Friday, May 15, 2009

It was an auspicious day, but I didn’t tell that to our Pontiac G8 GXP. Just let it do its thing, I reasoned. Why put a damper on a beautiful day? The Pontiac G8 backed gracefully out of the driveway and shot off with a roar on the day’s short roadtrip.

Touch the accelerator and the Aussie-made, 4-door coupe forces you down into the seat. It is called a rush of power because acceleration like that is thrilling. Vocally, the G8 is the James Earl Jones of cars. It’s low octaves and deep, rich timbre makes its voice impossible to ignore. It speaks. You say, “louder” and it complies.

The G8 sticker read $41,590, including the $1,700 gas-guzzler tax (but we got 20 highway miles to the gallon and no mistake on that, either). The rear-wheel drive G8 employs a 6.2-liter V-8 engine and a six-speed manual, and comes equipped with high-end Brembo brakes.

Our car was painted a sparkling Candy Apple primer. It gave off a hard, tough glint in the sun. I could make more comparisons to Clint, and Marlon and James - the tough manly stance, the muscle, but what’s the point? A half-hour before we pulled out of the driveway, General Motors killed Pontiac. We would look back on this trip with great nostalgia.

Here’s what puzzles me: GM kills Pontiac and keeps Buick. There have been some really beautiful Buicks in the past, but why kill a brand that has sold 41,000 cars in the first three months of this year (Pontiac) across the U.S, but keep a brand that has sold only 21,000 (Buick)? Is it because Buick is selling like wonton in China right now?

Note to anyone who will listen: We don’t live there, work there or pay taxes there. There’s another agenda at work here. The U.S. government, the people who intend to relieve us of incandescent light bulbs in 2015, is forcing General Motors to strip naked in order to stay in business.

It’s pretty clear that the future of cars in this country isn’t going to be about building excitement, which was the Pontiac motto. “We Build Excitement.” And they did. GTO, Grand Prix, STE, Firebird. Don’t make me cry.

Killing Pontiac, which is small potatoes in the scheme of things, falls right in line with the environmental zeitgeist, the new big brother. Killing a muscle car or two, with their small number of sales, will not move the needle on the carbon dioxide front. Pontiac in part is falling victim to the government’s future Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards that require cars and light trucks to show major gains every year after next year. The Pontiac G8 GXP had an economy number of 13/20 mpg - and we actually got that 20, too.

This was a sad day for people who love cars. Pontiac was the first car company to offer more than one choice of engine in a model. John DeLorean came to Pontiac in 1957. The team at Pontiac included the legendary Bunky Knudsen, chief engineer Pete Estes and Mr. DeLorean. They put a V-8 engine in Pontiac’s new compact Tempest and created the GTO and a new genre - the muscle car.

Pontiac followed with the Firebird and the Firebird Trans Am. The oil crisis of the 1970s had a similar impact on Pontiac to this current crash; emphasis on fuel economy became the utmost to car buyers.

Then another of GM’s good guys, William Hoglund, rebuilt Pontiac again - but after him, Pontiac lost its way and never found its mojo again. Robert Lutz, the last GM “car guy” really tried. He brought us the Pontiac Solstice roadster, and a new closed Solstice coupe is just coming out; he tried to re-create the GTO and that wonderful GXP I drove, and even a Pontiac convertible. He tried. It was just too late.

We will emerge from this nightmare. America’s auto industry will sell cars again. But I think it will be a while before the American automobile industry leads in creating lust in the hearts of the car-buying public.

Pontiac’s muscle cars inspired passion. This is what David E. Davis Jr. wrote in “Car and Driver” back then: “My first ride in a GTO left me with a feeling like losing my virginity, going into combat and tasting my first draft beer all in about seven seconds.”

“I remember that the GTO slammed out of the hole like it was being fired from a catapult,” Davis wrote, “that the tach needle flung itself across the dial like a windshield wiper, that the noise from those three two-throat carburetors on that heavy old 389-cubic-inch Pontiac V-8 sounded like some awful doomsday Hoover-God sucking up sinners.”

“It was not,” he wrote, “a car that anyone would drive to a meeting of the Sierra Club.”

Goodbye, Pontiac. I know a strong shoulder when I see one. Sneer and drive away in your Prius if you want to, but some of us won’t forget.

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