Can Dodge rebuild Pontiac excitement?

Tim Kuniskis, president and CEO of Dodge, with the Challenger R/T Shaker at the 2014 New York Auto Show.

DETROIT -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra, at the recent Automotive News World Congress, said the company doesn’t miss any of the brands that were discontinued during the company’s 2008-09 bankruptcy and restructuring -- Saturn, Saab, Hummer and Pontiac.

You can take that to mean that none will ever be revived by GM, at least while Barra is in power.

But that doesn’t mean displaced customers of two of the brands -- Hummer and Pontiac -- have nowhere to go.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is building a lineup that would be a natural home for displaced Hummer and Pontiac customers.

Looking at Jeep’s staggering global growth and the worldwide explosion in popularity of SUVs and crossovers, you have to think a Hummer customer’s first choice would be a Jeep. (Don’t forget the two brands shared the same basic seven-slot grille.) GM no longer has a dedicated brand of rugged off-road vehicles.

But I see the biggest migration of GM customers to coming from Pontiac -- and going to Dodge.

“Dodge is the American performance brand,” Tim Kuniskis boasted during a presentation of Fiat Chrysler’s new five-year plan in May.

Kuniskis, CEO of Dodge, is trimming and recasting the brand’s lineup to focus on performance -- putting its tires squarely on the turf that transformed Pontiac into a performance powerhouse in the 1960s.

Pontiac’s performance image, spawned by such cars as the GTO, Firebird, Super Duty Trans Am and others, lasted well into the 1980s. It was in the midst of being reborn when GM killed the brand in 2009.

Dodge’s Grand Caravan minivan is about to join the midsize Avenger sedan in automotive history books. And by 2018, Kuniskis says, Dodge will have seven performance-oriented nameplates. That plan is already in motion with the outrageous new 707-hp Challenger and Charger SRT Hellcat muscle cars, and the V-10 Viper sports car.

I asked Kuniskis if Dodge will actively pursue Pontiac fans with direct mail appeals, discounts and other tactics, since GM no longer has a brand dedicated to performance vehicles.

“The Dodge brand is open to any buyer who is looking for performance,” he said. “Every Dodge vehicle is designed to deliver that visceral feel that reminds buyers why they fell in love with driving in the first place, and we’re open to any buyer who is looking for that feeling, regardless of the brand they’ve previously driven.”

I don’t want to give you the impression that GM no longer cares about performance cars and Pontiac customers. Cadillac is largely about luxury and tire-shredding performance. At the North American International Auto Show, Cadillac showcased the new CTS-V, a 640-hp road rocket.

And Chevrolet has some interesting cars, such as the SS, which is a new version of the discontinued Pontiac G8 sports sedan, and the Corvette and Camaro. But GM has no mainstream brand purely devoted to performance or even with a strong performance image.

Even if Dodge does capture a good share of Pontiac buyers, success is not guaranteed, says AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan.

For one thing, GM won’t give up Pontiac customers easily.

GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney says GM consistently communicates with Pontiac customers, alerting them of new GM models and offering loyalty incentives to stay with GM. The company won’t disclose or quantify how successful it has been at retaining Pontiac customers, Carney said.

U.S. buyers have many performance vehicles from which to choose.

“When you look at other performance models -- the Ford Focus ST, the Raptor, BMW’s M series, Audi’s S and RS models -- none of those automakers dedicate a whole brand to performance,” Sullivan says. “There is a limited market for go-fast stuff. Look how many Accords, Camrys and Altimas sold last year.”

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler, is not known to have a lot of patience. But he may need it with Dodge.

Says Sullivan: “It’s going to take a few product cycles, maybe 10 or 15 years, to fix memories of the Caliber and Journey.”

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