Seeking new image, Pontiac axes cladding

Division also may slim lineup, offer more power and better handling

Pontiac's sales slide
Aging cars have caused sliding sales
Year Vehicle sales
1990 666,265
1992 549,806
1994 621,184
1996 551,107
1998 536,469
2000 613,548
2001* 503,723
*11 months

LOS ANGELES - Pontiac, wrestling with a fuzzy image and aging cars, is working on a plan to revive its performance reputation. And it has decided body cladding must go.

Pontiac strategists say cleaner styling will be adopted. They also want to emphasize power and tight rides. The Aztek and upcoming Vibe are vehicles far removed from Pontiac's traditional performance roots.

The brand that had built its reputation on performance, using tag lines such as "We build excitement," is dealing with declining sales, in large part the result of an aging car line.

Pontiac General Manager Lynn Myers said Pontiac has an image problem.

"I understand that, and obviously we're concerned about that," Myers said at a press event here this month for the 2003 Vibe, which goes on sale in January. "I was pretty adamant that when we did the next concept vehicle … we send a signal about what Pontiac is all about in terms of performance."

Where's the performance?

The division's two newest vehicles are miles away from the performance category. The Aztek, widely derided for its styling, is a front-drive sport wagon that was introduced more than a year ago. The Vibe is a $16,900 Toyota-based five-door hatchback aimed at young drivers.

Pontiac hasn't given up on the car business, Myers said. It's just that General Motors has concentrated on redesigning the full- and mid-sized truck lines.

Pontiac's latest concept car will be unveiled in January at Detroit's North American International Auto Show. It will show the styling direction for the next generation Grand Prix, which arrives for the 2004 model year.

"We aren't changing Pontiac's positioning. Pontiac is the excitement division and will continue to be the excitement division. What we have to do is adjust our execution of that," Myers said.

Part of that, Myers added, is having powertrains and underpinnings that support "the promise of excitement." And while Pontiac was moving in that direction before Robert Lutz joined the company, she said Lutz has put "an exclamation point behind that."

Lutz was named vice chairman for product development in August.

New vehicles, fewer models

Despite a market ignited by 0 percent financing, Pontiac's car sales are running 16.5 percent behind last year's pace.

The current Grand Prix is 6 years old. The Sunfire is 8 years old. The Firebird - the rear-drive, V-8 powered muscle car that once was Pontiac's halo vehicle - was last redesigned for the 1993 model year. The car will be discontinued during the 2002 model year because of poor sales.

While the Grand Prix and the next-generation Grand Am are locked in, it's the product portfolio for the 2007, 2008 and 2009 model years that are under discussion.

"(We're working) on the ideal Pontiac lineup, with five or six kinds of brands or models, recognizing where we have been and that we want to keep supporting what Pontiac is all about in a world that is changing," Myers said.

Also at issue is the mixture of sedans, coupes, sport wagons, minivans and other yet-to-be-determined models for the lineup.

Said Myers: "How do you best support the portfolio? Are you better off doing fewer brands with freshenings more often, making sure that every one supports the promise of what we want Pontiac to mean?"

Pontiac has eight nameplates in its portfolio.

The redesigned Grand Am was scheduled for the 2005 model year, but "they are trying desperately for 2004," said an industry source.

Is there a future in the past?

The risk for Pontiac is spending too much time looking at its past, said Jim Hall, vice president of industry analysis at Auto Pacific Inc., in Southfield, Mich.

"Historically, the Grand Prix has been defined by what it was, or by what they thought it was. I'm not sure that the market in the 21st century can continue to have product lines revamped that way," he said.

Myers, who also is general manager of GMC, said that with more than 60 percent of Pontiac's dealers holding GMC franchises, Pontiac may not need to offer vehicles similar to those in the GMC line.

"I think we need to be very careful when we look at scarce resources that we don't pad product upon product when we talk about where we are going to dedicate the Pontiac resources," Myers said.

As for styling, Myers said body cladding no longer will be an instrumental part of Pontiac's styling character. Other automakers have used cladding, but "we were the king of cladding," she said.

"When you look at our (future) products, what you see is a cleaner execution. You still have the very definite Pontiac cues in the vehicle - the dual port grille, the deliberately set fog lamps, the wide stance, the tight wheel to body relationship," she said.

"We know you can clearly keep a very strong Pontiac face but contemporize the design."

Asked what Lutz thinks of cladding, Myers said, "We're cleaning up our designs."

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