The goat is being put out to pasture. Again.

General Motors Corp. in June will halt production of its high-performance Pontiac GTO, affectionately dubbed the goat when it first bowed in the 1960s and helped pioneer the muscle-car era.

At the same time, Pontiac says it actively is pursuing a V-8 powered rear-wheel-drive performance model for its lineup, stopping short of saying if the GTO will make a return as a U.S.-built model.

Nor does the auto maker say if it might bring back the Pontiac Firebird that was discontinued in 2002, along with the Chevrolet Camaro.

The GTO returned to the Pontiac lineup in December 2003 but was saddled with problems from the outset.

It was derived from the Holden Monaro and built by GM Holden Ltd., GM’s subsidiary in Australia. That meant lengthy and costly shipping to the U.S.

And the car's bland styling, especially the absence of signature hood scoops from the 1970s, turned off enthusiasts.

GM also blundered by introducing the car in the Midwest in the dead of winter rather than in warmer California.

"We underestimated how popular the car would be in California," a Pontiac spokesman says.

It took nearly a year to get GTOs in any numbers to the West Coast, which proved to be the No.1 market for the cars.

GM had expected to sell 18,000 annually but never came close. It sold only 13,569 in 2004 and 11,590 in 2005, when it finally added hood scoops demanded by enthusiasts and upgraded the engine from a 350-hp 5.7L V-8 to a 400-hp 6.0L V-8.

The price was lowered by more than $1,000 for 2006, to $31,990, down from $32,995 for 2005. But sales for the first two months total only 594, a 33.9% falloff from year-ago, according to Ward’s.

GM says it will produce 10,000-12,000 ’06 GTOs before production at the Adelaide plant ends in June. The final vehicles will reach showrooms in late July or August.

"We're sorry to see it go,” says the spokesman. “It took 30 years to put that name back on a Pontiac car. GTO did what it needed to do, give us a credible performance vehicle to attract people into showrooms. Even those who quibbled about the styling never questioned the car's performance."

Two factors contributed to the demise of the GTO, officials say: Federal regulations on airbag deployment that would have necessitated costly changes to the car and plans by GM Holden to phase out the Monaro. (See related story: GM Holden May Revive Chevrolet Brand With New Camaro )

Dropping the GTO coincides with GM’s development of Zeta, a RWD car architecture that originally was expected to build the next-generation GTO, as well as a variety of Chevy and Pontiac vehicles, less expensively in the U.S.

GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, head of advance product development, long has said he wanted to build the GTO more cost-effectively in the U.S. and eliminate delays in shipping the car from Australia.(See related story: GM Dumps Zeta in North America )

GM's financial woes shelved the U.S. portion of Zeta last year, while work proceeded in Australia.

But in introducing the new Camaro concept at the North American International Auto Show in January, Lutz tells Ward’s Zeta was not dead in the U.S. “It was only in a state of slumber, because that was one we had to stop and start all over again. We didn’t like the economics the first time around.” (See related story: GM to Decide Quickly on Camaro Production )

"We hear Lutz went back and got cost out so it could generate a profit," says Catherine Madden, an analyst with Global Insight.

"The Zeta platform will support a car by 2009 to compete against the 300 at Chrysler, as well as a return of the Camaro and a Pontiac product, though we aren't sure what that would be as yet,” she says. “We had heard the platform might support a Chevy Chevelle, as well, but that might be out of the program for now.”

North American production of Zeta may mean Mexico, Madden says, with parts and component sharing to keep costs down, but where they would be assembled still is unknown.

The Canadian Auto Workers union is lobbying for assembly in Oshawa, Ont., Canada, where plant No.2 is to be shuttered in 2008 and No.1, which loses its third shift later this year, builds vehicles that could move to the Zeta platform.

Additionally, it was a Canadian plant in Ste. Therese, Que., that built the last Camaro and Firebird. The plant since has been demolished.

While not commenting on the return of Zeta, the Pontiac spokesman says GM actively is exploring a RWD V-8 car for its lineup, sees a place for RWD vehicles in today’s market and is pursuing ways to use a RWD platform for a performance vehicle.

– with Alisa Priddle