While the Pontiac Trans Sport could possibly be one of General Motors’ greatest letdowns, there have been plenty of other botched products in its checkered history. Some of them could’ve been truly special — even revolutionary — had GM done a better job of doing its job. Let’s take a look at three of them.
Welcome to Marvelous Missed Opportunities, a maybe-sort-of-regular series on Oppositelock where I profile brilliant ideas, cars and technology that could’ve changed the automotive landscape we know today if the automakers responsible for them had properly executed them.
Let’s be clear on this: Hummer didn’t make this list because gas is under $3 a gallon again and we should all rush out and buy H2s to dash through the snow to grandma’s house this Christmas. Instead, Hummer makes this list because GM squandered its only chance to seriously rival Jeep, and in record time.
In 1999, General Motors acquired the rights to the Hummer brand from defense contractor AM General. Then one year later, GM yanked the covers off of the very yellow and very huge Hummer H2 concept at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show. The production H2, still very yellow and very huge, followed in 2002 for the 2003 model year.
Building the Schwarzeneggerian H2 was where GM colossally screwed up with the Hummer brand. After its introduction, it didn’t take long for it to draw ire from critics who had grown weary of America’s appetite for SUVs. And rightly so: the H2 was a comically hopeless tyrannosaurus that was horrifying to use on paved roads and too large for off-roading enthusiasts to really take advantage of its prowess out on the beaten path. A $50,000 base sticker price and fuel economy estimates in the single digits to very low teens didn’t help either.
By the time GM introduced the smaller-ish and sensible-ish H3 in 2005 it was too late and the damage had been done. Just six years after acquiring the rights to the Hummer name, the H2's bad rap had permanently tainted the brand’s image. When GM shuttered the brand in 2010 one year after filing for its government-backed bankruptcy, no one shed a tear.
If GM had skipped over building the H2 and started out building leaner, meaner Hummers like the HX concept (pictured above, sans doors) it introduced in 2008, perhaps the brand could’ve survived somehow and went on to lock horns with Jeep today.
When GM introduced its four-wheel steering system for pickup trucks in 2002 on the first GMC Sierra Denali, it was supposed to revolutionize the way Americans drove full-sized pickup trucks. Except it didn’t.
Dubbed Quadrasteer, the system was based around a hardy Dana 60 rear axle and was electronically operated. The end result allowed for a pickup truck the size of most living rooms to maneuver into tight parking spaces as neatly as a Honda Accord. It also allowed for greater stability and handling while navigating tight winding roads, and made towing a trailer a piece of cake.
While GM wasn’t the first company to use four-wheel steer on its vehicles, it was the first to use the technology on a truck. And it really was a brilliant idea. (For the record, my father owns a Quadrasteer Sierra Denali and it’s bloody amazing to drive with Quadrasteer engaged.) So then why don’t more trucks feature it today?
Well, GM made two huge mistakes with Quadrasteer. The first mistake was its poor marketing campaign. Those two ads I linked to earlier? That pretty much sums up the entire ad campaign. Sure, Quadrasteer makes pulling a trailer, a camper or a boat a breeze, but it was good for so much more than that. Eventually, GM stopped advertising Quadrasteer all together.
The company made its second big mistake with the price it charged buyers for a Qudrasteer truck. Although the technology was initially limited to the ‘02 Sierra Denali and its $45,000 base price, it went downmarket for 2003 and was available on most GMC Sierras/Chevrolet Silverados and Chevrolet Suburbans/GMC Yukon XLs for the low price of $5,600. Customers who weren’t even aware of Qudrasteer, let alone what it could do, weren’t about to fork over that kind of money for something they considered to be unproven. Customers who were aware of it weren’t about to fork over that kind of money because they didn’t own a trailer.
For 2004, GM sliced the price to $4,495. Sales only managed to twitch before falling flat again. Then they cut the price again to a paltry $1,995 for 2005. Sales picked up for something like three hours, then someone sneezed.
GM’s sloppy marketing and initial high cost doomed Quadrasteer. In 2006, GM yanked the plug on its Quadrasteer trucks and SUVs just as it was about to roll out improved versions that would’ve cost even less and looked far more conventional.
What a pity. Although Ford and Ram are now leading the way in full-sized truck technology, GM had a big head start with Quadrasteer. When their own stupidity ultimately forced them to back away, they chose to stay conservative with their trucks and have ever since, and that just might come back to haunt them. Which is even more disappointing when you realize GM is the automaker that more or less gave us the first modern full-sized pickup.
While Hummer and Quadrasteer technology both represent two huge missed opportunities from General Motors, perhaps its biggest missed opportunity was and still continues to be its Global RWD Architecture, also known as the Zeta platform.
The world got its first glimpse of the Zeta platform when GM Australia rolled out the fourth-generation Holden VE Commodore for 2006. But even before the VE Commodore went on sale, internet forum boards, car blogs, websites and buff mags were buzzing with rumors that the Zeta platform would give birth to a whole host of new rear-drive cars for the General beyond the Land Down Under. That list included: a new Camaro and a new rear-drive Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Impala; a new rear-drive Buick or two; a new rear-drive Pontiac sedan and a new GTO. Even Cadillac was supposed to get a flagship car based on Zeta.
Then in 2005, word got around that GM had pulled the plug on the Zeta program. Indeed it had done just that, instead choosing to use the money for Zeta to speed up development of the sixth-generation Chevrolet/GMC trucks and SUVs. However, two cars eventually managed to squeak through in the end: the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac sedan we now know as the G8, which was a rebadged version of the lovely VE Commodore. But the story doesn’t end here.
Now GM didn’t need much to promote the new Zeta Camaro. It had been hyped to hell and back since it was unveiled as a concept car at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show. But it showed little interest in attracting buyers to the Commodore-cum-Pontiac G8. The only decent ad GM released for the G8 was a sort of live action remake of the ‘80s arcade game “Spy Hunter” and it was ruined by a tagline written by a simpleton: “Pontiac is car.”
Then there was the G8 ST debacle. The G8 ST, which would’ve finally brought the VE Commodore-based Holden Ute to US shores and carried on the legacy of the Chevrolet ElCamino, was revealed at the 2008 New York Auto Show and was slated for a 2010 model year release. In January 2009, GM pulled the plug on the ST as it scrambled to rearrange the deck chairs on its quickly sinking ship. The G8 itself soon followed the ST into oblivion when GM shut down the Pontiac brand, leaving the Camaro as the only Zeta-based car to be sold in America.
The story still isn’t over. Although there was support within GM from folks like Bob Lutz and Mark Reuss to reintroduce the Commodore/G8 as a new Chevrolet Caprice, that plan was met with resistance, including from GM’s then CEO Fritz Henderson. Henderson would eventually cave and allow the long-wheelbase version of the Commodore to enter the US as the Caprice PPV, limiting its sales to law enforcement.
It would take the Holden Commodore five years to come back to the United States as the Chevrolet SS, once again facing the some of same issues that put it in a stranglehold as the Pontiac G8. This time, though, it’s been labeled with an expiration date right out of the box. When Commodore production in Australia ceases in 2017, the Chevy SS will go with it.
Zeta could’ve been a real winner for GM, had they managed to follow through on their initial plans or at least just marketed the cars it chose to bring here (the Camaro notwithstanding). Around the time Zeta was being planned for North American consumption, buyers were going gaga for retro-ish rear-drive American cars (i.e. Dodge/Chrysler). And for those of you who want to pull the whole “Australian-to-US dollar” card, consider this for a second: it’s said that GM’s assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada has had the capability to produce any Zeta car in production since it started building the current Camaro.
You can follow the author of this article on Twitter: @b_nobull