GM's Wishful Thinking Swallows the Pontiac G8, Spits Out the Chevrolet SS.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
gm s wishful thinking swallows the pontiac g8 spits out the chevrolet ss

A couple of years ago, I attended my last General Motors press event. It was the debut of the Cadillac CTS-v Coupe and it was held at the Monticello country-club racetrack. I recall being impressed with the car, and I recall being impressed with Mark Reuss, the second-generation GM executive who brought his own helmet and his Grand-Am license to the event. Like Bob Lutz, Reuss is a big, handsome, improbably wealthy fellow who travels with a personal assistant, speaks in a no-nonsense tone, and carries himself with impervious confidence.

My attitude to the superstar dudes of the industry closely parallels that of O’Shea Jackson (warning: listening to that song at work will GET YOU FIRED) so I didn’t bother to chat Mr. Reuss up until we found ourselves side by side in the airport terminal. I asked him his opinion of the handling differences between the various CTS bodystyles, listened to him tell a couple of stories about road racing, and received some mild chastisement for turfing “his” Cadillac at high speed. It wasn’t until my flight home was halfway over that I realized: Yeah, he’s a great guy, but his company is failing miserably and he really isn’t doing anything to stop it. GM is chock-full of likable, even admirable people who are nevertheless collectively part of a great tragedy. It really doesn’t matter how “cool” a guy like Mark Reuss is. He’s being beaten out of his socks by “uncool” people at other companies, and as automotive journalists we’re not serving the truth if we don’t remind our readers of that simple fact every time it’s necessary. Every single time. Even if nobody else is willing to discuss the enormous elephant in the room — you know, the one with “18% Market Share” and “Bailout” and “Worst Product Line In the Industry” tattooed all over its wrinkly bottom.

So with that in mind, let’s talk about the new “Chevrolet SS”.

TTAC wasn’t invited to the Las Vegas party for the NASCAR SS, so we’ll have to rely on Autoblog’s Jonathon Ramsey, who sat with Mr. Reuss at lunch and faithfully reported the great man’s words. Readers who want the complete remarks should read the article, which is entitled “How the SS will become Chevy’s four-door Corvette halo car”. Much of the article discusses NASCAR’s struggles to maintain a competitive balance while still giving the viewing audience a field of cars that at least vaguely resembles what’s available at dealerships. I’d like to skip over that and concentrate on Reuss’s remarks regarding the 2014 Chevrolet SS.

If you’re just arriving on the Internet, here’s the scoop: For a third time, GM is trying to bring over one of its rear-wheel-drive Australian cars for American consumption. The first effort was the Pontiac GTO, which was nice big coupe caught in an unfortunate crossfire of dealer greed and almost perfect resemblance to the Chevrolet Cavalier of the time. The Pontiac G8 sedan which followed was well-liked but couldn’t compete effectively with the Camry on one side and the Chrysler LX-platform cars on the other. Will the third time be a charm? Ramsey writes

There are two vital ways in which the SS will not be The Pontiac G8 2.0, however: It’s going upmarket and it’s not for the masses. In fact, Reuss said the SS is a completely different car from the G8, specifically in terms of refinement and NVH, and that’s before you get to the high-power small-block V8 that, in his words, makes the SS “a four-door Corvette.”

That’s odd; I seem to recall that the Pontiac G8 GXP had a high-power small-block V8 from the two-door Corvette. Still, there’s a kernel of sense in this popcorn bag of insanity. Your humble author found the V-6 G8 to be a pretty decent ride, but the rest of the market clearly preferred the V-8 models. Like it or not, the day when regular American families wanted a 200-inch-long rear-wheel-drive V-8 sedan for everyday use is long gone, and most of the families who do want that are probably better served by the Chrysler LX cars with their superior electronics and look-at-me styling. Why not make an ornament of an inconvenience and pitch this relatively low-volume car upmarket where you can make money on the few you will sell? Now for the rest of the popcorn bag:

Any time you mention the word Corvette, you’re probably not talking about an inexpensive car… Therefore, Chevy is treating the SS like a halo car: Instead of making grand predictions about production volumes or churning out a performance car that sits on dealer lots, Reuss said, “We will fill the orders of the people who want them.”

