A new chassis, and a few new wrinkles - in the pavement.

by Robert Ahl

Bonneville is the name of the famous salt flats in Utah where battles for land speed records have been fought since the 1930s. It is also the name of Pontiac’s largest sedan, and it’s one of GM’s oldest nameplates.

The first Bonneville of 1958 was a limited-production hot-rod version of Pontiac’s two-door sedan, with a fuel-injected 6.0-liter V-8 (370 cid) that made 315 horsepower. Bonnevilles after that weren’t always that wild. But since 1993, Pontiac has offered a supercharged version of the Bonneville with wide tires, a stiff suspension, and flashy styling that captures much of the original Bonneville’s excitement. It’s called the SSEi, and it’s just been redesigned, along with base-level Bonnevilles, for 2000.

The new Bonneville shares GM’s "G" chassis, which was first seen on the Oldsmobile Aurora and is currently the chassis for the Cadillac Seville and Buick LeSabre. With the platform, the new Bonneville is 62-percent improved in torsional stiffness, and 27-percent better in bending stiffness compared with last year’s model. Last year’s model wasn’t very stiff, though, so those numbers don’t tell us much. Over a bumpy road, the new Bonneville doesn’t feel as tight as a BMW 7-Series. But when compared to cars more in the Bonneville’s price range, such as the Chrysler 300M, the Bonneville’s structure feels stiff enough.

"G"-car apogee

Suspensionwise, the Bonneville SSEi has the same struts up front and control arms in the rear as the LeSabre and Seville. Its bushings and anti-roll bars, though, are the stiffest yet seen on this platform, and its tires are the widest, and lowest in profile, too. The result is the best ride-handling compromise we’ve experienced in any "G" car. While we would like a bit more roll control, the suspension does a good job of controlling body motions most of the time. Yet its ride is smooth. Surprisingly, the SSEi is almost as quiet inside at speed as many expensive luxury cars.

Turn the steering wheel, and the SSEi responds sharply and accurately. The steering lacks the feel, though, that we would expect from a sporty sedan. The SSEi comes with GM’s Magnasteer power steering with magnetic variable assist, which allows engineers to vary the amount of assist electronically. GM has been improving Magnasteer, which in earlier forms made the steering of cars like the Seville and Aurora feel heavy and artificial. The Bonneville SSEi’s steering doesn’t suffer from this problem. Effort seems to build naturally as you turn the wheel, and system is more than adequate for a fast drive down a twisty road.

The steering of this front-wheel-driver strays from its path slightly during acceleration. We’re surprised it doesn’t stray more, considering the SSEi’s powerful engine. It’s the same supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 we’ve seen in the Buick Regal GS and Buick Park Avenue Ultra. The blown V-6’s 240 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque are enough to accelerate the SSEi to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, and on to a governed top speed of 126 mph.

The six received a few refinements this year to reduce noise, including a new engine mount, crankshaft damper, and exhaust manifold. The changes make this engine even smoother and quieter throughout its rev range than it was last year. Obviously, with its pushrods and 6000-rpm redline, this engine can’t offer the thrilling sounds of a higher-winding DOHC engine. The engine hums happily, at least, and the whine of the supercharger adds some spice to the driving experience.

The standard transmission is GM’s 4T60-E four-speed automatic. We’ve had no complaints about this transmission in other GM models, but in the sporty SSEi, it’s a disappointment. For starters, it doesn’t come with a Tiptronic-style manual shifter gate, which is a strange omission in a new sporty sedan. Furthermore, when you shift the lever yourself, the transmission still doesn’t cooperate. It forces a 1-2 gearshift at 5500 rpm, which is 500 rpm below the redline. Yet, in second gear, it allows the engine to rev to the engine’s fuel shutoff at 5800 rpm, which is 200 rpm below redline. On a challenging road, these minor problems become annoyances. This is one of those automatics that is best left in "Drive," where it shifts more or less appropriately. We expected more from this Pontiac, however.

The brakes are a brighter story. GM has been improving the brakes of many of its larger cars and trucks recently, and the Bonneville is no exception. Its four-wheel-disc setup with ABS provided consistent, no-drama stops even from high speeds. Braking distances were competitive with many European sedans, too. The pedal remained pleasingly firm, even after multiple stops.

Practical aesthetics

Whatever its athletic abilities, the Bonneville remains a practical car. There’s ample room in front for two passengers and sufficient room in back for three, even for long trips. The SSEi is also an excellent value. Its $32,250 base price includes an astonishing list of standard equipment. Aside from power windows and locks, keyless entry and an alarm, cruise control and automatic driver/passenger climate controls, there’s also traction control, front-seat side airbags, power seats with memory, leather seats, and automatic load leveling (with air-pressurized rear shocks). The SSEi comes with GM’s "Stabilitrak" stability-control system and GM’s unique "EyeCue," which displays the speedometer reading (and turn-signal indicators) in the windshield. The display can be adjusted for height and brightness or can be turned off. A powerful Bose stereo with cassette and CD player is also provided.

As for this Bonneville’s styling, we’ll call it controversial. For the SSEi, Pontiac designers took a cue from the 1999 Grand Am GT and styled a dramatic front end with a drooping grille, sharp-edged body side moldings, and a rear trunk spoiler to distinguish the SSEi from the base Bonneville. The look seems complicated and over-styled, especially when compared to the clean form of Chrysler’s 300M. Overdone or not, the styling does clearly distinguish the Bonneville from its G-body relatives. It also reinforces Pontiac’s image in GM’s famous marketing strategy.

Inside, the space-age theme continues. The dramatically curved instrument panel has eight little identical jetlike vents facing the driver and passenger. With few exceptions, the controls are well-placed, and the steering wheel contains convenient switches for the stereo and cruise control. There’s an excess of hard plastic on some surfaces. But what would you expect for a large, fast car at this price and with this amount of equipment?

This Pontiac is not a sport sedan without wrinkles. But it remains an enjoyable car to drive hard, it doesn’t look like anything else on the road, and its price is unbeatable. That should be enough to successfully carry on the Bonneville nameplate for yet one more decade.

2000 Pontiac Bonneville SSEi

Base Price: $32,250

Engine: supercharged 3.8-liter V-6, 240 hp

Transmission: electronically controlled four-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 112.2 in
Length: 202.6 in
Width: 74.2 in
Height: 56.6 in
Weight: 3590 lb

Major standard equipment:
240-hp supercharged V-6
StabiliTrak cornering-stability system
Bose eight-speaker sound system
EyeCue head-up display
Universal garage door opener

© The Car Connection

 

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