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Pontiac's demise gets a muted response

The once-dynamic GM brand, scheduled to be phased out by the end of 2010, has been fading for decades, critics, fans and dealers say.

April 28, 2009|Tiffany Hsu

The decision by General Motors Corp. to eliminate the Pontiac brand disappointed many people, but it didn't surprise anyone.

For fans, dealers and experts, the division has been fading for decades.

"It's been a long time coming. For the last 20 years, Pontiac has just had the same car with lots of different badges on it," said Karl Brauer, editor-in-chief of car buying guide Edmunds.com in Santa Monica. "They're going out not with a bang but a whimper, and it's not even that big a deal for a lot of people."

As part of GM's restructuring plan, Pontiac will be phased out by the end of 2010.

Dealers sold nearly 517,000 Pontiacs in 2002, taking an average of 64 days to sell the cars after they arrived on the lots. But sales have dropped steadily since then, down to just 267,000 vehicles last year.

This year the cars have remained parked in dealerships an average of 139 days before being bought, according to Edmunds.com.

Bill Caudill, 44, has owned more than 40 Pontiacs over the years. A salesman at an auto parts company in Evansville, Ind., he's a "hard-core Pontiac guy" who is a member of several fan clubs and whose garage "looks like a shrine" to the brand, he said.

But when looking for new cars a few years ago, he and his wife bought a Mini Cooper and a Chevrolet truck. The newer Pontiac models were a letdown, he said, "uninspired, bland and dated" compared with vehicles from the brand's glory days.

"The Pontiac of the past had a distinct identity of being 'fast with class,' and you could tell it was a Pontiac from half a mile away," Caudill said. "It broke my heart this time to have to go buy a new car somewhere else, but there was nothing else that was attractive."

The brand has steadily lost its appeal to younger consumers, Brauer said, despite Pontiac's colorful history since introducing its first car in 1926.

The storied high-performance Pontiac GTOs, Grand Prixs and Firebirds were at the forefront of the muscle-car era in the 1960s and 1970s. But the brand stumbled in recent years: The Aztek crossover SUV was criticized for its looks, and the 2004 relaunch of the GTO met with lukewarm reviews.

At the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. factory in Fremont, Calif., which produces the Pontiac Vibe and the Toyota Matrix, some workers described a heavy feeling over the plant's undecided fate.

"This is the scariest situation I've seen in 20 years," said David Busbee, 45, who works in quality control.

Some dealers are concerned that the death sentence from GM will cause the market value of the cars to plunge. Others are worried that when GM eventually cuts hundreds of its dealers, the company will target those with Pontiac lineups and force them to close or consolidate.

"It's never pleasant to go backwards in terms of the number of franchises, but we're hoping that the ones that remain will be healthier," said John Pitre, general manager of Motor City Auto Center in Bakersfield.

"The only people with a lot to fear are the Pontiac dealers without Buick and GMC, but there aren't too many stand-alones left."

At Bunnin GM Supercenter in Oxnard, Pontiac made up nearly 20% of the dealership's new-car sales, said owner Leo Bunnin.

He's hoping that new models from Buick and GMC will help fill the hole.

"Any time anybody loses anything, they don't like it. Pontiac is a viable brand for us, and it's a piece of the pie that we hate to see go away."

There's a sense of deja vu at Greiner Pontiac Buick GMC in Victorville. Owner Dave Greiner said the process of clearing the dealership's Pontiac inventory was likely to mirror GM's phaseout of Oldsmobile vehicles in the early 2000s.

Though Pontiacs normally make up 18% of the company's sales, purchases of the brand have dropped 80% in the last month as speculation about its health became a self-fulfilling prophecy, Greiner said.

But once Pontiac prices readjust to demand and factories start offering incentives that probably will make the vehicles cheaper than many used cars, he predicts a rush to buy.

"I feel nostalgic because I believe in the American automobile, but for a while, as soon as this stigma's done, Pontiacs are just going to fly off the lots," he said.

--

tiffany.hsu@latimes.com

Ellen Lee in Fremont, Calif., contributed to this report.

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