That’s the fate of the Pontiac GTO — the latest version, that is — thanks to slow sales and new government safety rules that would cost General Motors a small fortune to meet. By mid-year, the GTO will go away for the second time, having just been in the Pontiac fleet for three model years this time around. The GTO name was revived for the 2004 model year after lying in hiatus since the mid-60s, when it was first used on the legendary Pontiac muscle car.
General Motors said last week that it would end production of the Australia-built GTO coupe at the end of the ’06 model year; but spokesman Jim Hopson said it was not an easy decision.
“We announced that the GTO will be discontinued because of some new federal safety standards on air bags,” he said. “To bring it back for 2007, the instrument panel would have to be extensively re-engineered, and that would be too costly. Unfortunately, we love the car and would love to keep building it.”
That’s the official line anyway.
The real story, of course, is that the car never met GM’s sales expectations, even with an upgrade last year that brought a version of the newest Corvette engine into the GTO, with a whopping 400 horsepower. That was up from the 350 horsepower provided by the previous-generation Corvette engine, the 5.7-liter LS1.
GM said originally that it expected to sell about 18,000 of the vehicle annually. But sales totaled just 13,569 cars in 2004 and 11,590 last year.
Dealers complained that the price was too high. The car’s base price for 2006 is $32,995, including freight. That doesn’t include options or the $1,300 federal gas-guzzler tax, which applies only to automatic-transmission version. The automatic is EPA rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 mpg on the highway, compared with 17 city/25 highway for the manual model.
Although I haven’t driven the latest model at length, I did an extensive test of the 2004 model, including one stretch where I tried to keep up with then-GM North American Chairman Robert Lutz. He left me in his dust when he got to about 135 mph. Lutz is the automotive whiz who brought us the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser and the Plymouth Prowler production street rod while he was still in charge of the old Chrysler Corp. For fun, he flies a former Czechoslovakian military jet over the skies of Detroit. It was his idea to create a new GTO for GM, as part of his role to bring more pizazz to GM’s cars.
The GTO handles like a true sports car — the Corvette, for instance — and has more power than anyone has a legitimate need for.
But the lackluster styling probably was the car’s real undoing, along with its failure to generate much excitement among those who loved the original GTO and who keep it alive with their careful restorations and weekend get-togethers.
The name is revered among the baby boomer set, who lusted after cars such as ’64 GTO, an enduring symbol of the American muscle car mania that struck during the decade that also brought us the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the flower-power movement. As I’ve mentioned before, I was in high school when the GTO was popular. Along with such vehicles as the 1963 split-rear-window Chevrolet Corvette coupe, the GTO helped define a generation of youth who came of age when American cars were king, and only rich or odd people drove “foreign” cars.
The current GTO, however, could qualify as a foreign car. It’s built by GM in Australia, using the chassis of the Australian Holden Monaro sport coupe, which itself was derived from the GM Opel Omega from Germany.
The Corvette engines and transmissions used in the GTO are built in the United States and shipped to Australia, where they are installed in the cars before they are transported to North America for sale.
GM said the GTO design involved more than 450 changes to the Monaro, engineered by a crack team from GM’s North American operations. It will be sold only in the United States — not even in Canada.
Unlike the past, when car companies would build one car and try to sell it worldwide, this arrangement takes common vehicle architecture and allows each market to have its own unique vehicle from that architecture.
Unfortunately, though, this sometimes backfires for U.S.-bound cars because of continuing changes in U.S. motor-vehicle safety and smog standards that the vehicle’s architecture might not support.
“It’s a global strategy, not of world cars, but globally shared architecture,” Lutz said at the time of the GTO re-introduction. “It doesn’t mean the same car, or necessarily even the same parts. It’s a common way of putting General Motors cars together.” The big savings comes from the fact that “the basic engineering is done once,” he said. GM was hoping that the new GTO would be able to cash in on the wave of nostalgia sweeping the baby boomer generation.
Automakers have learned that consumers are a nostalgic lot when it comes to automobile purchases. To satisfy that, the carmakers have brought out several new products with retro styling that takes us back to the days of our youth.
Some of these have been successful; some not. The current Ford Mustang, introduced for 2005, is an example of one that succeeded; the recent Ford Thunderbird, which has now been discontinued, is one that did not. The GTO, in the end, will join the ones that did not.
A little bit of history: Pontiac introduced the GTO in 1963 as a 1964 model, and some folks believe it to be the best of the muscle cars of that era. GM says in its history of the GTO that it is the car that started the muscle-car craze.
The current GTO shares some of the styling of the Monaro CV8 coupe, with unique Pontiac touches including a dual-port grille. But it has virtually nothing linking it to the original GTO other than the name, and that’s where GM went wrong, critics say — especially if the automaker wanted to appeal to baby boomers.
Where the old GTO was affectionately called a “Goat,” that nickname hasn’t found its way to the new one.
Dealers have reported mixed results with the car.
“We actually did pretty well with the GTO, but the styling was never there,” one Texas dealer reported. “It sure has good performance, but I think Pontiac missed the boat on the retro thing.”
But another dealer said that the GTO had been a slow-seller.
“I think the biggest problem is that it’s high-priced,” the dealer said. “Guys who spend that much for a performance car probably would rather just spend a bit more and buy a Corvette.”
The irony, though, is that this GTO is probably destined to become a popular vehicle with collectors on down the road.
Because of its short run — just three model years — and limited numbers produced, used ones are going to become harder and harder to find, and any new ones built from now until the end of production are going to be snapped up quickly.
For 2006, the car carried over with just a few changes, including a new taillight design whose background is gloss black instead of red. Two new exterior colors are offered this year — fusion orange and spice red. And new 18-inch wheels with bright spokes are included.
Besides the 400 horsepower, the LS2 V-8 engine of the ’06 model turns out 400 foot-pounds of torque. GM’s Hydra-Matic 4L65-E four-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission is standard, while the six-speed Tremec T56 manual is optional. GM says the car can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds.
Other features of this rear-wheel drive coupe include two-plus-two bucket seating and a premium sound system with an integrated six-disc CD changer.
The rear seat is designed to hold two adults comfortably for even a cross-country cruise.
G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.