Next El Camino to be a Pontiac
Bob Lutz, the product czar at General Motors, has rather broadly hinted that the new Australian Holden “ute” will be coming to the United States. In Australia, vehicles that combine the appearance of an automobile with a pick-up truck bed – much like the El Camino once produced by Chevrolet - are very popular, and available with the same range of options as the passenger cars on which they’re based, including performance options.
Last week, Holden introduced its new VE Ute, based on the same passenger car platform as the Pontiac G8. (The G8 is to go on sale this fall.) The Ute is available with a range of luxury and performance options. The top of the line SS and SS V models use the 5.7 liter LS series of engines, either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, 18 inch and 19 inch wheels, and a range of luxury features. Electronic stability control is standard on all Utes.
Speculation that there would be an El Camino version for Chevrolet led one of the bloggers at GM InsideNews to e-mail Lutz. He said to Lutz, “[h]ope the new Ute gets a more Chevy look if it goes Stateside.”
Lutz’ answer is pregnant with the possibilities. Lutz responded, “Well, that’s what we want to do, but it won’t be a Chevrolet!”
Internet speculation immediately turned to Pontiac or GMC as possible brand for an American version of the Ute. Because the G8 is the first Holden based sedan to be sold here under a GM division name, some think it the logical candidate. Others see GMC as the logical division, since the Ute is a truck.
But GMC is an also-ran division at General Motors, marketing me-too versions of the Chevy truck line. A few years back, GM decided that GMC would be the luxury SUV division. So, the GMC Yukon Denali was created. But Cadillac dealers complained loudly and demanded a product competitive to the Lincoln Navigator. The result was the Escalade. It, of course, became GM’s luxury SUV. The Denali was an also-ran.
Even in the 1970’s, when GMC had a version of the El Camino called the “Sprint,” the Chevy outsold the GMC nameplate by better than ten to one.
Moreover, two years ago GM announced a policy of trying to pair Pontiac and GMC franchises with the same dealer. The idea was to give the Pontiac dealer a companion truck line to sell, giving those dealers a complete line to sell – just like Chevy, Ford, and Dodge. So, to the extent that GM has implemented this plan, there’s no reason to sell the new Ute as a GMC vehicle.
That leaves Pontiac, as neither Buick nor Cadillac seem likely candidates for the Ute.
But, why not Chevy?
Lutz didn’t say, but one guess is that Pontiac is the current charity case at GM. When he was at Chrysler, Lutz’s created the Viper as a halo car for Dodge. But that was only a first step in an overall plant that breathed life into the somnambulant Dodge brand. Lutz is also the father of the Solstice, which can be viewed as the Viper equivalent in his efforts to resuscitate Pontiac. Though Pontiac did introduce the G6 last year, it’s the G8 that GM is really counting upon to rescue the division.
Slowly, but surely, Lutz and GM seem to be establishing distinct identities for its divisions, along the traditional lines long understood at GM. Chevrolet is to be the low-priced car. Cadillac is the luxury car. Pontiac is a medium priced car with sporting pretensions, while Buick is a higher priced medium price car oriented to luxury buyers, but at a lower price than a Cadillac of similar size. Saturn is what German Opels are called when sold in the United States.
In this pecking order, a car based on the Zeta platform used by the Holden Commodore and the G8 does not fit the Chevy line-up. That platform may eventually be used for a new Buick and a new Cadillac, but it slots above the Chevy market.
Will the Ute sell in the States? It probably won’t cost GM very much to find out. Most of the work needed to build it has already been done, either by Holden or by Pontiac. Holden describes the Australian Ute as focused “on surfers and cyclists rather than builders and plumbers” (though there is a commercial version). With the average American household having 2.5 cars, multiple car families are the norm. GM may figure that the Ute will be as attractive to Americans as it is to Australians.