2007 Pontiac G6 Retractable Hardtop

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Remember when VCRs cost $1,500?

Today, you can get one for about $100 (or even less). Once the basic technology was hammered out, the focus turned to stamping them out in ever larger quantities — at ever lower prices. It’s the same with automotive gadgets and technology. Like GPS, which went from being an ultra-exclusive (and ultra-expensive) feature found only in a few high-end cars to a commonplace option on cars costing as little as $20k today.

Or retractable hardtops.

As recently as a year or so ago, the handful of cars that offered this feature were premium-branded — and premium-priced. But just like GPS, retractable hardtops —
— which offer the same secure feeling in bad weather (and bad neighborhoods) as a hardtop coupe with the option of open-air motoring just a touch of a button away — are filtering down to reasonably priced cars in the $30k and under segment.

The latest of these is the retractable hardtop version of Pontiac’s G6 four-seater coupe.

Its base price of $28,500 puts it in the same general ballpark as a well-optioned Ford Mustang convertible, Camry Solara ,Chrysler Sebring or Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder — three otherwise similar middling-sized sporty two-plus twos. But these are all conventional soft-top convertibles; which means they’re great on warm summer days — but much more vulnerable to environmental (and human) damage when the day’s not so nice. Or the side street where you’re about to leave it’s a bit on the sketchy side. One slice of the switchblade later and whoever wants in is in.

You’re left with a huge bill — and an equally big leak.

Hence the attraction of the folding metal hardtop. Push a button and 30-something seconds later, the car’s as solid and tight as a conventional coupe. The GT”s metal panels also won’t get moldy, crease or do the other annoying things regular convertibles sometimes do as they age — especially if they’re parked outside.

Some buyers may be concerned the electric motors that raise and lower the hardtop could eventually fail — probably doing so at a most inconvenient time, like just before a massive downpour. But this is a potential problem faced by owners of regular convertibles as well — and in both cases, the manufacturers make provision for emergency manual operation of the top (via hand-operated cranks) so that it can be closed — if with some difficulty — should the motors conk out some dark and soon-to-be-stormy night.

A more substantive problem — at least for the nominally “sporty” G6 — is the additional sheetmetal cellulite added by the power hardtop’s folding sections, mechanisms and motors — as well as the structural bracing that had to be added to the chassis to recover the structural rigidity sacrificed by cutting off the fixed-in-place roof.

All told, these beef up the car’s curb weight by some 400 lbs. compared to the standard G6 coupe — to nearly 4,000 lbs. before adding driver or passenger.

The issue for the G6 is that like a latter-day Elvis chuffing sweatily through a series of karate chops under the klieg lights, it’s hard to be convincingly athletic when you’re lugging around a load like that — especially when the strongest available engine (for now) is a 229-hp 3.9 liter V-6 (in the $29,990 GTP).

The standard GT’s 201-hp 3.5 liter V-6 suffers even more obviously under the yoke of all that bulk.

It doesn’t help matters that Pontiac decided not to offer a manual transmission with either engine — which further detracts from the sporty car ambiance. There is a manual shift function for the 4-speed automatic — but it’s just not the same as having a clutch and being able to row the gears for yourself.

Best case scenario is zero to 60 in about 8.5 seconds — which is a best so-so for a car with sporty pretensions. This is easily the G6’s weakest link given Pontiac’s performance oriented reputation — and the way the car’s being marketed. It would do fine if its target audience consisted mainly of Camry Solara/Chrysler Sebring-types — you know, hausefraus and middle aged guys. Right lane drivers. But the Mustang/Eclipse types Pontiac wants to sell this car to may come away from their test drive muttering “where’s the beef?”

Pontiac does have a solution on deck — in the form of a 250-260 horse V-6 that will become available later in the model year (or in early spring/summer 2007). It’s just unfortunate this powertrain wasn’t offered from the get-go. Pontiac — which is supposed to be an enthusiast driver’s brand — may suffer for the disconnect between the G6’s toned appearance and its middle-aged-spread performance.

Like the soon-to-be-dropped GTO, the G6 retractable hardtop may wind up a victim of ineffective marketing and brand positioning — rather than any defect or problem with the car as such.

Had Pontiac brought out the new GTO as a the “Pontiac GT” (or something like that — so long as it wasn’t “GTO”) there wouldn’t have been the inevitable and unfortunate comparisons between the sedate-looking sleeper and its raucous muscle car namesake of the 1960s. Likewise, Pontiac might have made a big mistake over-selling the performance image of the G6 given the absence of anything underhood to back it up.

Better to focus on the usable back seats, the attractive lines — and the coolness of a retractable hardtop for less than $30k.

But then there’s that new VW Eos to worry about…

Throw it in the Woods?

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