am GT.

V-8 buyers choosing six-speed manual got CAGS, GM's Computer Aided Gear Selection feature. Long familiar in Corvettes, it basically "forced" a first-to-fourth upshift under light throttle as an aid to fuel economy -- and to CAFE numbers. GM refused to build cars that would qualify for the Gas-Guzzler Tax. Purists widely disdained the electronic intrusion, but it was easily avoided with a careful right foot. And its mpg benefit allowed substituting a shorter rear-axle ratio (3.42:1 versus 3.23) for better off-the-line snap.

As planned, Firebird convertibles returned at midseason in base, Formula, and T/A GT trim, now factory-assembled wares with a standard power top. Also appearing in the '94 run was another nostalgic birthday Firebird, the 25th Anniversary Trans Am. An option package for T/A GTs, it was strictly cosmetic: blue dorsal striping, white paint, monogrammed white leather seats, specific body-color five-spoke alloy wheels, and, of course, the requisite celebratory logos. At least the price was right at just $995, and installations were limited to some 1500.

For reasons only Pontiac marketers could explain, the T/AGT was dropped for '95 and the regular Trans Am restored to its former standard-equipment glory. It shared with Formula an appreciated new traction-control system as a $450 extra that was worth every penny.

The base Firebird wasn't neglected, gaining a 200-bhp 3.8 V-6 as a late-season option in concert with automatic transmission. That evergreen engine then replaced the 3.4 V-6 for all base models. V-8s also got more power for '96, going to 285 bhp standard and to a healthy 305 via a new Ram Air package featuring a big hood air scoop (with twin intakes), plus larger tires on five-spoke alloy wheels.

After a quiet 1997, Firebird followed V-8 Camaros by adopting the impressive new aluminum-block LS1 engine from Chevy's C5 Corvette. In the ponycars, it made 305 bhp, up 20 from the final iron-block LT1; the optional Ram Air package (code WS6) upped the count to 320. At the same time, the six-speed ­manual became a no-cost option to automatic for Formula and Trans Am.

All '98 Firebirds wore a modest facelift marked by honeycomb-pattern taillights and a slightly shorter, more rounded nose. A pair of aggressive nasal air slots distinguished Trans Ams -- and Ram-Air cars now had four. Changes for '99 were few but worthwhile. V-8s adopted a more effective Torsen limited-slip differential, traction control was newly available for V-6s, and all models got a slightly larger fuel tank.

Another milestone Trans Am birthday rolled around in 1999. Pontiac observed it with a 30th Anniversary Package comprising the WS6 engine, Arctic White paint, more wide blue dorsal striping, unique 17-inch alloy wheels -- and even "Screaming Chicken" decals, albeit much less blatant than in the old days. There was the usual logo-bedecked cockpit, this one with a numbered commemorative plaque on the console.

Production was restricted, of course: 1065 "targa" coupes (with 65 reserved for Canada), 535 convertibles (35 for up north). Amid all these warm fuzzies, few might have guessed that Firebird had but three years left to live.

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2000s Pontiac Bonneville

More flamboyant styling marked the Bonneville in the 2000s. The 2004 Pontiac Bonneville GXP is shown here.

A new Bonneville arrived for 2000 on an improved version of the GM G-car platform that made the Oldsmobile Aurora such a roadable big four-door. Like the latest GP and Grand Am, Bonneville grew a bit longer in wheelbase, plus a little taller and heavier.

Styling turned toward the flamboyant with a more steeply canted windshield, newly downsloped hood, and wheels pushed further toward the corners on slightly wider tracks. Plastics factories worked overtime to supply more flashy body cladding, and Grand Am-type "speed streaks" popped up everywhere.

Y2K Bonnevilles numbered three: volume-selling SE, semisporty SLE, and a revived supercharged SSEi. Powertrains stayed broadly the same, but more internal refinements made the trusty V-6 a tad smoother and quieter still. The updated G-platform, GM's stiffest ever, contributed to a solid, satisfying down-the-road feel.

