I recently realized that, for all the criticism General Motors received in the mid-2000s, the automaker sure took a lot of risks it wouldn’t take today. In fact, when you look back on GM’s lineup in the 2000s, you’re kind of proud of all the weird they injected into it — some of which was actually successful.
I’ll start here with a few vehicles everyone knows about, namely the Chevrolet SSR and the GMC Envoy XUV. The SSR was a retro-themed convertible pickup truck thing, and it sold terribly, and the GMC Envoy XUV was an SUV designed to carry grandfather clocks and book cases, and it sold terribly, as well. This was sort of a theme of many of these mid-2000s General Motors risks: poor sales.
But even though sales of some of these vehicles were poor, they weren’t always bad ideas. Take, for instance, Quadrasteer, which was a 4-wheel steering system General Motors offered in its pickup trucks and full-size SUVs. This system transformed the turning circle of a GMC Sierra into the turning circle of a Saturn Ion — and it was a great idea for truck owners who needed to reverse or move around in tight spaces, like construction sites or small driveways. Sales weren’t huge and GM canceled the system, but the idea was brilliant — and, disappointingly, there’s been nothing like it from any automaker since.
Another risk GM took that didn’t pan out was importing cars from Australia. In the early 2000s, GM had the bright idea to revive the Pontiac GTO by bringing over the Holden Monaro from Australia and throwing on a GTO badge — not a bad idea, though many questioned the Monaro’s relatively anonymous styling. It didn’t sell, but reviving the GTO was certainly cool — and GM reprised the idea of Australian imports with the Pontiac G8 a few years later. The last Australian import General Motors vehicle, the fleet-only Chevy Caprice, was discontinued last year.
Other odd GM ideas in the mid-2000s: stuffing a Honda engine into the Saturn Vue, and then creating a high-performance version of the Vue called the Vue Red Line. Creating a 2-seater, rear-wheel drive sports car — the Saturn Sky and the Pontiac Solstice — to rival the Mazda Miata. Can you imagine GM doing this now, in a time of SUVs and streamlining brand lineups? How about the Pontiac Aztek, a camping-oriented crossover with bizarre styling that was probably ahead of its time in its aim at "active lifestyle" people? These were all interesting ideas with varying degrees of brilliance — but the main theme is they’d probably never happen today.
Then there were a few ideas that did actually pan out. The Chevy HHR was an attempt to capitalize on the retro trend sweeping through the car industry in the mid-2000s, and it sold relatively well during its only generation. Someone came up with the idea of a high-performance Chevy Corvette, the Z06, which has been a big success. Someone else came up with the idea of shoving the Z06’s engine in a Cadillac, the CTS-V, which has also found success. And the Chevy Avalanche and the luxury version of the Cadillac Escalade EXT, bizarre though they seemed on paper, sold very well and enjoyed two relatively popular generations before their time came.
These days, GM’s lineup is solid, with a lot of strong sellers and good products — but the wacky, crazy vehicles that came out of GM 10 to 15 years ago are proof that the company once took a lot more risks. Of course, the fact that many of them didn’t pan out is probably a major reason why they don’t take as many risks today — but I’m still glad there as a time when such risk-taking was more common.