Not all that long ago, before the Democratically-controlled Congress and its friends of Al policy wonks decided that raising the CAFE standards to 35 miles-per-gallon would be a good idea, General Motors was prepared for an all-out, ground-up re-vamp of its excitement division.
Front-wheel-drive would be a thing of the past. Rear-drive was the way to go. After all, its aspirational target, BMW, was all rear-wheel-drive.
But now, with those standards looking all the more ominous and inevitable, it seems like the product planners at GM are having second thoughts. But my question is this: Why does it have to be an all-or-nothing proposition? Where is it written, "Thou shalt have an all rear-wheel drive lineup, and thou shalt not sell any front-wheel drive vehicles"?
Certainly, by-and-large, rear-wheel-drive has more of a performance connotation than front-wheel-drive. But there are many front-wheel-drive high-performance vehicles that have received accolades and applause from critics. Namely, the Mazdaspeed3, the Volkswagen GTI and its near-twin Audi A3, as well as less obvious, but no less capable vehicles such as the Nissan Altima Coupe, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and others. Okay, so maybe they’re not in the same leauge as a Ferrari F430 or Porsche Carrera, but they’re nothing to sneeze at, either. Heck, BMW’s own MINI division is exclusively front-drive, and sold on the same lot (albeit a different showroom or area) as its Bavarian brethren.
I would suggest that Pontiac take a two-pronged approach at its product lineup. Certainly, on the higher end, with its larger, more performance-oriented models, rear-drive is the way to go. The upcoming G8 is definitely a step in the right direction. A new GTO, and even a rear or all-wheel-drive wagonish crossover based off the Zeta chassis, might be a good direction to go. The Solstice has set the stage for smaller rear-drive vehicles, and a fastback coupe version is almost certainly in the cards.
But what’s to say a sporty front-drive compact along the lines of the Mazda3 wouldn’t fit in Pontiac’s lineup? A Pontiac version of the Opel/Saturn Astra, with some beefier engine options (say, a 2.2 or 2.4 Ecotec, and a turbo option), would fit nicely. A torquey four-cylinder turbodiesel option would help CAFE, as well as providing a frugal, but fun option.
In terms of the mid-size models, that’s where it seems there’s the most anguish and uncertainty over which direction to go. The G6 was slated to go rear-drive with the next generation. There are two ways Pontiac could have its cake and eat it too with this one. Why not do a rear-drive or all-wheel-drive E-Flex? Since the engine doesn’t directly provide the propulsion, there’s no reason the drive motor couldn’t be located apart from the engine. Too expensive and exclusive? Offer a version of that tasty new VM Motori 2.9L V-6 diesel as an option. Okay, so maybe it doesn’t have a screaming 7,500 rpm redline, but 400 lb./ft. of torque at 2,000 rpm in a rear-drive midsize sedan sounds pretty exciting to me.
As laudable as it is that Pontiac’s benchmarking BMW as its performance target, let’s not forget that only two decades past, the "excitement" division was cranking out such laughable schlock as the six-eyed 6000 STE, and the Chevette parts-bin sportster, the Fiero. To think that it can build the street cred overnight that it took BMW decades of committed, passionate engineering to build, is a bit ambitious, to say the least.
But Pontiac is now positioned to fill a unique niche as a builder of fun-to-drive, affordable, value-packed vehicles for enthusiasts of all stripes, from sport compact fans, to devotees of old-school Detroit muscle. To try to impose a giant cookie cutter on this broad spectrum, or cram square pegs into round holes (pick your analogy) doesn’t make a lot of sense. Choose on a case-by-case, vehicle-by-vehicle basis. Maybe then Pontiac can enjoy the best of both worlds, in its products, and the new customers it could potentially attract.