I’ve just purchased a Pontiac G8 GT. Sport red metallic with every option. I paid too much (even though it was a below-invoice deal). The car just begged me to buy it. Yep, car guys make the dumbest deals when it comes to their own personal transportation. And I love it. I will drive the wheels off this car, and enjoy every torque-rich moment. But enough about me. Now about Pontiac, and GM. With fewer than eleven days to go before what was once the largest corporation in the world files for bankruptcy, with the Pontiac brand disappearing (what exactly is a “niche” brand anyways?), the G8 GT is a reminder of what could have and should have been. But is it also an indication of what will be? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?
As good as it is, the Pontiac G8 GT highlights GM’s greatest failing: the formerly world’s largest automaker’s unshakable tendency to take the path of least resistance. Remember: the G8 is an Australian import. Originally, this state of affairs was supposed to be a “temporary” fix: a quick way for Pontiac to sell a suitable product in the American marketplace. As with the Belgian Saturn Astra, the G8 was sold internally (and to the UAW) as a “place holder.” After the models succeeded, production would switch to American soil.
Did GM really think that would happen? Who knows? If laziness was GM’s worst sin, self-delusion was its second (followed closely by ADD). Importing cars for a mainstream brand from high cost countries is an inherently risky proposition. (One of the main reasons Toyondaissan builds here.) And sure enough, surprise! GM got nailed on the exchange rate before either car crossed either ocean. More importantly, instead of developing an American Pontiac G8, GM hit [what looked like] the easy button. In so doing, they sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Again.
It’s important to remember that the American automaker has always a deep bench of world-class design and engineering talent. GM also enjoyed complete access to the marketplace. And it had billions to spend on advertising. GM could have fostered strong brands with domestically built, highly competitive profits. But that would have taken genuine commitment from a management team committed to product excellence, rather than the Peter Principle.
How many Pontiac G8’s died because GM’s CEOs and “car czars” sat back and allowed the company’s divisions to expend their energy fighting each other; executives jockeying to generate the quickest, easiest and largest profits, rather than facing their real enemies outside the gates?
GM’s endless internecine warfare led to less competitive products. A growing number of divisions mortgaged their future by offering copy-cat (i.e., badge engineered) vehicles across multiple brands, using aging platforms and retro engines. Why? Why not? And so GM’s products fell behind their Japanese competitors’ reliability, build quality and value for the money.
At some point, GM simply forgot that it was in the car business. It forgot the fact that people buy cars from strong brands that meet or exceed the brand’s underlying promise. How cynical and lazy does a car company have to be to change its brand promise—“Pontiac is car”—rather than build vehicles that deliver the original premise?
In truth, there was nothing wrong with Pontiac’s mantra “We Build Excitement.” There was everything wrong with Pontiac’s products, and, by extension, the corporate culture that provided them. The Pontiac G8 GT is a “true” Pontiac: a poor man’s BMW. Aztek? Montana? Wave? It’s far too late to convince consumers to come back.
The Pontiac G8 GT I drove home last night gets it right. The Aussie sedan lacks a luxury interior and some “surprise and delight” features (e.g., rain-sense wipers, HID headlamps, and power reclining seats). But it delivers excitement at a price the average working stiff can afford (more so every day). It is a Pontiac. Perhaps even “the” Pontiac; a car that completely surpasses the performance and handling of the parts-bin specials from which the brand was born. The G8 does exactly what a Pontiac’s supposed to do.
That’s the lesson for the New GM. Demote the bean counters to their rightful position as guardians of profit, not destroyers of initiative. Elevate the engineers and designers. Build a limited range of vehicles that fulfill their brand’s promise (although God knows what a Buick is supposed to be). Cut all the models that fail to fit the remit.
If you want to know if the post-C11 GM will make it, that’s where you need to look: at the vehicles GM doesn’t build. In that sense, the Pontiac G8 GT is both a clarion call and a warning. In today’s bloated, highly competitive automotive industry, if GM does the easy thing instead of the right thing, nothing can save them. Nothing.