Saturn Bye-Bye, Pontiac Sub Brand

Pontiac LogoDETROIT – Recent press reports indicate that Saturn might completely disappear as part of a new General Motors, and Pontiac might be a sub-brand sold at other dealers. Who knows what will happen to Saab, but whatever will happen, Saab, Hummer and Saturn are all for sale, perhaps free if you just pick up the expenses.

Saturn Rings Up Zero

As an owner of two Saturn wagons, I liked them both, and especially the original 1994 Saturn SW series wagon. The SW1 (I think that was the exact model) was sensible, good looking and just right, and it is amazing that Saturn dealers have coasted so long on the legacy of this first product series. In coming decades, case study after case study will be written on the failure of Saturn by General Motors after such a strong start, and loyal customers.

First, what was great about Saturn as it was originally? The cars were inexpensive, but not the cheapest. Things like changing a tire and the like were TOTALLY simplified to make it easy. Owner’s manuals were in concise English. Their dealer sales tactics were beyond reproach, or at least at my dealer, Haywood-Clarke in Richmond. It truly was a new method of building and selling cars, and the idea that a car came from a wooden floor in Spring Hill, Tennessee was a revolution. The idea that you didn’t have to dicker with some oily salesman for the price was inspiration.

Our second Saturn was a wagon, from the LW series. It was actually an Opel, according to a good friend who worked at GM. It was solid, though a bit odd looking as the front looked a bit too squeezed. It was sort of un-handsome rather than ugly, but definitely sensible. And comfortable, even in a 12-hour trip on I-95.

I grew up with a green Opel Kadett, sold at Perry Buick (or was it Brud Buick) in Norfolk, Virginia. It was a great car, very spiffy, and it frustrated me to no end that Buick did not stick with the idea of offering Opel cars at its Buick dealers. When I learned that my Saturn was more an Opel, I wondered about our Saturn and why GM doesn’t just sell the Saturn as an Opel?

To me, Saturns had to be made in Tennessee and Opels had to be made in Germany; the geography of a brand’s manufacture is critical to its meaning in the eyes of customers. Bob Lutz lost total credibility when he remarked that Saabs didn’t need to be made in Germany. (See related story in Branding Blog of Dave Young.)

Options To Sell Saturn

In fact, if GM has to keep Saturn for the next few years, GM might well offer dealers an Opel sign to hang in the window of the showroom, and re-badge a few Saturns as Opels and allow dealers to sell GM’s European cars there. There are about five million European-born Americans, and those are the market for Opel. Heck, GM has little to lose; why not sell a Vauxhall here as there is a large Brit expat community here? Or there is another option for General Motors to sell its European operations and Saturn; while it would totally decimate GM’s car sales, it is a far more sale-able package than just Saturn by itself.

Saturn dealer Carl Galeana of Michigan was quoted in the Feb. 19 Wall Street Journal saying that he still had hope for Saturn. It would be a fantastic entry point for one of the Chinese car manufacturers. Indeed if GM threw in the rights to the Oldsmobile brand along with it, it might actually make the Saturn dealer system more viable. (Read our story on the future of Oldsmobile.)

Pontiac, a GM Sub-brand

What has happened to Pontiac is pitiful, above the fact of many of the cars are plastic crap. Separate from this, Pontiac has not been broad enough with its marketing. It is one thing to ask people to buy cars with racing heritage. That is good. But what GM has done with Pontiac is to turn the whole brand into a souped up set of redneck racers, and that doesn’t work for the mass market. First, racing folk don’t take Pontiac seriously, and the “Excitement” theme doesn’t inspire the oldsters who buy Pontiac. It’s fine to offer a race-styled car model, but that sort of approach should not go for the entire brand.

Actually, GM could have gotten away with this racing approach if the cars were reliable, but since they were ugly junk, it made it worse.

That being said, GM has a problem, and the past is past. What to do now?

They need to keep offering the Pontiac, even as a sub-brand sold alongside other GM brands (we have some opinions on Buick’s screw-ups here). That should have been the avenue for Oldsmobile; if the brand is not selling, then ratchet down the marketing and turn it into a smaller brand, where you can revamp it on the platform of a few really good models.

So-called analysts have said that GM needs to kill Pontiac to go back to profit; we disagree. We are encouraged that Pontiac marketing will be scaled back, and the brand will only be a few select models.

Tomorrow: What to do about Saab


  • Garland Pollard

    J. Garland Pollard IV is editor/publisher of BrandlandUSA. Since 2006, the website has chronicled the history and business of America’s great brands.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *