Driving Into the Sunset

The new car season is here but four brands you won’t see in the 2011 lineup are Pontiac, Mercury, Saturn and Hummer. Surprised? As a self-proclaimed car geek, I have to say only one of those surprises me and that one is Pontiac.

As car brands go, Saturn and Hummer are relatively new. Saturn first appeared in 1990 as a new design with new thinking. There were a few innovations, including the ‘no haggle’ pricing concept at the dealership, but there was nothing exciting about Saturn. Eventually the innovations were available on other cars and Saturn became an ‘also ran.’

Hummer started in 1992 as a consumer version of a successful military truck, but even in the days of cheaper gas and increasing popularity of SUVs, Hummer was always an expensive dinosaur. Seeya! Wouldn’t wanna be ya! Oh, and the civilian models didn’t handle all that well off-road. Oh, and GM bought the brand in 1992. What were they thinking? They discontinued it this year.

Mercury has been around forever (specifically, since 1939). It was a Ford product positioned as more upscale than Ford and less expensive than Lincoln. For the past twenty-five years or more, however, it was hard to tell a Mercury from a Ford. It seemed like a useless brand to me, and now apparently to many other people too. Even model Jill Wagner couldn’t save the brand.

But how could they kill Pontiac?! Pontiac was always GM’s performance brand, with hot cars like Trans Am and GTO. Even their big boat Bonneville was pretty hot. I rented one for a week once and was surprised at the awesome handling and acceleration; a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Elsewhere in the GM line … Oldsmobile? Who needed it? Who misses it? Buick? Still around and still boring and not much different than a Chevrolet; it’s the Mercury of GM cars. They are attempting to proclaim it a modern performance car but the ads are not convincing; a modern performance car from GM would be a Pontiac, wouldn’t it? Well, not any more.

Some brands and models have been successful with attempts to reinvent themselves. Volvo, for example, is still one of the safest cars around but their models are much more exciting than the ‘ugly box’ versions of the past. Check out the “all-new naughty S60.” VW ditched the bug many years ago but eventually brought it back as a “still fun but more normal” car with the engine in front like everyone else.

Some performance models from the past are still hot, like the Mustang. Others have come back to fairly rave reviews, like the Camaro and the Charger. Pontiac could have remained as GM’s performance brand and could have re-invented the Trans Am and maybe even the GTO. GM wants us to believe their performance leader is the Cadillac GTS. Sure, it looks great and gets good reviews from car geek magazines and web sites, but I am just not buying a Cadillac; I still lump that brand in with boring, unnecessary brands like Mercury, Buick and Oldsmobile.

So what do I drive? A Honda Accord. But my specific Honda is just a notch below an Acura. It’s the Pontiac Bonneville of Japanese cars: a wolf in sheep’s clothing with great handling and acceleration. Like me, it’s not always what it seems and it’s full of surprises.