Pontiac adds elegance to its excitement formula.by Mitch McCullough
As GM marches forward with its plans to create specific identities for its various divisions and model lines, Pontiac is fortunate to already have a clear image for its models, and the big Bonneville is no exception. There's just no mistaking the Bonneville for something other than a Pontiac.
A large American sedan and sporty driving don't usually go together, but the Bonneville manages to pull off this unlikely combination. It delivers quick acceleration, responsive handling, a comfortable ride, plenty of passenger space and sporty styling.
For '96, the Bonneville has some subtle styling revisions that add considerable elegance to the overall look. It doesn't shout "Pontiac Excitement" quite as loudly, and the change is for the better. The headlights and taillights have been integrated into unitized aerodynamic assemblies, the front fenders and bodyside moldings are smoother and the trunk lid, rear spoiler and grille have been redesigned.
If you want still more subdued styling in this class, take a look at the Oldsmobile Eighty Eight LS or LSS, or perhaps the Buick LeSabre, cars that share the same basic chassis and engine as the Pontiac.
The Bonneville offers a choice of two models, the SE and SSE, along with two special packages, SLE and SSEi. The basic $21,589 SE includes a high level of standard equipment. The $26,559 SSE comes with a higher level of standard equipment, 16-inch aluminum wheels, a sports suspension, a rear spoiler, sportier side moldings and a sportier front air dam. The SLE is essentially a supercharged SE, the SSEi a supercharged SSE.
We drove both the SE and SSEi. Overall, we prefer the more restrained looks of the SE and SLE over the somewhat flashier appearance of the SSE and SSEi. And careful selection of options can add virtually any of the items found on the SSE to the less expensive SE.
All Bonnevilles come standard with safety features such as dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights, rear-door child safety locks and rear-seat child shoulder-harness guides. Optional safety-related gear includes traction control, a head-up display and steering wheel radio controls.
Numerous systems are designed to make operating the Bonneville a carefree experience. One such system prevents the battery from running down by turning off all accessory lights if they are left on more than 10 minutes with the ignition off. Likewise, the keyless entry system is programmable, allowing drivers to personalize how and when the doors are locked and how and when the headlights turn on and off. Another feature prevents drivers from locking the doors with the key in the ignition.
The Twilight Sentinel system turns on the headlights when it gets dark and turns them off a programmed length of time after the ignition is switched off.
The Inside Story
Overall, the Bonneville SSEi is in the Pontiac tradition, which interprets "excitement" to mean a snazzy interior with lots of gadgets.
The interior comes with a choice of cloth or leather and the option of a front bench or a pair of bucket seats. The optional power seat controls are either located conveniently on the side of the seat or on the center console, depending on the type of package ordered.
Our Bonneville, a basic black SSEi, came with the top-of-the-line 12-way adjustable leather bucket seats. The console-mounted seat controls with this system include nine buttons to adjust the front seats, with a mode switch for switching between driver and passenger adjustments. We thought this system makes the console look too much like a touch-tone command center and wondered whether dust and debris would accumulate among the buttons over time. Don't spill the coffee around here. Three different buttons control the lumbar support, but none of the settings was particularly effective.
Five more buttons, arrayed like sentries along the console-mounted shifter, are used to select among three driving modes. Two buttons control shock absorber damping -- one for the normal touring mode, the other for the firmer performance mode. Two buttons control shifting -- one for normal driving, the other for maximum acceleration performance. The remaining button is used to switch the traction control system on or off.
We couldn't decide whether we liked the optional head-up display that projects the speed, turn signal indicators and warning lights, such as the low-fuel indicator, onto the windshield. The intensity of the display can be adjusted using the dimmer switch or turned off, and this display does seem to be an improvement over similar systems we've seen in other cars.
Large analog speedometer and tachometer dials dominate the instrument display, flanked by an attractive, highly legible assortment of traditional analog readouts that include oil pressure, coolant temperature, battery voltage and fuel quantity. Overall, it's an attractive layout.
Another "excitement" element is an optional electronic compass on the far left of the instrument panel that looks like it could be a fly-to indicator for a jet fighter coming in for a landing. This is balanced on the right with an electronic outline of the car warning the driver of doors not fully closed, an open trunk or low fuel.
The optional electronic climate control system, meanwhile, provides a digital map of the air temperature and velocity along with its source. Like many climate control systems, it turns on the air conditioning compressor even when it's 20 degrees outside.
The stereo system controls are easy to operate, whether adjusting the volume with the relatively large knob or using the optional steering wheel controls.
An optional electronic load-leveling system detects when weight is added to the rear seats or trunk and causes a compressor to pump air into the rear shocks to raise the rear of the car. This system comes with a thoughtful trunk accessory kit that includes a spotlight, first-aid kit, gloves, a windshield scraper and an air hose. The air hose can also be screwed onto an air valve in the trunk, allowing the compressor to be used to inflate a tire or that inflatable raft.
Ride & Drive
The Bonneville provides relatively rapid transport, so choosing between the two 3.8-liter V-6 engines available comes down to whether you want to go fast or faster. The base 205-horsepower 3800 Series II V-6 is a solid powerplant that delivers exceptional acceleration. There's no shortage of power for merging onto the freeway and the generous torque provides quick, effortless acceleration. This engine is a smooth companion around town and achieves 30 mpg on 87-octane fuel on the highway.
The supercharged 3800 Series II V-6 adds even more power to this equation and the truly power hungry will find it delightful. However, it also adds about a thousand bucks to the purchase cost, drops fuel economy to 26 mpg on the highway and is a little noisier than the standard V-6.
The engine and smooth four-speed automatic is one element that helps make the Bonneville fun to drive. The other element is the suspension, which has been revised this year to reduce body roll in the corners and improve road feel. Pontiac's optional Computer Command Ride system adjusts shock absorber performance to how the car is being driven by measuring steering inputs and acceleration and braking rates.
A new speed-sensitive power steering system improves road feel, while making it easier to park.
Freeway driving is clearly the Bonneville's forte, with handling best suited to fast sweeping turns and working through brisk traffic. The big Bonneville is a little less comfortable on tight twisting roads, but still superior to a good many other vehicles in its class. The suspension is relatively firm, but does a good job of soaking up potholes and smoothing ripply interstates and road irregularities.
A Bonneville SE with the base 3800 Series II V-6 is a fast car. Equipped with the supercharged version it's even faster. It's quicker than the Dodge Intrepid, Lexus ES300 and Mazda Millenia, though it costs a bit more than the Intrepid and lacks some of the sophistication of the ES300 and Millenia.
No matter how you order it, the Bonneville is a good choice for drivers who want an affordable large American car with sport sedan performance. However, with all the SSEi goodies, it does creep into the luxury car realm. If you can live without the extra flash, one of the lesser models is a better buy.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.