Not Even Oprah and Free Cars Could Save 1 of GM’s Biggest Failures
In 2004, Pontiac was rolling out its all-new G6 for the 2005 model year. This midsize car replaced the oft-maligned yet long-running Grand Am, a perennial favorite of buy-here-pay-here car lots everywhere. To generate buzz for the new model, someone in Pontiac’s C-suite had the idea to stage a huge publicity stunt whereby a bunch of G6s would be given away for free on live TV. The live TV in question was the 2004 season premiere of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
How Oprah’s free car giveaway went down
Oprah slow-played the stunt by initially calling 11 seemingly random audience members up to the stage. Each reportedly was in dire need of a new set of wheels. The audience went wild when Oprah announced all 11 would get a free new car. Then, a green Pontiac G6 wearing a giant red ribbon made a dramatic stage entrance from the wings.
Next, Oprah teased the audience that there was still one last G6 up for grabs. Small gift boxes on silver trays were distributed among the audience members, who were instructed not to shake or open the boxes. Per Oprah, the holder of the single box containing a key would win the final Pontiac G6.
On her cue, all 276 audience members opened their boxes. All contained a key. That’s right — everyone had won a car. It was one of the greatest TV moments ever and spawned the famous meme “You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!”
Pontiac footed the bill for all 276 cars to the tune of $7.7 million. However, the company paid only a portion of the taxes. That left the winners to pay the remaining taxes on their prizes as if they were earned income, like winning the lottery. In many cases, the taxes due amounted to more than $6,000. Some of the audience members still cherish their G6s and drive them to this day, while others quickly sold them and pocketed the cash.
Was the Pontiac G6 a good car?
While a few of Pontiac’s final offerings, like the GTO and G8, were adapted wholesale from GM’s Australian Holden brand, that wasn’t the case with the G6. However, it shared a platform with a few other North American GM models, like the Chevy Malibu and Saab 9-3. Interestingly, the G6 was available in three body styles: a sedan, a coupe, and a retractable hardtop convertible.
A period review in Car and Driver mentions that although the G6 was a vast visual improvement over the outgoing Grand Am, its performance and handling couldn’t match its crisp styling. In essence, the G6 was a perfectly fine, perfectly forgettable appliance that couldn’t gain traction against class leaders like the Honda Accord.
Besides assorted body styles, several trims and powertrains were available over the G6’s lifespan, from a base 169-hp four-cylinder to a 252-hp V6 in the sporty GTP trim.
An interesting final anecdote is that the G6 was so popular with fleet buyers like rental car agencies that it’s the only Pontiac that continued production until the last possible minute while the moribund brand shut down around it.
Pontiac was enjoying something of a renaissance when GM killed it
At the time of the Oprah car giveaway, Pontiac was on the upswing, at least from an enthusiast’s standpoint. The automaker had recently released its GTO muscle car, soon to be followed by the Solstice roadster and the G8 sedan, which some viewed as a legit challenger to the BMW M3. The brand was finally living up to its image as General Motors’ sporty division. Sadly, Pontiac sales continued to struggle even though its vehicle lineup had improved astronomically.
Around 2008, the U.S. real-estate bubble burst, plunging the nation into a deep recession. Consumers were losing their jobs and losing their homes to foreclosure, so not many folks had the means to run out and purchase new cars.
Although several of GM’s divisions weren’t performing well before the Great Recession, the economic crisis magnified the situation. For example, Pontiac sold 474,179 vehicles in 2004 but only 178,300 in 2009. So, in 2010, GM killed Pontiac, along with Saturn and Hummer, amid the automaker’s bankruptcy proceedings.