Pontiac’s mainstream sedan gets along swimmingly - with fins, strakes, scoops, and bulges.

by Robert Ahl

If this Pontiac’s styling looks a little bit weird to you, blame GM’s marketing wizards. They were hired from various consumer products companies in the early 1990s, when GM was in serious trouble, and its divisions were having an identity crisis. The marketing wizards invented “brand management,” a set of strict rules that would define and distinguish each GM division.

By that plan, Pontiac was to be the “excitement” division. Every new Pontiac since then has had wilder styling than the car it replaced. The new-for-1999 Grand Am, with its swoopy nose, cat's-eye headlamps, tacked-on body cladding, and strange optional finned trunklid spoiler, is no exception.

To see just how wild this styling is, you need only to park the Grand Am next to its technical twin at Oldsmobile, the new Alero. Oldsmobile is the division that’s supposed to attract import-car customers, and the Alero’s conservative styling makes the Grand Am look almost outrageous in comparison. But Pontiac knows what its doing. The Grand Am’s combination of sporty styling and a modest price has made it Pontiac’s best-selling car for at least a decade. And Pontiac is not about to change that successful formula.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t time for a change. The previous Grand Am had been around since 1992, and it showed, with its twisty body structure, mediocre handling, and overall lack of refinement. The 1999 model is almost all-new from the ground up. The only carry-over part is the base four-cylinder engine.

Grand Ams come with two or four doors, and in two models - a base SE, and a higher performance GT. The GT version, at $19,995, is well-equipped, with air conditioning, traction control, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, a stiffer suspension, and an appearance package with fender skirts and a standard rear wing. Under the hood, the GT gets a special version of the Grand Am’s optional iron-block, pushrod 3.4-liter 170-horsepower V-6. The GT’s V-6 gets “Ram Air” underhood cold-air induction, a trick from Pontiac’s muscle-car days of the 1960s. It also gets a low-restriction exhaust system. The Ram-Air and exhaust stuff adds five more horsepower and 10 more lb-ft of torque to the V-6, making for 175 horsepower and 205 lb-ft of torque.

All Grand Ams get four-speed automatic transmissions, and the GT is no exception. A performance car that doesn’t offer a manual may seem like a joke. But Pontiac is merely saving its money - it knows that Americans prefer automatics even on their performance cars. A manual may be offered sometime in the future.

The lack of a manual transmission is just the first of a number of annoying performance contradictions on this car. The tachometer is redlined at 6200 rpm, but the fuel shuts off at 5900 rpm, and the automatic shifts 100 rpm before that. A 150-mph speedometer and V-rated tires, for example, suggest an unrestricted top speed, but a speed governor cuts off the fun at 126 mph.

Most of the time, though, the drivetrain delivers respectable performance. It accelerates the Grand Am to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds, which matches the acceleration of V-6-powered competitors like the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The automatic transmission may shift prematurely, but at least it has well-spaced gear ratios, smooth upshifts, and prompt downshifts. No Tiptronic-type shift-gate is offered, although Pontiac says there may be one in the future - just like it says with the manual transmission.

The picture brightens with the rest of this car. The Grand Am’s new body feels incredibly stiff and is a terrific improvement on the old body. Its structural rigidity is 25 Hz, a 32-percent improvement from last year. There were no squeaks or rattles in our pre-production test car. It suggests lasting quality - something that is not often said of GM products.

The Grand Am’s four-strut suspension uses control arms up front and a multilink arrangement in the rear. The GT comes with stiffer bushings, springs, and anti-roll bars than the SE model's. Pontiac did its homework with this suspension, which is a noticeable improvement over the soft suspension of the SE model. With Goodyear Eagle RS-A P225/50VR-16 tires, the GT could round a corner with 0.82 g of grip, about as much as could be asked of a front-wheel-drive performance sedan. Yet the ride remained well-damped, and impact harshness of bumps was minimal.

The GT comes with GM’s EVO variable-rate power rack-and-pinion steering. Variable-assist power steering has been a source of complaints on other GM products, but Pontiac got it right on the GT. It makes the Grand Am change directions quickly and confidently. It also seems to have just the right amount of assist at all times, and you can’t notice the change in assist as you drive. It doesn’t have quite the feel and feedback of a Volkswagen Passat, but then again, it’s in a less-expensive car.

Critics have come to expect mediocre braking from many GM cars, but the Grand Am GT is an improvement in that area, too. All Grand Ams come with anti-lock brakes, and the GT comes with four-wheel discs, too. Stopping ability and pedal feel are virtually world-class for a car of this price. Multiple hard stops produced only slight fade, about as much as many moderately priced German sedans we’ve tested.

The interior’s styling is about as dramatic as it gets for a sedan of any kind. The tachometer and speedometer are housed inside two huge rounded hoods (Pontiac insiders have jokingly referred to these as “brassiere gauges”). Big eyeball air vents bulge out of the curved dashboard in matching fashion. But the curvy interior remains tasteful and actually works pretty well. All the controls are easy to reach, and the switch feel matches that of Japanese competition.

However, the front seats are not as comfortable as they should be despite their many adjustments. Two passengers fit comfortably in the rear seats, and three will fit for short trips, although passengers sit low so heads will clear the Grand Am’s swoopy roofline.

That crazy exterior styling actually has some benefits. The tacked-on body cladding helps avoid door dents from shopping carts and other drivers' doors. The GT’s drag coefficient is a slippery 0.30, and careful body detailing makes for almost no wind noise at 100 mph. The clear-lens headlamps are powerful, and front fog lights are standard. The Grand Am also has lights at the corners of the rear bumper that illuminate objects to the side when backing up.

Ford offers a better car for U.S. enthusiasts than this Grand Am. The Contour SVT comes with a high-winding 195 horsepower DOHC V-6 mated to a manual transmission, and it’s more tastefully styled, too. But it’s also $3,000 more expensive than the Grand Am GT, and isn’t as roomy inside.

The Grand Am GT’s styling might suggest more than it delivers, but the GT’s performance certainly isn’t a total loss. And in this country, wild styling on an inexpensive car that seats five is exactly what many car buyers are looking for, regardless of performance. The new Grand Am offers more than enough to keep sales at their 200,000-unit-a-year level.

© The Car Connection

 

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