Overview

In 1992, Pontiac introduced the Bonneville SSEi - an upgraded, higher-priced version of its SE sports sedan-as a showcase vehicle for such technological gifts as a supercharged engine, traction control, heated side mirrors, leather seats, headlight washers and a power package that included a nine(!)-button power-seat system.

That gave buyers three Bonneville models to choose from: the basic SE, the mid-level SSE and the high-end SSEi. But for 1994, Pontiac streamlined its Bonneville models to two, dropping the SSEi and retaining the SE (roughly $20,000 MSRP) and the SSE (around $26,000).

Those who like a bit of luxury in their sedans needn't fret. Bonneville offers an SSEi Supercharger package as an option on the '94 SSE. For an additional $1,167, the package includes a 225-hp, 3800-Series supercharged V6 engine (a 20-hp increase over the '93 engine), a 2.97 rear-axle ratio (compared to 2.84 in the non-supercharged edition) and an electronically controlled, driver-selectable, four-speed automatic transmission that allows the driver to choose between "normal" and "performance" by pressing a button next to the gear shift.

The base price of our test model was $25,884. Optional equipment included the SSEi Supercharger package, 12-way power seats with leather seating surfaces, a power sunroof and a computer-command ride suspension that featured an adjustable damper for "touring" or "performance" suspension. Our priciest add-on was an option package that cost $1,440 and included remote keyless entry, a head-up instrument display, an eight-speaker sound system, a six-way passenger seat, an electronically controlled air conditioner, an anti-theft system and traction control. All this plus the destination charge brought the final price to $31,177.

Walkaround

Initially, the front end of the '94 SSE-with its futuristic, sleekly aerodynamic lines, compact luxury-edition grille, wraparound headlights and low-mounted foglights--suggests a Blade Runner hovercraft. However, closer inspection reveals form-meets-function modifications that take earthbound realities into account, such as the bodyside molding to deflect car door dings and four sprayers to wash road sludge from the headlights.

Mounted on the cast-aluminum wheels of our test car were a set of performance tires, which, like the gold-trimmed rear- and side-mounted nameplates, were part of the Supercharger package. In the back, dual exhausts, dramatically swept taillights and a rear-deck spoiler added to the SSE's aggressively sporty stance. We had to press the remote control switch twice before the trunk lid popped open, but when it did, it revealed a surprisingly spacious 18 cubic feet of space-big enough for two or three suitcases or about eight shopping bags.

One appreciated perk was the emergency road kit, chock full of extras such as white cotton gloves, a bright red rag, a first aid kit, an ice scraper and an air hose with a sturdy brass nozzle that could be attached to the trunk-mounted air compressor to inflate flat tires, air mattresses or basketballs.

Interior Features

The flashy dashboard driver information center on our test car had a high-tech attitude. An overhead diagram of the vehicle illuminated prior to ignition for a quick look at all of the systems being monitored: oil level and pressure, battery voltage, coolant temperature and level, washer fluid level, parking brake, traction control, hood ajar, trunk ajar and the list goes on. This preflight test also gave us a peek at the entire spectrum of directional indicators on the calibrated compass-a nifty graphic device with a rotating axis that showed which direction we were pointed.

At first, we fell victim to the too-many-choices syndrome when we encountered the myriad of options offered by the console's Power-seat system. Besides the obvious (forward, back, up and down) the seat tilted and rocked to adjust its angle relative to the floor. Plus, for the skeletally sensitive, there were three lumbar-support buttons in high, medium and low positions-a thoughtful addition. The front bucket seats had classy leather on the seating surfaces and vinyl on the sides.

An additional set of stereo controls was mounted on the leather-wrapped steering wheel. This might be handy for the easily distracted driver, but the buttons felt flimsily mounted and seemed easily breakable. In fact, they were almost superfluous; unlike so many vehicles, the SSE allows full access to the dash-mounted stereo knobs without having to reach around the gear shift-kudos to Pontiac engineers for this conscientious touch.

The rear seats, meanwhile, were comfortable and spacious enough for two adults and a child. The fold-down, rear-seat console was one of the roomiest and sturdiest we've seen, with two modular cupholders and a storage bin. And the rear-seat headrests were so ergonomically designed that you could take a nap and awake without any displaced vertebrae.

A dour note on the climate control: The Bonneville SSE does not permit the driver to choose from which vents the air will flow. This baffled and annoyed us.

Driving Impressions

The Bonneville gang managed to pump up the horses from 205 to 225 and increase the torque from 260 to 275 pound-feet without sacrificing fuel efficiency (17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway). And the increase in brawn was evident in the SSE's performance: It did 0 to 60 mph in eight seconds. During this acceleration we could hear the engine flexing its muscles, but it didn't make undue fuss. And the supercharged V6 purred in the cruise mode at just under 2,000 rpm at 65 mph.

With such spirited performance, we expected to give up a bit in ride comfort when hotdogging it. And physics dictates that SSE drivers will experience a bit of lean when hitting a tight corner in the 25-mph range. It's nothing a healthy urban adventurer can't weather.

Otherwise, the SSE drove like a dream, crisply maneuvering in and out of traffic with just one hand on the wheel. In fact, such is the SSE's high-speed comfort level that, at one point, we looked down and were surprised to see that we were hauling tail at about 85 mph.

The tightness of the steering was a plus in heavy traffic and in slalom-type maneuvers, although while parallel parking we had to exert a bit more effort than we would have liked. The anti-lock brakes, meanwhile, were sure and deliberate: At 30 mph we executed an abrupt stop in four seconds with no significant loss of control.

Summary

Tech-heads and power junkies will definitely get pumped up over the Sharper Image electronics and the passing-lane muscle offered by the SSEi Supercharger package. And those who revel in sporty amenities will appreciate the SSE's on-the-prowl stance and stylish decorative flourishes. But family types who blanch at the $30,000-plus top price can save themselves about $4,600 by forgoing the Supercharger package, the leather seats, the power sunroof and the pricey option group we chose. Either way, the SSE continues to give Pontiac an edge over its competition in the luxury sport-sedan market.

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