Predictably, the hot-shot SSEi was the subject of most "buff book" reviews, which were generally positive. Car and Driver clocked 0-60 in 7.8 seconds, which beat Chrysler's Euro-inspired 300M, and judged the ride/handling compromise about right for a sporty big domestic. The dashboard was something else. "Whoever designed it," C/D complained, "seemed to have an obsession with gray plastic buttons and knobs -- from the driver's seat, we counted 70 of them." For passengers, though, the interior was a spacious, comfortable, pleasant place to be.

If overdone in some respects, the 2000 was clearly a better Bonneville. Buyers initially agreed, lifting model-year sales by some 13 percent from '99.

Changes for 2001 included the return of GM OnStar as standard for SLE and SSEi, standard antiskid/traction control for the top-liner (the Cadillac-pioneered "Stabilitrak" system that also applied brakes to minimize fishtailing), and optional heated front seats for all models, not just SSEi. As Pontiac expected, the value-priced SE accounted for more than half of Bonneville sales. What Pontiac didn't expect was the steep 27-percent drop in '01 model-year volume to less than 45,500 units, marginal even for a high-profit full-size.

By 2002, Detroit's rumor mill was predicting that Bonneville would not see another redesign, having become too costly to continue and out of step with long-range product plans.

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Pontiac Aztek

Pontiac made several changes to the highly criticized 1992 Pontiac Aztek, but sales still fell short.

"Offbeat" aptly described Aztek, Pontiac's response to the fast­growing popularity of sport-utility vehicles based on car platforms rather than trucks. An early 2001 debut, it was basically a short-wheelbase Montana reconfigured as an "active lifestyle" vehicle.

In line with that, Aztek introduced optional Versatrak all-wheel drive, GM's clever new way of adding four-wheel traction to a front-drive powertrain without adding complexity or weight. Instead of a rear propshaft and extra differentials, an electronically controlled clutch pack at each rear wheel could lock up as needed to redirect torque from the front. This also brought a bonus in the form of independent rear suspension to replace the twist-beam axle, plus rear disc brakes instead of drums. Antilock brakes were standard, as on Montanas.

Still, Aztek wasn't a serious off-roader. Pontiac rightly called it a "sport recreational vehicle," meaning it could haul up to five folks and their gear to activities not very far off the beaten path. Naturally, Aztek drove much like its minivan parent, with adequate acceleration and safe but ponderous handling.

Its biggest attraction was a versatile five-seat interior with many novel touches. Among them was a totable drinks cooler-cum-CD box that locked in between the front seats, and a slide-out cargo-area storage tray that could double as a table for "tailgate" parties or be folded out to make a wheeled cart. Also available were separate stereo controls and speakers in the cargo bay, washable seat covers, and a camper package with a fitted air mattress and a tent for slipping over the raised rear hatch.

Trouble was, these nifty ideas were wrapped in some pretty odd styling. Motor Trend described Aztek as "minivan meets creature from the black lagoon." The Los Angeles Times simply wondered, "Who let the dog out?" Said Road & Track: Aztek is trying way too hard to be hip. That's understandable if you're trying to hide its minivan roots, [but] Pontiac has gone to extremes. The overall length was shortened and the rear hatch chopped into a fastback while the hood was raised and sliding doors were replaced with conventional portals…The styling [is] ungainly [despite] hood nostrils that recall the Ram Air look of the Trans Am and enough body cladding for a fleet of surfboards." There were kinder, gentler reviews, but hardly anyone bought an Aztek for its looks.

Early sales suggested as much. Pontiac planned on moving 60,000 Azteks every 12 months, but managed just slightly over 38,000 for the 18 months of the extra-long 2001 model year. Beyond questionable styling, some faulted Aztek as too pricey for the younger buyers it targeted.

Pontiac addressed both issues for 2002. Body-color cladding without molded-in "speed streaks" cleaned up the exterior, and making some standard features optional allowed cutting base prices by a few thousand dollars to around $20,000 minimum. But the unforgiving public had already branded Aztek an unhip loser, and sales remained at well under half the original projection through 2004.

Pontiac made more price adjustments and added appealing options including satellite radio, rear DVD entertainment, and a sporty Rally Edition package with lowered suspension and 17-inch wheels. But Aztek couldn't be saved without a total redesign, which wasn't in the cards, so Pontiac gave up after '05 to avoid further embarrassment. Sales that calendar year: a paltry 5020.

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2000s Pontiac Firebird

Firebird seemed beyond saving as the new century opened, but only because buyer tastes had changed. Ponycars and muscle machines had given way to big-engine trucks and highly tuned "sport compacts" as America's performance icons. The Chevrolet Camaro was also falling from favor because of this shift, but not the Ford Mustang, which by now outsold the two GM ponycars combined.

It was thus no great shock that Firebird and Camaro were terminated after 2002. For a time it seemed that neither had a prayer of ever returning, but GM had second thoughts once an all-new Mustang began generating huge buzz and rip-roaring sales. By early 2006, GM was all but promising a new Camaro in two to three years time -- shades of 1967. But there was no mention of a new Firebird. That's because its performance role at Pontiac had already passed to another car, described later.

True to its tradition, Firebird did not go quietly. The Formula, for example, celebrated Pontiac's 75th birthday with a like-named package option at mid-2001. Priced at $2550 with manufacturer discount, it bundled unique cosmetics with traction control, a tighter axle ratio, and performance tires on chrome alloy wheels. Arriving with it was a separate $1170 NHRA group honoring the National Hot Rod Association and Firebird's continued drag-racing successes. This option delivered similar gearing and rolling stock, plus a six-speed manual with Hurst-brand shifter and linkage (recently added as a stand-alone option).

The NHRA package returned for '02, when the WS6 engine added five bhp to reach 325. Also back was the SLP Firehawk, a show-and-go package that Pontiac first cataloged in 2001 after securing sales rights from SLP Engineering, an outside company that had been putting more fire in Firebirds for some 10 years. Available for '01 Formulas and Trans Ams and for '02 T/As, the Firehawk option comprised a forced-air induction system that upped the WS6 to 330/345 bhp, plus stiffened suspension, fat low-profile tires on 17-inch wheels, and many exclusive trim items. Power junkies happily ponied up the $4000/$4300 asking price.

Last but not least was 2002's tellingly named Collector Edition Trans Am, another ensemble option. It largely duplicated the 30th Anniversary Package, but wore black accents on bright yellow paint, plus unique wheels and interior trim. With that, Firebird was history.

Pontiac's ponycar was tough to lose, but it was strictly a business decision. Times were tough for General Motors and about to get much tougher.

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Pontiac Strategy in the 2000s

By 2005, Pontiac was desperate for cash, posting a $10.6 billion loss that year, most all of it sustained by North American Operations (NAO). More ominously, GM faced enormous near-term health-care and pension costs not only for its own still-sizable workforce but also the employees at Delphi, the money-losing parts unit spun off in 1999 as a quasi-independent concern.

Yet years of withering sales, market share, and stock price had left GM hard-pressed to borrow needed funds, banks having cut its credit rating to undesirable "junk" status.

Fortunately, 2001 had ushered in new managers determined to do whatever was needed to restore GM's health. Company veteran G. Richard "Rick" Wagoner, Jr., took over from Ron Zarrella (who returned to Bausch & Lomb to be CEO). Wagoner soon moved up to chairman, then took charge of the floundering NAO unit. In a surprise early days move, he persuaded former Chrysler Corporation president Bob Lutz out of retirement to be GM "product czar," charged with spearheading smash-hit new models -- and avoiding another Aztek.

Lutz immediately began dismantling brand management and its bloated, confusing bureaucracy, while putting new emphasis on stand-out styling and scrutinizing the competition with the eye of a "car guy." As part of streamlining product development, he aimed for closer links between Detroit and GM's overseas branches to avoid profit-sapping duplication, increase manufacturing flexibility, and quicken GM's responsiveness in the super-competitive twenty-first-century market. Lutz was rewarded for his efforts by being named vice chairman in early 2005.

Wagoner, meantime, made some wrenching decisions under pressure from restive shareholders and an increasingly impatient GM board. Among the toughest were phasing out Olds­mobile after 2004; selling stakes in once-promising "alliance" partners Fiat, Isuzu, Subaru, and Suzuki; seeking more concessions from the United Auto Workers and other unions; and planning a "right size" dealer body in which Buicks would be sold through many Pontiac-GMC outlets. But the drama had just begun.

In early 2006, GM said it would lay off some 30,000 workers and close a dozen North American plants by 2010. A few weeks later, the company announced it had found a buyer for a 51-percent share of its profitable financing arm, General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), another divestiture to pad cash reserves against looming disaster.

Yet even with all this, some financial gurus gave only 50/50 odds that GM could avoid filing for bankruptcy within five years. For a company that once ruled the U.S. auto industry with a giant's strength, this was a stunning state of affairs.

Pontiac's turn of the century record mirrored the deepening crisis. Calendar-year sales, which began wobbling in the 1990s, headed south once the boom economy ended, plunging from more than 616,000 cars and trucks in 1999 to just under 438,000 in 2005. Most of the losses naturally came on the car side, which dropped more than 28 percent in those six years from 552,000 units to some 395,000.

What happened? Like most GM brands, Pontiac had lost focus. As Business Week noted in 2003, "Pontiac's recent history has been based on a fabrication. It markets itself as GM's excitement division while offering a lineup of glammed-up Chevrolets and Buicks that fool no one with their faux sportiness."

Bob Lutz swept in vowing to change all that, ordering an end to silliness like plastic cladding and fast-tracking new, "gotta have" models. "We want to make Pontiac an affordable, American BMW," he told BW (understandable, perhaps, as he once worked at the German automaker). But the magazine was skeptical, predicting "it could be years before enough new cars arrive to make a difference."

Business Week was right, and real change wasn't evident until 2005. But that proved a watershed Pontiac year, bringing the curtain down on Sunfire, Bonneville, Grand Am, and Aztek. At the same time, a genuine sports car arrived, something John DeLorean had lobbied for back in the mid-1960s.

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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.

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2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 Pontiac Grand Prix

Pontiac's midsize car gave up little sales ground despite take-no-prisoners competition and GM's mounting troubles. The vintage-'97 Grand Prix drew some 130,000 calendar-year orders from 2001 through 2003, then got a heavy makeover to stay at roughly that level -- a modest feat in the old days, but now a cause for rejoicing at embattled fortress GM.

After a stand-pat 2001, Grand Prix marked its 40th anniversary with a cosmetic package for GT and GTP coupes and sedans. It wasn't much -- Dark Cherry paint, specific red/grey interior, hood ducts, chrome wheels, rear spoiler, aerodynamic "roof fences" -- but it cost a bit much: $2400 even with a built-in manufacturer discount. Such cars might be minor collector's items in the far-distant future, but they may not.

Grand Prix gave up coupes for 2003 -- a first for this Pontiac -- but sales had been waning for years. There was little other news that season, which was shortened anyway. The remodeled '04s were ready.

Remodeled they were: purged of plastic paneling and given a more rakish sedan roofline imparting coupelike sportiness in concert with a dramatic beltline upsweep at the rear doors. The overall look was curvier and more sculpted, emphasized by deeper fascias, slightly pinched nose and deck contours, and larger headlamps and taillights. The dashboard was naturally redone too, and became much more driver friendly, with an orderly layout and large, legible gauges. Hard to believe that beneath this new finery lurked the basic W-body platform first seen in the late 1980s.

Grand Prix reprised three sedans for 2004, but under new name management: GT1, GT2, and top-line GTP. Powerteams, alas, were not new, with a 200-hp 3.8 V-6 for GTs and the supercharged edition for GTP, though the latter now puffed out an extra 20 bhp. ABS/traction control was available for GT1, standard otherwise, and curtain side airbags at last came to Pontiac's midsize car as a GT2/GTP option.

A nice surprise was the GTP's available Competition Group, aka the "Comp G" package. This aimed at maximum driver involvement with a specially calibrated "Stabilitrak Sport" antiskid system, power steering whose assist varied with cornering force as well as straightline speed, numerically higher final drive for quicker takeoffs, plus higher-speed tires and performance suspension tuning.

The $1395 package price also included an import-style "TAPShift" allowing manual control of the mandatory four-speed ­automatic transmission (still) via "paddle" switches on the steering wheel. A head-up display, trip computer, and red-painted brake cali­pers completed the enhancements.

Predictably, the Comp G GTP got the most early press, and most of it was good. Car and Driver judged the redesign underdone in some ways, overdone in others, but liked the Comp G's lively acceleration -- 6.6 seconds to 60, just 0.1 second off the factory claim.

Steering feel wasn't the best, but adept road manners compensated. "Understeer rules the Grand Prix's high-speed life," C/D reported. "At least the car's electronic safety net is an excellent one. [It] quietly and unobtrusively works individual calipers to keep the car on course with minimal power-killing throttle intervention…In that respect, Stabilitrak Sport outsmarts the jumpy, heavy-handed stability computers fitted to more pricey rides from Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus."

Though lesser GPs were less impressive, the general view was that Pontiac had done a remarkable job of bringing its elderly W-car up to twenty-first-century standards. As Consumer Guide® summarized: "It trails our top-rated Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in quality of interior materials, and rear-seat comfort is substandard. But Grand Prix delivers good performance, a comfortable ride, cargo versatility, and plenty of features."

More features arrived as 2005 options: a remote engine-start system operable from the door-lock keyfob -- great for pretrip wintertime warm-ups -- plus an onboard navigation system (an industrywide must by now) and dual-zone automatic climate control.

But the real news was the midyear GXP, the first V-8 Grand Prix in two decades. This packed a 5.3-liter pushrod engine first seen in GM midsize trucks, lately enhanced with an "Active Fuel Management" system that would deactivate four cylinders under light throttle loads to eke out a few more mpg. Horsepower was listed at 303, and the number rang true. Car and Driver clocked just 5.7 seconds for the 0-60 dash.

This GXP was an early replacement for the soon-to-depart Bonneville, as well as the new top-dog Grand Prix. As such, it relegated the GTP to midline status, where the name was now GT. It still had a blown V-6, but a Comp G option was nowhere in sight. Not to worry, though, because the Comp G's TAPShift, antiskid system, and other features passed to the GXP. Unusually, the GXP also included 18-inch wheels with tires that were wider at the front -- deemed necessary for putting the V-8's power down effectively.

Many still wondered why GM ­persisted at all with high-power front-drive cars when rear drive was dynamically superior. Nevertheless, some critics judged the GP GXP a tempting alternative to certain import-brand sports sedans -- BMWs included -- especially given a heavily discounted mid-$20,000 delivered price.

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2004, 2005, 2006 Pontiac GTO

The 2005 Pontiac GTO's two hood scoops helped to cool its powerful V-8.

Overshadowing Grand Prix's renewal for 2004 was the surprising return of the fabled GTO. Aside from rear-wheel drive and thumping V-8 power, it shared nothing with the legendary "Goats" of yore, being an Americanized version of the four-seat Holden Monaro coupe at GM's Australian branch.

Bob Lutz had taken a close look at the Monaro and decided it was just the thing to liven up Pontiac's image and sales. And with Firebird recently deceased, what better name for a new performance Poncho in the classic mold? About the only changes needed were a twin-port Pontiac face, plus a better-protected fuel tank and other adjustments to satisfy U.S. regulations.

The new GTO wasn't that new. Though Holden had devised the two-door Monaro as an Aussie-market exclusive, it started with the GM V-car platform originated with the German Opel Omega sedan, which had come to the U.S. as the 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera. But Americans were generally unaware of this lineage, and it didn't matter anyway.

In all respects but two, the Australian-built GTO lived up to its hallowed name. It was rather large for a new-century intermediate, standing 189.8 inches long, 72.5 inches wide, and 54.9 inches tall on a 109.8-inch wheelbase. Curb weight was a burly 3770 pounds, but that was no strain for the mandatory 5.7-liter LS1 V-8 packing 350 bhp and 365 pound-feet of torque on 10.1:1 compression. A four-speed automatic transmission was standard; $695 bought a sturdy Tremec T56 six-speed manual, the sole option for debut '04.

The automatic GTO was saddled with a $1000 Gas-Guzzler Tax, but Lutz waved it through, figuring muscle car die-hards wouldn't be denied. Suspension was coil-spring independent with front struts, rear semitrailing arms and stout antiroll bars, all specially tuned. Handsome 18-inch five-spoke alloy wheels wearing 245/45ZR performance rubber enclosed big disc brakes with antilock control. Traction control was also standard, but no antiskid system was offered, nor were side airbags.

But the $32,000 list price included most everything else: leather upholstery, power seats, remote keyless locking, trip computer, premium Blaupunkt audio with CD changer, rear-deck spoiler and more. In all, the reborn GTO was, a high-performance bargain.

Acceleration was predictably vivid. Road & Track's manual-equipped '04 clocked 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, 0-100 in 12.9, and a standing quarter-mile of 13.8 seconds at 103.8 mph, stats worthy of the fastest showroom Goats of the muscle car era.

Yet this was no cart-sprung, limp-wristed rocket that went to pieces on twisty roads. On the contrary, the new GTO provided assured Euro-style handling with little cornering lean, fine grip -- 0.81g on the R&T skidpad -- and clear, properly weighted steering, plus braking power and mechanical refinement the old "Great Ones" never knew. In fact, this car felt like a posh big BMW coupe that played a '60s-style Detroit soundtrack.

With all this, the new GTO couldn't miss, yet it did. For those old enough to remember the originals and even for some critics, this reincarnation was just too quiet, too comfortable, too cultured to be a bona fide American performance car. And most everyone thought the styling was nowhere -- "Lusty performance disguised in a phone-company fleet car," as Car and Driver huffed.

Even Jim Wangers, who'd helped father the first GTO and generally liked the new one, had reservations. As he told AutoWeek: "It isn't what I call an 'Oh, my God.' The fact that they don't have a hood scoop is critical. According to GM, [that] would have interrupted the airflow, which would mean [costly] certification on its own [with the EPA]. Somebody said, 'We were thinking of putting a decal hood scoop on it,' which would be flat. That would be asking for criticism."

The criticism was abundant enough, and Pontiac strained to move fewer than 14,000 GTOs from the autumn '03 launch through calendar '04, a bummer given an 18,000 per-annum target. Hefty rebates were applied mere weeks after introduction, but they didn't work. For all his global industry experience and undoubted taste, Lutz had misread the market.

Not so Pontiac's old friend SLP Engineering, which in late 2003 announced a trio of "tuner" kits with 370, 389, or 421 bhp, plus a twin-scoop hood and other visual testosterone added. SLP wanted to market these under the Judge name, recalling the like-named 1969 GTO option, but GM fought the idea.

Answering the chorus of complaints, Pontiac gave the 2005 GTO not one hood scoop but two. They didn't connect to a power-boosting Ram Air setup, but they did help cool a more potent V-8: the 6.0-liter/364-cid LS2 from the brand-new C6 Corvette. Outputs rose to 400 bhp and 395 pound-feet, numbers that also applied with the scoopless engine lid available as a no-cost option.

The bigger engine trimmed a few tenths from acceleration times but did nothing for sales, which dropped below 11,600 for the calendar year.

