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Old 06-13-2007, 02:09 PM   #1
KILLER74Z28
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Chickens or Goats

Chickens or Goats -

Is Pontiac raising GTOs or Firebirds on its muscle-car farm?

BY STEVE SILER, June 2007

Every day, we get letters from readers asking us to write stories about things that, frankly, we don’t know anything about. Recently, citing the well-known return of its longtime platform-mate, the Chevrolet Camaro, some of you have been screaming like chickens about another storied muscle car from our past, the good ol’ Pontiac Firebird. After all, it would be easy—just graft a beak onto the Camaro and ship it to Pontiac showrooms. And so we made some calls.

Our first fact: GM public relations people aren’t quick to return phone calls when one leaves a voicemail saying things like “could you call us back with everything you know about a future Firebird?” Crickets. Tumbleweeds. And here we thought we were friends.

But later rather than sooner, our pal Jim Hopson from Pontiac communications called and promptly made up for lost time by shedding some real light on what is looking more like a choice between raising goats or chickens, rather than goats and chickens, on Pontiac’s muscle-car farm.

Pontiac Muscle Car Must be Distinct

Though it’s still unconfirmed at this point, Pontiac is pretty much guaranteed to get at least one muscle car from the prolific, rear-drive Zeta platform (officially the Global Rear Wheel Drive Architecture) by 2010.

The first fruit of Zeta loins for Pontiac is the new 2008 G8 sedan, which will replace both the long-departed Bonneville and the current Grand Prix early next year. The G8 will be exported from Australia, where the Aussies engineered the RWD family.

As for a second Zeta for Pontiac, Hopson confirmed the brand has been kicking around “heritage” names, including Firebird and GTO, for a future muscle car. While either “can be done” relatively easily, we don’t expect Pontiac to do both. Furthermore, while a Firebird would seemingly be less expensive to produce if it shared—as it always did—its body stampings and many interior components with the Camaro, we suspect Pontiac is leaning towards the GTO.

Thank (or blame) Bob Lutz, GM’s deified product guru, for that. He has asserted that the days of product sharing/badge engineering are more or less over, and has stated emphatically that no carbon copy of the Camaro will make it into any other GM-brand showroom. The challenge, Hopson said, becomes making a new muscle car unique enough to appease Lutz and the market at large without being too unique for those Bud-guzzlin’, mullet-draped traditionalists who see it as their mission in life to ensure any future screaming chicken returns as “Pontiac’s Camaro.”

“Heritage” Names: 50 Percent Risk, 50 Percent Opportunity

This challenge underscores the double-edge sword of resurrecting heritage names, which must be competitive and relevant today while meeting expectations of performance, character, and appearance held by nostalgic fans. Attempts to cash in on nostalgia can backfire, as Hopson knows all too well. “We are very cautious about bringing back heritage names,” he said, citing lessons learned during Pontiac’s struggle to convince buyers that the Australian-built, Holden Monaro-based 2004–2006 GTO was, in fact, worthy of its hallowed name.

Two Performance Coupes Unlikely

Still in question, according to Hopson, is whether it makes sense in this day and age, to sell two muscle cars under the same brand umbrella, or even three under two brands. “The market in the ’60s could sustain more than one muscle car under the same make,” but today’s market may not. “I don’t think anything is off the table,” he said, “but there’s an extraordinarily small chance you would see two performance coupes.” Pity, because Zeta is flexible enough to spawn all kinds of variants, including a larger G8 coupe. Hmmm.

If it was up to Hopson, which would he choose? “Personally, some form of a GTO would be most appealing. Firebird and Camaro would be expected to be extraordinarily similar, and we could do more with GTO.” Wonderful PR-speak, but we see it as good advice for product planning, too.

Under the Skin

So what would be under the skin of Pontiac’s future muscle car? It would certainly share both of the upcoming G8 sedan’s engines, including a 261-hp 3.6-liter DOHC V-6 and a 362-hp LS2 6.0-liter pushrod V-8, offered with five- and six-speed automatics, respectively, with available six-speed manuals (the G8 gets autoboxes only, at least at first). As with most of GM’s big V-8s, this 6.0-liter would have cylinder deactivation or “active fuel management” as GM now refers to this technology.

At the drag strip, where we expect this car to be headed, look for 0-to-60 runs in the low sixes for the V-6 models, and about five seconds flat for the V-8. More potent engines are certainly being considered, but output is anyone’s guess. All G8s get a strut-front and multilink-rear suspension, setups we expect to be mirrored on the shorter, steroid-enhanced two-door versions.

Whatever form it will eventually take—and whatever name will be assigned to it—Pontiac’s Zeta-based muscle car will certainly get prominent placement in its U.S. dealer showrooms, which are increasingly being combined with Buick and GMC brands—neither of which have sports cars or muscle cars of their own—by the time it arrives.

As the excitement division, Pontiac needs a sporty car more capable than the Solstice and Solstice GXP to remain, well, truly exciting. Besides, as arguably the most storied brand in muscle-car history, Pontiac would be remiss not to cash in on the phenomenon of modern muscle-car mania.
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