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CHICAGO – The Pontiac G8, the highly anticipated rebadged Holden Commodore SS, could be both halo vehicle and life preserver for what many consider a sinking brand.

Revealed here today at the Chicago auto show, the G8 will be the first North American vehicle based on General Motors Corp.’s new global rear-wheel-drive architecture (Zeta) that also will underpin the ’09 Chevrolet Camaro.

The G8 is slated to enter Pontiac/Buick/GMC dealers in early 2008, and it doesn’t come a moment too soon.

“As a halo vehicle, it’s really going to give Pontiac a shot in the arm and provide the product Pontiac needs to support that image of the performance brand,” Eric Merkle, auto analyst with IRN Inc., says.

It’s the second time in four years GM has tried to take advantage of the RWD platform developed by Australia’s GM Holden Ltd. for the U.S. market.

The Pontiac GTO coupe, based on the Holden Monaro, flopped in the U.S. amid complaints of bland styling.

The auto maker is hoping the 4-door G8, which comes in both base and GT models, will prove more practical to buyers.

“This will be something that, ‘yes, you can buy it, and it doesn’t have to be a third car,’” Merkel says.

The base G8 gets a 3.6L DOHC V-6 engine with variable valve timing rated at 261 hp. It is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode.

The brawnier GT benefits from a 6.0L small-block V-8 rated at 362 hp and 391 lb.-ft. of torque (530 Nm). A 6-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode is standard, and GM says a 6-speed manual will be available soon after the G8’s launch.

Pontiac intends to offer a sport package for both models that replaces the standard 18-in. wheels with 19-in. rims and performance tires on the GT.

A rear spoiler, leather shift knob, leather-wrapped steering wheel and alloy pedals are other perks the GT sport package will offer.

Inside, the GT gets an optional 2-tone cloth or leather combination of black/red or black/blue. Color-matched instrument faces will be available on certain exterior color combinations.

All G8s will sport a “modernized” Pontiac badge that replaces the silver outline with white.

GM Holden CEO Denny Mooney told an Australian newspaper last month the auto maker plans to export 30,000 Commodores to the U.S., a larger allotment than the GTO- Monaro export program.

In comments made before the G8’s reveal, Merkle estimates GM will aim to sell at least 40,000 V-8 G8s. Now that GM has confirmed two engine options, the export numbers could grow.

A 30,000-40,000-unit sales surge would be a welcome boon for Pontiac, GM’s worst-performing brand. The marque’s January sales were down 32.6% vs. year-ago, according to Ward’s data.

GM has pledged both V-6 and V-8 options for the ’09 Camaro coupe and plans to build 100,000 units in the first year.

The G8 will have a 1-year overlap with the Pontiac Grand Prix, which will finish its production run at the end of the ’08 model year.

scanderson@wardsauto.com