The 2006 edition was unchanged save a few cosmetic details and newly optional 18-inch wheels. Demand remained sluggish and higher gas prices didn't help. With saving cash now imperative for GM, the GTO was dropped at the end of the model year. By that point, planners were eyeing a new Holden-developed platform intended for a variety of future rear-drive cars, giving hope that GTO will rise again, perhaps sharing underpinnings with a new Camaro.

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Pontiac G6

The compact Grand Am departed after 2005 and four final years of declining sales. Changes in this period were remedial. Body cladding, which Pontiac once thought oh-so European, began fading away for 2002, when a 140-bhp 2.2-liter Ecotec four took over as the base engine. For '03, ABS/traction control moved from standard to optional for SE models. The '04s were virtual reruns.

Grand Am bid a not-so-grand fare­well with a pair of V-6 coupes, which made a last gesture to sport­i­ness with an SC/T package comprising a twin-scoop hood, rear spoiler, chrome wheels, satellite radio, and special logos.

Grand Am's 2006 replacement began sale in mid-2005 with a pair of sedans called G6. The name change was meant to signal a complete break with Pontiac's compact-car past, and the G6 was precisely that, being large enough to qualify as a midsize.

Pontiac went its own way with GM's global front-drive Epsilon platform, putting G6s on the longer-wheelbase version recently introduced with Chevrolet's hatchback Malibu Maxx "extended sedan." Unhappily, the extra inches combined with abbreviated overhangs to make G6 styling a bit awkward from some angles. At least it was different.

G6 rolled in with base and uplevel GT sedans using a 200-bhp 3.5-liter pushrod V-6 and mandatory four-speed automatic trans­mission. A GT coupe was added for the formal '06 selling season. So were a "Base 4-Cylinder Sedan" (that's what they called it) and an even cheaper "1SV" version, both powered by a 2.4-liter engine. Completing the lineup were a sporty GTP coupe and sedan sharing a 240-bhp 3.9-liter V-6 and available six-speed manual gearbox.

GT and GTP convertibles had been announced with the latest thing in open-air motoring, a power-retractable hardtop, but were delayed many months by apparent teething troubles with the complex roof mechanism. Perhaps a simple old cloth canopy would have been wiser.

To build buzz for "the first-ever" G6, Pontiac arranged for Oprah Winfrey to give away 276 sedans on her top-rated TV talk show in September 2003 -- one for each person in the audience. Pontiac said the publicity was worth $20 million, at least four times the retail value of the cars, but some analysts thought the stunt did more to promote Oprah than it did the G6. And though the recipients must have been delighted to get a new car for nothing, road-testers mostly yawned.

The G6 might have debuted as a roomier, more attractive, and better built car than the Grand Am, but it was also another modest, mainstream GM offering. It was "…a car with many good pieces that don't quite realize their potential as a whole," as Road & Track said. Consumer Guide® put the matter more directly: "G6 lacks the well-toned feel of a Honda Accord, the isolating comfort of a Toyota Camry, or the ready-to-rock energy of a Nissan Altima. But it undercuts them all on price, especially with a V-6 engine. Frequent discounts and a wide selection of safety and convenience features add to its appeal." Which was a nice way of saying that despite its good points, this new Pontiac had a whiff of "rental car" about it. But let's not be too harsh or hasty.

The G6 was still new in town as this articles was prepared, so perhaps all it needs is seasoning to become an impressive class competitor.

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2006 and 2007 Pontiac Solstice

Pontiac created an entirely new platform for its sporty 2006 Pontiac Solstice.

Impressive certainly described Pontiac's first sports car, the 2006 Solstice. It hit the streets less than four years after rabid public response to a we-might-build-it concept, itself whipped up in just 18 weeks -- unheard-of speed for lumbering GM.

Of course, this was Bob Lutz's doing, a demonstration that GM could get out fresh, exciting cars as fast as anyone in the world, and with world-class levels of performance and quality. He had to break all sorts of internal rules to get it done so quickly, so Solstice was just as much an example to GM people of what they could achieve when given half a chance.