Gotcha. That’s manufacturer code-speak for “we asked the dealers about it and they didn’t want any inventory, not at what we’re charging”. Earlier in the interview, Reuss says the decision to bring the SS to America is “all about racing”. So why bother with the car at all? I don’t want to sound like I’m not a fan of auto racing — I’ve certainly spent a lot of my own time and money doing it — but shouldn’t GM be focusing its competitive efforts on the marketplace rather than the Talladega 400? What’s the point of bringing over a car you can’t sell and spending hundreds of millions of dollars promoting it? Wouldn’t that money be better spent developing solid product? Furthermore, the company is still on the receiving end of taxpayer money, making this decision to go racing look uncomfortably like a stereotypical welfare recipient’s decision to spend his welfare check on drugs or liquor while his children starve at home.

As for the name, there is a bit of heritage to the SS badge as a nameplate, but it seems this was more about steering clear of what has come before… “We raced the Impala, Monte Carlo, Regal, Grand Prix, and they were all front-wheel-drive in their last [production] versions,” Reuss said, “and we didn’t want to come up with a new name for it.” As such, what’s happening now is also about returning some lustre to the SS badge, assuming it wins on Sunday come 2013: Reuss said he purged all of the SS models from the Chevrolet line-up except on the Camaro because none of the other offerings were about increased performance, only trim pieces, which is a bit of a slap in the face to an acronym for “Super Sport.”

I’ve yet to speak to anybody who thinks calling this Australian sedan the “Chevy SS” is a good idea. It’s just as stupid as, oh, let’s come up with a few other takes on the subject:

  • The Honda Si
  • The Ford LX
  • The Toyota GT-S
  • The Nissan GT-R… oh, damn.

The prospective “Chevy SS” buyer will probably spot other “SS” cars during his test drive: a Trailblazer SS, a Malibu Maxx SS, a Cobalt SS, an HHR SS. If he’s particularly lucky, he will see one of the non-supercharged Monte Carlo SS models. None of those will have ever cost what the “Chevy SS” does. He might see a Camaro SS, but the Camaro SS is at best third place in the Camaro hierarchy, below the ZL-1 and the 1LE. If he buys the “Chevy SS”, he will have the unenviable task of explaining to his neighbors what he’s purchased, said conversation likely being made additionally difficult by most people’s awareness that SS has meant a trim level of some type since time immemorial. “A Chevy SS what?”

“Uh, a Chevy SS.”

“Yes, but what kind?”

“Just, um, a Chevy SS.”

Assuming this “halo sedan” costs at least forty-five thousand bucks, which is what a G8 GXP would cost today, it’s easy to conjure any number of more satisfying conversations that someone might be able to have with their neighbors for that kind of money, and none of them involve General Motors products. Speaking of: will this sedan be permitted to be as fast as, say, a Cadillac CTS-V? If not, how much slower will it be? Will it be faster than the regular CTS 3.6? If so, then why would anybody buy the Cadillac? Why, exactly, does Chevrolet need a “halo car”? Shouldn’t the Chevrolet buyer be aspiring to a Buick or Cadillac? How many high-dollar halo performance sedans does GM need, particularly in an era where they can’t even be bothered to engineer their own small cars?

It’s also a little confusing to read Mr. Reuss’s assertion that the “SS” is called the “SS” because calling it anything else would have required a “new name”. I’m no Chevy historian but I can think of a few names which would have some positive associations. Biscayne. Bel Air. Chevelle. Eurosport. Just kidding about that last one. If none of those work, why not really put some juice behind the “four-door Corvette” idea and call it the “Corvette Touring”? That’s no less credible than, say, the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe.

In the end, it won’t matter. The “SS” is doomed, as DOA as its predecessors were. The market for an upmarket halo Chevrolet with a silly name just isn’t that good in the current economic climate — or any other. Not that the auto media will bother to tell you about that. They’ll fawn over the car, enjoy the lavish press event, burn the back tires off the “long-term tester”, then write a wistful article about what a great used-car value it is after GM cancels the program in 2016 or so.

