Pontiac attempts high-performance revival

Pontiac wants to beef up its performance credentials with two new rear-wheel-drive vehicles scheduled to debut at next week's New York International Auto Show, but the timing couldn't be worse as high gas prices test consumers' appetite for growling engines.

The 2009 Pontiac G-8 GXP upgrades the G-8 sedan with a new 6.2-liter small-block V-8 engine that's rated at 402 horsepower. Pontiac says the G-8 GXP will be able to go from zero to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds. The GXP also has a specially tuned suspension and an optional new six-speed manual transmission. The sedan will go on sale late this year.

Pontiac will also launch the 2010 Pontiac G-8 sport truck, a two-seater built on the G-8 platform with a 73-inch cargo bed. The sport truck has the same 361-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-8 used in the G-8 GT sedan. It's expected in dealerships in late 2009.

"There's simply nothing else like the G-8 sport truck on the road today, and we definitely believe that there are customers who will be excited by its distinctive design, performance and cargo capabilities," Jim Bunnell, general manager of Pontiac, Buick and GMC, said in a statement.

Pontiac plans to let consumers name the new sport truck in a month-long contest on its website that ends April 15.

Both vehicles will be built in Australia by Holden, General Motors Corp.'s Australian subsidiary, which developed the new rear-wheel-drive architecture. The Pontiac G-8, which went on sale this year, is a rebadged Holden Commodore.

Pontiac has been due for the kind of overhaul that's reinvigorating Cadillac and Buick. In New York three years ago, GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz called Pontiac a damaged and undernourished brand and said GM's resources should be focused on healthier brands such as Hummer and GMC. Pontiac's U.S. sales have fallen by 31% since 2002, to 358,000 vehicles last year, according to Ward's AutoInfoBank.

The high-performance G-8 family was supposed to help repair the brand, but a new federal law mandating increases in the corporate average fuel economy — or CAFE — could put up a roadblock. Aaron Bragman, an auto analyst with the consulting company Global Insight, now considers Pontiac the most at-risk of GM's eight brands.

"The renaissance was on the books, but it's basically been thrown into confusion with the new CAFE rules," Bragman said. "The future depends on what they can do with Pontiac. Can they make it a four-cylinder, turbocharged brand, or are Americans so set on it being the rumbly, rear-wheel-drive V-8 division that anything else is not going to fly?"

Pontiac spokesman Jim Hopson said performance doesn't necessarily mean horsepower, but can also mean sporty handling in a crossover like the Vibe, which gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway.

"We will provide an appropriate level of performance in every segment in which we play, but that doesn't necessarily mean every car we have is going to be a rear-wheel-drive V-8," he said.

But Bragman suggests Pontiac's image as a sporty, high-performance brand also has been diluted by staid crossovers like the Vibe. Stand-alone Pontiac dealers have demanded such vehicles to ensure a full lineup, but Bragman said Pontiac needs freedom to concentrate on performance. That could happen as GM continues its push for dealers to offer Buick, GMC and Pontiac under one roof, he said.

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Irvine, Calif.-based Kelley Blue Book, said Pontiac's return to its performance roots is a positive step, but years of lukewarm vehicles have made the brand irrelevant to many consumers.

"They're on the brink of either great success or marginalization," Nerad said.

Hopson said when he joined Pontiac six years ago, many customers were angry at the brand for abandoning its performance heritage, which dates to the John DeLorean-designed 1964 Pontiac GTO muscle car. Hopson said he considered it positive that people were upset, and not just apathetic, about Pontiac.

"Pontiac has always been about style and performance. There have certainly been times that we've fulfilled that mission better than others," he said. "We're again getting the vehicles that fulfill that mission very clearly."

The New York show opens to the public Friday after two days of media previews.