Solstice was a lot like the ever-popular Mazda MX-5 Miata, which had been maturing since 1990 as the very definition of the modern "affordable sports car." Like the Japanese automaker, GM had to improvise in many areas to do something so very different from its usual fare, but the Solstice came together beautifully, an artful blend of some things old and some things new. When it was all over, GM had created a whole new platform called Kappa, with all sorts of possibilities for the future.

The concept was little-changed for production, and the Solstice emerged as larger and heavier than a redesigned Miata that made its debut at about the same time. Solstice hewed to the same classic formula, though, of a small and light two-seat convertible with manual-folding fabric top, rear-wheel drive, and four-cylinder power.

Solstice offset its greater weight with a larger, torquier engine, an evolved 2.4-liter twincam with 177 bhp and 166 pound-feet or torque. Both cars boasted manual and optional automatic transmissions, four-wheel independent suspension, all-disc brakes, and equally obligatory rack-and-pinion power steering. Solstice offered optional ABS, by now a Miata standard, but not the Mazda's available antiskid system or no-cost side airbags.

On the other hand, the Pontiac came on 18-inch wheels versus 16s or 17s, and matched its rival's "weekend racer" appeal with a $1095 Club Sport package and available limited-slip differential. Both listed options like air conditioning, cruise control, and power windows, but only Solstice offered satellite radio and the GM OnStar system.

Lutz promised a sub-$20,000 price, and kept his word by a slim $5, including destination charge, though the minimum soon rose to $20,490. But even that virtually level-pegged the least expensive '06 Miata, and Mazda's broader lineup stretched to nearly $27,000, thousands more than a Solstice with every possible option.

If Solstice and Miata were a close match on paper, they ran a virtual dead heat on the road. Most magazine comparisons decided the Mazda was just a little bit better, but the judgements were highly subjective, and most all reviews said you couldn't go wrong with the Pontiac.

It all came down to "horses for courses," with the Solstice winning points for eye appeal, a smoother ride, superior cornering stability, appreciated extra cockpit space, and stronger low-end pull. The Miata had the edge in handling, braking, fuel economy, and overall execution, plus a long record of reliability and a more convenient top.

But the Solstice had one advantage Miata could never match: It was all-American, a big emotional tug for many folks at a time when General Motors (Ford Motor Company, too) seemed fast headed for ruin. With all this, Solstice was as hard to get as a straight answer from a politician. Pontiac booked some 13,000 presale orders, but could fill only about half for model-year '06. That's because GM's refurbished Wilmington, Delaware, plant also had to build an upscale Saturn version, the 2007 Sky, plus variants for GM Europe. But people seemed happy to wait. Solstice was worth waiting for.

Pontiac spent some $4 million to promote Solstice with a "product placement" on the hit TV show "The Apprentice," but they needn't have bothered. The press had been breathlessly reporting every stage of the car's swift progress from auto-show concept to showroom reality. By the time it was ready, most all America knew about the Solstice.

The Solstice wait list may grow even longer with the 2007 addition of a GXP version with no less than 260 bhp from a new turbocharged 2.0-liter twincam four. Designated LNF, this engine is significant, marking GM's first use of high-efficiency direct fuel injection in North American production. Other premium features included a twin-scroll turbo that starts boosting sooner than conventional units, oil-cooled low-friction cast-aluminum pistons, and variable timing for both intake and exhaust valves that are sodium-filled for cooler running and less reciprocating weight.

Though not yet released in time for this article, the Solstice GXP was expected to start around $26,000, which also encompassed expected chassis upgrading, special trim, and added equipment. Pontiac projects 0-60 to fall from 6.7 seconds to 5.5, throwing down the performance gauntlet to Miata.

Solstice gives the Pontiac story thus far a happy note -- a small sign that better days finally might be at hand for Pontiac and all of GM. Let's hope that's the case. The thought this saga could be in its final chapter is unsettling, to say the least.

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