Once Favored, GM's Saturn, Pontiac Struggle

The future of several GM brands is in doubt as the automaker considers dramatic changes in order to survive. Saturn was once a darling of the company with its reliable vehicles and no-haggle pricing. Pontiac's muscle cars used to have a strong identity and a loyal following. Both brands are now in serious trouble.

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Regardless of whether Congress provides a bailout, GM is going to get smaller. That includes cutting down on its brand. Saturn, once seen as the future of GM, could be sold. And as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, GM says that Pontiac, once home to the muscle car, will have to be slimmed down.

(Soundbite of song "GTO")

FRANK LANGFITT: Those were the days, when bands actually wrote songs about GM cars. Introduced in 1964, the GTO had a 400-horsepower engine and launched the muscle-car era. Pontiac brought a new version back earlier this decade. The target: baby boomers. But within a few years, the GTO was gone again.

Mr. TOM WILLIAMS (Manager, Pontiac, Buick and GMC Dealership,): The guys that liked the performance cars came in and looked at it and said that does not look like the GTO I remember when I was a kid.

LANGFITT: Tom Williams runs a Pontiac, Buick and GMC dealership in Maryland. He says the revised GTO was actually a very good car, but terribly marketed. Somewhere, William says, Pontiac lost its way. Instead of focusing on performance cars, GM added a jumble of new models and Pontiac lost its identity.

Mr. WILLIAMS: There's been no question that a lot of marketing failures over the years, and for whatever reason, my age group - and I'm 40 years old - my age group and younger have decided the General Motors is not, quote/unquote, "the cool thing to buy." And we've been trying to fight that for at least the last 10 years.

LANGFITT: Anthony Hernandez is 40 also. He's an assistant manager in an auto-parts store in Miami Beach. Asked what he thought of Pontiac, he said this.

Mr. ANTHONY HERNANDEZ (Assistant Manager, Auto Parts Store, Miami Beach): I think of beautiful classic cars that were made originally, not too much of what's out now, but more classic.

LANGFITT: With the car market now in freefall, GM says it plans to turn Pontiac into a, quote, "specialty brand." Tom Williams thinks that means the end of the Pontiac G-6, a non-descript sedan. He also thinks the Vibe, a small hatchback and twin of the Toyota Matrix, is history, too. Williams is glad GM wants to refocus the brand, but he says it will cost his dealership 20 percent in sales.

Mr. WILLIAMS: G-6 and Vibe are our two biggest-volume Pontiacs. We sell approximately 60 to 70 G-6s a year and probably 50 Vibes a year.

(Soundbite of Saturn ad)

LANGFITT: Like Pontiac, Saturn originally inspired tremendous loyalty. It called itself a different kind of car company and it was. No haggling in the showroom, inexpensive sedans as reliable as Toyotas, Saturn even made the cover of Time. This week, GM said it was looking at alternatives for the brand. Jeff Pohanka isn't sure what that means.

Mr. JEFF POHANKA (Co-owner, Pohanka Saturn, Marlow Heights, Maryland): That could mean contracting the brand or maybe selling it, but I don't think immediately it means elimination.

LANGFITT: Pohanka is one of the biggest auto dealers around Washington, D.C. He also sells Saturns. Pohanka says the brand had a strong start but faltered. He was stuck for years with the same models, while GM was busy reworking older brands like Cadillac.

Mr. POHANKA: Car business is like a book. Our first chapter was a great success, but no one had the time or the money to write a second chapter.

LANGFITT: Eventually, customers began losing interest. In the past several years, GM has expanded Saturn selection. New models include the Sky, Handsome Roadster and the Aura, a sedan which won 2007 North American Car of the Year. But this hasn't sunk in yet with consumers. Michael Bruckner's view is typical. He's a 29-year-old investment banker who lives in Miami Beach.

Mr. MICHAEL BRUCKNER (Investment Banker, Miami Beach): I think of Saturn, I think of more like a smaller compact, more urban type of vehicle.

LANGFITT: Jeff Pohanka says it's hard to change Saturn's image, especially at a time when consumers are staying away from showrooms because of the recession. Now, Pohanka's just waiting - waiting to learn the fate of a company that was once the darling of the automotive world. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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