Pontiac driven to recapture the youth market

If BMW can do it, why not Pontiac? That, apparently, is the rationale behind the once hard-charging, but now tamed, GM division's use of an alphanumeric system to identify its cars.

"We did some market research and found that a letter-number system was significant to buyers," asserts William E. Hoglund, general manager of Pontiac. Thus, the J2000 it is.

Pontiac was long linked to the youth market with its high-horsepower cars, such as the GTO. Now it has launched a headlong drive to regain the market it forfeited when the high-power muscle cars of the 1960s fell on hard times with the sharp increase in the cost of fuel and the persistent question of whether or not gasoline would be available at any price.

At one time head people at Pontiac were talking about selling 1 million cars a year. It never happened.

The J2000, Pontiac's version of the General Motors J-car, is spearheading the division's drive to get back in the fast lane and and especially to get the attention of youth.

To keep up the momentum, Pontiac is launching five new models in seven months -- the T1000, a version of the Chevrolet Chevette; the J2000, plus the new Bonneville Model G in September, followed later by a new midsize A-car, the 6000 , and a redesigned Firebird.

"It's a very past pace," Pontiac executive agree.

In a special nod in the direction of the young, Pontiac expects to launch a mid-engine, two-seater sports car sometime in 1982, a sleekly designed vehicle with a wedge shape and a reinforced plastic skin attached to a steel frame. Mileage is expected to be in the 50-m.p.g. range.

Meanwhile, General Motors is pining high hopes on its $5 billion J-car subcompact as it tries to blunt the Japanese onslaught and recapture the loyalty of huge numbers of ex-customers who now look to the Far East when in the market for a new car.

The J2000 is being sold as a four-door sedan, hatchback, wagon, and two-door coupe. Pontiac hopes for 60,000 sales through September and 222,000 more in the following 12 months, ending September 1982.

Is the GM J-car, and specifically the Pontiac J2000, as good as the ads say it is?

Well, first of all the manufacturer is making a big pitch on the quality issue. After all, the imports have already won high acclaim for quality even though it may sometimes be overrated. Even so, GM, plus the other domestic car manufacturers, know what they have to do. They have to produce a car that the public perceivesm to have quality as high as that in the Japanese imports.

That's a tall order, the domestic manufacturers agree. So far, however, GM seems to be on track.

The "fit and finish" of the J-car is high, although the domestic car industry has not been noted in the past to have scored very high in this regard.

"The imports have led in the area of fit and finish," admits F. James McDonald, president of GM. Indeed, this, far more than engineering and design, is the area of the manufacturing process that is commanding the most attention by Detroit.

Using more robots and laser beams to achieve better fit, the early-production quality of the J-car is perhaps higher than anything GM has ever built before. The job is to keep up the pace and make sure that nothing goes out the door that doesn't meet that standard.

Pontiac is pursuing a program on basic automotive technology for its sales personnel, thus ensuring that they know that they're talking about when they try to "sell" a customer on a Pontiac.

Indeed, when the J2000 is driven, the car sticks to the road in a hard-handling exercise as if it has glue on the tire tread.

Yet on the highway at a legal 55 m.p.h., or poking around the congested streets of the city, the new J-car is inherently well-behaved. In foot-to-the-floor braking, it stops fast -- and in a straight line.

The MacPherson-strut front end, stabilizer bar, and rack-and-pinion steering combine to produce the highly controlled ride.

Fuel economy is somewhere in the mid-30s on the highway.

What was annoying in the car I drove, particularly on the Interstate, was the distressing habit of the gears to continually shift up and down, caused, I am told, by the lockup feature in the transmission. This does not happen in the manual shift version of the "J."

Too, the car could stand a little more pep in the engine. The 1.8-liter power plant is being stretched to 2 liters in 1982. But '84, a diesel should also be in the fold. GM has begun using an Isuzu-built diesel in the Chevrolet Chevette, but it will not fit in the J-car.

In line with the inside roominess of the J-car -- an exercise car designers these days have to pass with a straight A -- the J2000 is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a compact, although its outside dimensions indicate the next step down, a subcompact.

What is shocking at first glance is the cost. GM intended it that way. The J-cars are aimed at well- equipped Japanese imports which sell in the same general price area as the American-built "J's."

The base price of the J2000 is just under $7,000, although you can pay up to is a few dollars less at the bottom; while the Cadillac Cimarron is more than $ 12,000.

Aerodynamically speaking, the J2000 is very good indeed.The coefficient of drag, a measure of the air flow over a car and the ease with which it moves through the air, runs from a low of .392 on the hatchback to .428 on the wagon.

Through mid-June, GM had built 18,364 J-cars in two plants, 5,314 of them J- 2000s - fewer than planned because of the shortage of parts and accent on quality.

To wrap up, the Pontiac division should make out well with its J-car, especially if the economy takes a turn for the better. Of course, there could be a delayed revolt against the price -- and the Pontiac people are hoping for the best. The division now has 128,000 dealer and fleet orders in hand, good news to the Pontiac team as it tries to climb back. What the editors think . . . A-

Excellent fit and finish. Interior appointments drew oohs and ahs from approving neighbors. Surprisingly roomy. Exterior has European flair. Handling responsive by US standards. Drawbacks: Small engine has sluggish pickup; automatic transmission downshifts with annoying frequency.

John Dillin, Managing editor/news A-

Excellent handling, holds road well. Very comfortable ride. Superb AM-FM radio system. Engine peppy in city, adequate on highway with auto transmission. Two drawbacks: Automatic transmission surges and falls back annoyingly; in rear seat 6-footer's head rests on sloping back window.

Robert Hey, Managing editor/features B-

Otherwise comfortable driving experience marred by mushy combination of overpowered steering and click-in, click-out automatic transmission in model tested. Seats good front and rear. Rear legroom fair. Headroom fine.Clean appealing exterior design. Cushy but pleasant interior; well finished.

Earl Foell, Editor

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