Still, it didn’t have to be this way. It would be nice to have a time machine, wouldn’t it? We could go back to 2003 or thereabouts and convince GM to bring the GTO over as the Chevrolet Chevelle. It would have been a nice fit in the lineup and the resemblance to the Cavalier would have been a benefit, not a hindrance. The revised G8-based Chevelle would have brought volume and repeat customers to Chevy stores instead of clogging up soon-to-be-closed Pontiac dealerships. By the third generation, the cars could be made in the United States, serving the livery and police markets as well as providing a genuine alternative to the Dodge Charger. The feckless new-gen Malibu and an Azera-alike Impala wouldn’t be quite so disappointing with a $28,000 V-6 Chevelle next to them on showroom floors. Everybody wins.

Of course, if you really had access to a time machine you wouldn’t bother to visit the General Motors of 2003. You’d buy stocks during the Crash of ’29. You’d sneak into Versailles and impress Marie Antoinette with your iPad. Or you might do something that has always been near and dear to my academic heart; you’d travel back to the final days of Imperial Rome to find out why the greatest civilization in history up to that point simply gave up and let the barbarians storm the gates. Imagine the final emperors, serene in their bubbles of misinformation and fawning praise, believing they would continue to rule even as their doom was laid plain for all to see.

Time machines are a fantasy, but I don’t need one to know what a Roman emperor looked like before the fall. I’ve seen it with my own eyes — and so has Jonathon Ramsey.

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3 of 79 comments
  • APaGttH APaGttH on Dec 04, 2012

    Wait, the Charger killed the G8??? Huh. Interesting. And silly me, here I thought it was a complete lack of advertising, lack of customer awareness, the incredibly stupid idea of naming Pontiacs Gx (as in G3, G5, G6, G8) instead of going with a legacy name of Grand Prix or Bonneville, gasoline going to $4.65 a gallon just three months after its US release followed by GM's bankruptcy less than a year after the first one hit the shore. Feb '08 was the G8, "ehem," launch. June '08 highest average gas prices in US history Sept '08 equity markets freeze solid on September 18, 2008. The economy collapses The G8 was doomed - even if the exhaust smelled like bakery fresh rolls and cured cancer. I mean THAT'S why I though the G8 didn't sell - because every single review indicated the G8 was more refined, had better performance, and was dollar for dollar a better package than the Charger or 300 when compared 1:1 - back in '08 and '09. The G8 didn't get "buzz" until AFTER the bankruptcy and Pontiac's death warrant was signed, and then all of a sudden everyone wanted on (or wrongly assumed you could buy one for 50 cents on the dollar - good luck doing that today, five model years after the first one went on sale).

    • Doctor olds Doctor olds on Dec 04, 2012

      @APaGttH- G8 was not a market failure, Obama's auto task force killed it along with the Pontiac brand. The planned volume of G8 was not high, and in the waning days of Pontiac, G8 accounted for 60% of Pontiac sales. No doubt, the financial crisis caused auto market collapse of October '08 put survival as a much higher priority than maintaining Pontiac as a niche brand in the B-P-GMC channel. GM had a good proposal, but the ATF shot it down. GM couldn't argue when its survival was in the balance.

  • Doug-g Doug-g on Dec 05, 2012

    I hate to say this, but "because racecar".

  • Inside Looking Out You should care. With GM will die America. All signs are there. How about the Arsenal of Democracy? Toyota?
  • DenverMike What else did anyone think, when GM was losing tens of billions a year, year after year?
  • Bill Wade GM says they're killing Android Auto and Apple Carplay. Any company that makes decisions like that is doomed to die.
  • Jeff S I don't believe gm will die but that it will continue to shrink in product and market share and it will probably be acquired by a foreign manufacturer. I doubt gm lacks funds as it did in 2008 and that they have more than enough cash at hand but gm will not expand as it did in the past and the emphasis is more on profitability and cutting costs to the bone. Making gm a more attractive takeover target and cut costs at the expense of more desirable and reliable products. At the time of Farago's article I was in favor of the Government bailout more to save jobs and suppliers but today I would not be in favor of the bailout. My opinions on gm have changed since 2008 and 2009 and now I really don't care if gm survives or not.
  • Kwik_Shift I was a GM fan boy until it ended in 2013 when I traded in my Avalanche to go over to Nissan.