(14:08:32 April 19, 2003) Getting GM’s Goat: GTO fans sound off on ‘sucked caramel’ styling of 2004 model. By BOB GRITZINGER For the first time since going online in 1996, a pretty Pontiac GTO photo isn’t the Picture of the Week on the Ultimate Pontiac GTO Picture Site (www.ultimateGTO.com). GTO fans displeased with the Monaro-based 2004 GTO (below) will find Ford's Mustang featured on ultimateGTO.com In a protest sparked by what the website owner describes as an overwhelmingly negative response to the exterior styling of the 2004 Pontiac GTO, the enthusiast site is featuring several shots of the Mustang GT concept (from March 23 to March 29) that debuted at the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows in January. General Motors, under the guidance of product vice chairman Bob Lutz, decided last year to bring back the fabled GTO badge on a performance coupe based on the Holden Monaro, built by GM’s Australian division. The car’s pedigree is impressive: a modified 5.7-liter LS1 V8 engine producing 340 hp at 5200 rpm and 360 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm, sport-tuned suspension and an optional six-speed manual tranny. But for GTO purists flocking to ultimateGTO.com, the latest rendition due late this year may have all the performance of a GTO, but it misses the mark because it lacks signature elements like hood scoops, prominent GTO badging and tough styling. “We feel GM has just hijacked the GTO name to sell some other car,” says site owner Sean Mattingly. Or, as one GTO fan posted: “GTO needs to look like it’s breaking the law parked at the curb. The styling for this machine is just another bubble car.” Or this: “You give us this? An Australian sucked caramel?” "Hogwash.", says Lutz, who waded into the website bulletin board fray back in mid-January, posting a personal response to assaults on his GTO from Down Under. Lutz noted that “dyed-in-the-wool old-line GTO [fans] are disappointed it’s a non-retro-themed car with few throwback GTO cues,” but he argued that wasn’t what GM set out to do with the car. “We wanted a modern interpretation, with a really slick chassis to go along with a big engine,” Lutz wrote. “We really would like to draw new customers, rather than just the traditionalists.” Lutz assured the car “will more than live up to the GTO heritage in terms of driving excitement and performance”—but in a nod to traditionalists he promised hood scoops for 2005. Fair enough, but most of Lutz’s comments only served to inflame the GTO masses who fired back with more vitriol, Mattingly says. In response, Mattingly felt the site had to make a statement on behalf of the beleaguered Goat fans—and posting the Mustang GT seemed like a logical choice. “The Mustang was the real star of the auto shows,” notes Mattingly. GM spokesman Tom Kowaleski says the company respects the website’s opinion. But he urges GTO fans to withhold judgment on the new car. “Once they get in the car, I guarantee 90 percent of them will come out all smiles,” he says. The new look was no oversight by Pontiac, says GTO brand manager Robert Kraut. He says Pontiac wanted a new image for the car, not building a flash-in-the-pan retro car that fades after a few years of hot sales. The GTO, he promises, will have several life cycles. Kraut acknowledges that the strategy means alienating some of the people most passionate about the GTO. "There are going to be people who don't like or appreciate what we did with the car," he says. "We are aware of those issues, but we think that's the minority opinion." The clean, uncluttered look of the 2004 GTO is in keeping with Pontiac's move from the body cladding and other add-ons that defined the division's styling for the past 20 years. But critics say the new GTO looks too much like other Pontiacs, such as the Grand Prix and Sunfire. Pontiac plans to sell 18,000 GTOs a year starting this fall. Prices are expected to start around $35,000. While the 2004 GTO has plenty of power - some enthusiasts have slammed the styling. The controversy over the GTO's styling has larger implications, says Jim Wangers, the marketing executive who helped fuel the GTO's amazing popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s with catchy ads and other high-octane promotions. Says Wangers: "This is a car that Pontiac must get right." Wangers notes that the GTO coupe likely will be impractical for some customers, but the upcoming V-8 powered Bonneville GXP sedan might not be. The GTO, he says, may be the hook that brings them back into a Pontiac showroom. Kraut agrees that the GTO has the potential to attract new buyers as well as win back those who long ago deserted the brand. "We may not get a ton of younger buyers because of the price. But we are getting on their radar screens. Long term, we think we are putting money in the brand bank. We think that it is meaningful that when someone is buying a Pontiac they are getting a piece of the GTO," Kraut says. The Monaro was designed in Australia. To morph the coupe into the 2004 Pontiac GTO, Holden's chief designer, Mike Simcoe, worked with Pontiac's design staff in Warren, Mich. They created a version of the traditional split Pontiac nose for the Monaro and made a few other minor changes, such as moving the fuel tank and fuel filler neck. The interior also has been given some unique GTO styling touches. If the new GTO is a hit, Wangers says, it could help Pontiac morph into a true U.S. competitor to BMW and other brands of high-performance cars. If the GTO misses, Pontiac will have wasted one of the most cherished nameplates in U.S. automobile history. The original Pontiac GTO sold about 500,000 copies between 1964 and 1974. That is more than any other competitive muscle car from any GM division, Ford Motor Co. or the old Chrysler Corp, and it is sitll a highly sought after car today. Though the GTO's styling changed through its run, all models had some type of hood scoop, snarling dual exhausts and chrome badges with the engine displacement in the European style of liters, not cubic inches, the American custom of the day. The GTO's styling peaked in the 1968-72 era when such things as a rear wing, hood-mounted tachometer, hidden headlights and a driver-activated Ram Air system were available. Ram Air fed air directly into the Rochester Quadrajet carburetor through two scoops in the hood. Enthusiasts loved the sound the air made as the engine revved up. It was one of the things that gave the original GTO much of its character. The unique looks differentiated it from the Tempest and LeMans models, on which the GTO was based. It was a winning formula that eventually was done in by escalating gasoline prices. The 2004 GTO contains none of the original car's design DNA, no homage to the past. And that's what has GTO fans upset. "I think there could have been a nice middle ground," says Wangers, 75, who now lives in Vista, Calif. The frustration of GTO fans hasn't been felt at the dealer level. At McNamara Pontiac in Orlando, Fla., the city's oldest Pontiac store, three customers have paid deposits on the GTO sight unseen, says general manager Hal McNamara. Salespeople there have fielded many questions about the car, and McNamara believes he'll quickly sell all the GTOs he can. "From what you see on the Internet, it looks a little like a Grand Prix or a Grand Am. But it'll sell because of performance. What else is there out there that's a rear-wheel drive V-8 coupe?" McNamara asks. Kraut also says the car's performance will silence the critics. "Most people who have gotten behind the wheel have loved it. Any concerns just melted away." Retro is a no go Kraut says declining sales of the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Volkswagen New Beetle and Ford Thunderbird caused GM brass to opt for a clean appearance for the GTO. There also were time constraints. The new look, he says, is an effort to avoid having the car labeled retro. But that leaves "a space big enough to drive a truck through" for SLP Engineering, the Tom's River, N.J., company that created and built the Firebird Firehawk and Camaro SS. SLP Marketing Director Reg Harris confirms that SLP will offer an appearance and performance package for the 2004 GTO that addresses the concerns voiced by fans of the car. Harris says SLP's version of the GTO will have hood scoops, special performance-tuned exhaust and other upgrades. The company expects to market the package this summer before the GTO is released. "We are not at a point where we can provide much detail, but I can tell you that the SLP GTO package will be consistent with the car's heritage," Harris says. The hood scoop, he says, will be a new design. There is one aspect of the GTO where Kraut says Pontiac has been faithful to the car's heritage: Stuffing a big engine in a mid-sized car is exactly what renegade GM engineers did 40 years ago.