Given Bob Lutz's well-known predilections for sports cars and big engines, it's easy to see why Pontiac is getting so much attention these days. For going on 20 years, the division has boasted excitement by drafting off its latent muscle car heritage, but has had precious few cars to back it up.
Almost from the start of Lutz's tenure as product development boss at GM, he has been trying to get Pontiac some cool cars that help the directionless division rediscover its sporty pedigree. He held up the launch of the Grand Prix to give the car a little cleaner styling and better handling. Lutz also grabbed the Holden Monaro from GM's Australian operations and dubbed it the new GTO.
Now comes the Bonneville GXP, which will be the first entry in Pontiac's new line of performance cars. The GXP gets a Northstar V-8 engine and a dose of re-engineering in the chassis and suspension. It's basically a stock Bonneville on androstenedione - the Mark McGwire drug. The entire car is clearly nicer than the regular Bonneville and even the SSEi, which used to be the top-shelf car in Pontiac's line.
Forgive me for being harsh, but just stuffing a V-8 into the ole Bonne seems vaguely like plugging a Pentium V and some RAM cards into your five-year-old Packard Bell. You may have the speed and memory, but the performance will be kludgy. Like a lot of the supposed new stuff coming from Pontiac, the Bonneville GXP just seems like the best GM could do on short funds and without having actually planned a Cadillac-style makeover for the division four or five years ago. One may have to get a GTO or wait for the arrival of next year's G6, which replaces the Grand Am, before really witnessing any kind of rebirth.
The GXP gets a little more impressive once you fire up the ignition. GM did a nice job of making a big, front-wheel-drive sedan into a pretty good driver. The 4.6-liter, 32-valve Northstar engine has always been a nice motor, and it's a huge upgrade over the 3.5-liter V-6 found in the Bonneville SE and SLE. Its 275 horsepower - 70 more than the Bonneville SE - and 300 pound-feet of torque is plenty of fun in the passing lane. Even though it has a four-speed automatic transmission, power transfers pretty smoothly thanks to the electronic transaxle. Pontiac boasts that the GXP can hit 60 miles per hour in a respectable 6.8 seconds. I had no trouble blowing by other cars on the California freeway. And braking with those big 14-inch front rotors was sharp and precise.
Smart engineering is evident on windy roads, as well. I drove the car around Santa Barbara, darting in an out of traffic and diving into tight turns in the hills east of the coastline. For an old car on an old platform, I found I could really throw it around. Traction control comes standard. And with its 18-inch wheels and V-rated tires, the car holds it ground well even in aggressive driving. GM engineers spent 1000 hours testing the suspension, and the result is a car that can handle more than most drivers can really dish out. GM's Magnasteer system is standard, and it cuts down on understeer that is typical of many front-wheel drive cars that dare take a stab at performance. The steering system also gives the driver point-and-shoot control at high speeds.
Stylistically, GM designers did as much as they could, given that the car's major sheetmetal didn't really change. A new front fascia with a bigger grille is a nice touch. The screen in the grille's portholes comes flush with the bumper and surrounding plastic, and it looks a lot cleaner than anything most people expect from Pontiac. The sides have been completely stripped of the plastic cladding that has kept Pontiac a mainstay of the buzzcut and gold chains crowd for years. Stylists also removed the busy black lines from the taillights, so they don't look like the crisscrossed black tape that Eddie Van Halen used to stick on his guitar back in 1984.
GM is still trying to figure out interiors. But here, too, they made a few adjustments to freshen it up. Pontiac sewed in some suede inserts in the seats and door panels. Brushed aluminum adorns the shifter. The air vents are surrounded by brushed nickel, the steering wheel gets some carbon fiber treatments and the stainless steel foot pedals are a nice touch. All of those improvements spruce up an otherwise dated interior, which for the most part still carries a lot of cheap plastic that is typical of many 1990s-vintage GM cars. Since it is a Bonneville, it's got plenty of room in the front and rear. It also has an eight-speaker Monsoon sound system, an upgrade over the Bonneville SE and SLE.
Does it sound like I ended up really liking the car? In all, the GXP is pretty good. But I was still left with one question: Why buy this thing for almost $38,000? Just think about the sporty sedans you can buy for that much scratch. A well-equipped BMW 3-Series. A loaded up Cadillac CTS, perhaps. An Infiniti G35 coupe, anyone? Buy Pontiac's own GTO, and you'd have a few thousand bucks to spare. All of those cars are nicer inside, carry more prestigious names, and handle at least as well. GM's marketers say that the car is really for Pontiac loyalists, the guys who want a really big car with a V-8. And they're right. But that crowd is thinning and will continue to do so until some really new cars hit the market.
2004 Pontiac Bonneville GXP
Base price/as equipped : $35,995 (automatic); $37,600 (automatic)
Engine: 4.6-liter V-8, 275 hp/300 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 206.6 x 74.2 x 56.6 in
Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Curb weight: 3790 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 20/29 mpg (automatic)
Safety equipment: Vented front and power-assisted rear discs, four-wheel ABS available, StabiliTrak, driver and front-passenger side-impact airbags
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power driver's seat, cruise control, AM/FM CD sound system, 18-inch V-rated tires on aluminum wheels
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles