1997 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi
Excitement doesn't mean cramped.by Paul A. Eisenstein
In the 1980s, it was difficult to tell one General Motors sedan from another as they appeared identical. But that isn't a problem with the Pontiac Bonneville. In spite of sharing its underpinnings with the equally competent Oldsmobile Eighty Eight and Buick LeSabre models, Pontiac's handsome four-door remains one of the most visually and technically distinctive products in the GM lineup. And it underscores Pontiac's position as GM's youthful, sporty division.
With the competition relentlessly rolling out new products, one might expect the Bonneville to look and feel somewhat dated, yet it remains fresh, thanks partly to this year's enhancements.
Bonneville is a sports sedan that will appeal to enthusiasts despite, or perhaps because of, its size. And there's a package and powertrain to fit almost any need or budget.
The Bonneville was one of the first truly modern designs to roll out of the GM styling studios and it remains contemporary. Based on the same platform as the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight and Buick LeSabre, you'll see some family resemblance, though the Bonneville is the more youthful and sporty package.
Indeed, its shape has had strong influence over the entire Pontiac model line. Bonneville is curvaceous without being soft, like some of the marshmallow designs that have become popular in recent years. And it continues to draw envious stares.
Bonneville comes in two basic models. The SE competes with the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Nissan Maxima, but it's one of the most well-equipped models in this group. The SSE goes up against the more upscale Chrysler LHS, Mazda Millenia and Toyota Avalon. From the outside, the SSE is distinguished from the SE by its ribbed side moldings and ground effects package.
If you're looking for a little more performance, upgrade the SE to the Sport Luxury Edition, or SLE package. You'll get sporty 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels, leather bucket seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and cobra-head shifter. If you need a bigger kick, add the supercharger option, pumping the 3800 Series II engine up to a tire-smoking 240 horsepower. The supercharged engine is also available on an upgraded SSE package, called the SSEi, which we drove.
The Inside Story
Pontiac calls the leather that wrapped the doors and seats dark pewter. It's a rich yet subtle hue with European-style stitching. The gray plastic buttons on the heating/air conditioning console diminish the otherwise attractive effect.
The other controls are darker, better grained, and more organic in shape. The stereo system, especially the upgraded Bose package in our tester, would match the performance of an expensive home system. The controls work well, with a large volume knob adjacent to a smaller dial for tuning. If you'd prefer not to take your hands off the wheel, often-used controls are designed into the steering wheel hub. A deft touch of the index finger is all that's needed to change stations or adjust the volume. Thankfully, Pontiac engineers have gotten away from earlier pod designs that embedded as many as 25 different controls in a confusing cluster smack in the center of the steering wheel. However, they still maintained an array of buttons on the center console.
There are nine separate ways to adjust the seats and it takes careful attention to make sense of the smallish icons that tell you which adjustment does what. More than once we attempted to slide our seats forward, only to have the lumbar support try to rearrange our kidneys. But, when you get the hang of things, you'll find the bucket seats comfortable and supportive, even in harsh maneuvering.
And even with the front seats all the way back on their tracks, your rear seat passengers will find more than adequate leg room. This car has acres of space and uses it well.
The instrument panel is a clean, performance-oriented design but it may be the most dated part of the car. The analog gauges say performance, but the look is a little one-dimensional. There are two, large LED displays, one a compass that tends to lag behind as you turn. The other an oversized Information Center alerting you to a variety of potential problems, such as low fuel or an open door.
Perhaps the most notable feature is the Head-Up Display, or HUD, offered as an option on SSE and SSEi models. This technology, borrowed from military fighter jets, projects images onto the windshield in your line of sight. The main display is a digital speedometer. We found it consistently disagreed with the instrument panel's analog speedometer by a couple of miles an hour. There are those who like and those who dislike HUD. We appreciate the way it helped us prevent a potential problem when, on a long drive on a lonely freeway, a little gas pump popped into view reminding us we were about to run out of gas.
Dual airbags are standard fare. So are daytime running lights.
Ride & Drive
There's been a long-running argument whether it's better to have two valves or four, push rods or overhead cams. The Bonneville's 3800 Series II V-6 convincingly argues for the simpler, pushrod design. This engine delivers lots of power and responsiveness, surprisingly good mileage and environmentally friendly emissions numbers. Normally aspirated, the Series II delivers a comforting 205 hp and 230 lb-ft of torque. Opting for the supercharger increases the pony count to 240 and torque jumps to 280 lb-ft.
Better yet, with the supercharged engine, you'll get a new, electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission. It's designed to handle the extra power and allows selection between normal or performance shift modes. The latter lets you wind out the engine under heavy acceleration, approximating the feel of a manual shift.
The Bonneville features front disc and rear drum brakes. Anti-lock brakes are standard equipment across the model line, and traction control is an option.
The base Bonneville SE comes with conventional power steering. With the SSE and SSEi, you get GM's Magnasteer system, an option on the SE and SLE, which uses an innovative magnetic control to reduce the amount of effort needed to steer at low speeds. The faster you go, the less boost you get, improving road stability. Magnasteer is a definite improvement, though we find that it still doesn't deliver quite the precise feeling of contact with the road that you get from European sports sedans.
The overall ride is a pleasant compromise. It's not quite as stiff and responsive as a BMW, but offers much more precise ride and handling than Detroit's traditional boulevard cruisers.
The one minor problem we experienced is something known as torque steer. Under very aggressive acceleration, the car had a tendency to pull to one side. It's a common problem with powerful front-wheel-drive cars.
The Final Word
For those used to compact imports, the Bonneville may seem bulky, but don't let its size fool you. This Pontiac sedan is quick, nimble, stylish and, yes, quite roomy.
And while it may be big on the outside, Bonneville is a relatively compact package in terms of the dent it will make on your wallet. Sure, you can load up on options, or order the fully-equipped SSEi, but the base SE will meet the needs of most buyers.
The Bonneville, whichever model, should rank high on the shopping list of those who want room without sacrificing performance.
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© 1997 New Car Test Drive, Inc.