Introduction

The Pontiac Grand Prix has been known as a fine mover, a good stopper, a fair looker and a reasonable handler. In its 2004 manifestation expect general improvements in all those categories, but prepare for a real surprise party in the interior. And not only in eye-appeal and ergonomics but in versatility, flexibility and utility.

The latent creativity of the General Motors design staff has been stirred into activity coming up with more good ideas than a carton of cartoon light bulbs. If the name wasn't already taken for machines more cumbersome this mid-size sedan could be dubbed a "sport-utility vehicle" because it has valid claim to both elements. It's fun in the twisties and, hey, you can stuff a nine-foot kayak into it and still close the trunk!

2004 marks the ninth generation for the Pontiac Grand Prix.

Model Lineup

The 2004 Grand Prix is available as two primary models, GT and GTP, with variations of each. All are five-passenger, four-door, front-wheel-drive sedans with 3.8-liter V6 engines and four-speed automatic transmissions.

GT models come with a V6 engine that develops a comfortably adequate 200 horsepower (at 5200 rpm) and 225 foot-pounds of torque at 4000. Two versions of the GT model are available, GT1 ($21,760) and GT2 ($23,660). GT1 has less standard equipment. ABS, for instance, is optional ($600).

GTP ($25,860) gets a supercharged version of that same engine, increasing the ratings to 260 hp (at 5200 rpm) and 280 ft.-lbs. at 3600. The all-new Competition Group ($1395) is an option package for the GTP that adds a sports suspension system, StabiliTrak Sport, and TAPshift. StabiliTrak Sport is a vehicle-stability system tuned to provide maximum hands-on control during cornering. TAPshift (Touch Activated Power) includes a set of small paddles on the steering wheel allowing semi-manual shifting of the automatic transmission.

Walkaround

A coupe-like tautness characterizes the exterior design of this mid-size four-door sedan, thanks to a more extreme wedge-shape and a roofline five inches longer than the previous-generation model. The rear end is as muscular as a speed skater. Pronounced, enlarged taillights are mounted at the corners. A discreet spoiler finishes the deck lid.

Through the taillights and extended into the sheet metal are two horizontal bulges, like cladding segments escaped from the sides of a Grand Am. If this were a fashion story I would say they were "to add eye interest" to the back. And oddly, they do. Anyway, following a 2004 Grand Prix down the highway is a pleasant occupation. The back is important in appearance and certainly distinguishable from its road mates.

Appearance is the most subjective aspect of any automobile. Suffice it to say I would rather follow this Grand Prix than spot it in the rearview mirror: I'm not delighted with the front end of this 2004 model.

The slightly sculptured hood is a good beginning, but when shaping lines come off the hood swooping down to trace around the grille something goes wrong for me. The resulting grille with its trademark Pontiac division is straight across on top with bowl-shape curving sides. It appears to me like a tight smirk, ungenerous and simpering. It's off-putting. The headlights are even more slanted and attenuated than on the previous Grand Prix.

The so-called Coke bottle sides are marked (marred I would say) by two parallel character lines through the two doors about a hand's span below the door handles. Gratefully, there's no cladding but these lines bother me. I think one reason the new Grand Prix looks best in black is because black hides these lines.

The black Grand Prix at the press introduction also had a solution for some of my objections to the new grille, a heavier, more important optional chrome surround. (Now if a black Grand Prix came with a crew armed with California Dusters I'd consider it in a heartbeat.)

Interior Features

Inside is where the Grand Prix absolutely shines. General Motors cars have consistently disappointed me in their interior design. I remember the beautiful exterior of a Buick Riviera at an auto show some years back. I circled it in delight. Then I opened the door only to find the same unrelenting, ugly cliff of an instrument panel that the General had plunked into every model from Cadillac to Suburban.

I would guess that changes in GM interiors will demonstrate a singularly visible (and tactile) impact that Bob Lutz has on his new employer's products. He is known to be an admirer of Audi and VW interiors, probably the world's best, and the Grand Prix reveals progress in that direction in choice of textures, in shapes and in the feel of whatever is touched. Leather and satin nickel set the tone for the Grand Prix interior style, materials pleasant to both eye and fingertips continue the experience.

The Grand Prix seats are supportive and comfortable. The steering wheel fills the hand just right. The outside mirrors are remarkably large for a sedan. That's a feature SUV drivers often mention as a reason they like SUVs. Here are large mirrors with an informative view of the world behind and yet add no noticeable wind noise.

The instrument panel, pleasing in its three-dimensional, simple layout, is readily visible through the smart three-spoke steering wheel. The large center speedometer stands out from and overlaps the tachometer (on the left) and the circle containing the fuel and temperature gauges (on the right). Backgrounded with a shadowy grid pattern, these watch-like dials yield their information with simple, uncluttered, handsome functionality.

Technology allows the speedometer to be rimmed with only one set of numbers to designate speed in both miles and kilometers per hour. How? Punch in your choice on the Driver Information Center (DIC) and the numbers change. Cross a border, make your selection and read Ks, punch again and it's miles. No cluttering inner-ring of numbers. How cool is that?

You'll find the head up display (HUD) almost subliminal in its presence. You can select the amount of information it gives and at night, to conserve your night vision and limit reflections, you can douse the instrument panel lights completely, fly in stealth mode, and still keep tabs on what's important.

The Driver Information Center with a four-line read-out is just to the right and above your fist in a console canted slightly toward the driver. Below an organized cluster of white icons on simple black buttons and dials keep the driver tuned in, warm or cool, etc. Pleasing to look at and nothing bewildering.

As comfortable as the seating, as pleasant to look at and feel as the interior is what is really special is its functionality and flexibility. Not only do the back seats fold down in pairs or singly (60/40 split) to effectively increase cargo capacity, the back of the front passenger seat folds forward, table flat.

All this flat and nearly flat space can be accessed through the trunk (with a particularly low lift-over height.) Thus it's easy to fold the appropriate seats and load long objects into the vehicle. That kayak mentioned above or a roll of carpet or a ladder or skis or Italian market umbrellas. You can close the trunk door on anything up to nine feet long. That trunk opening besides being lower is also about ten inches wider. Boxed bikes anyone?

Lots of interior toting room is worthless if you can't get the objects you are toting through the holes in the vehicle. In shopping mall parking lots anywhere in the country you'll find cartons that once held TVs, microwave ovens, computer components and barbecues. They had to be stripped of their packing to manipulate them through the doors. Cognizant of that problem, Grand Prix designers played dentist: "Open wider, please." And now the doors swing out to a few degrees shy of 90, improving ingress and egress for people and stuff.

Driving alone may not be an efficient use of fossil fuels but the fact is most cars most of the time carry only a driver. The solo driver can particularly appreciate the fold-flat passenger seat: it's a veritable desk at the elbow with indentations to keep coins at hand and a webbed elastic pouch to keep such things as mail ready for the slot from finding the floor at the first stop light.

Or have you an unlucky skier in the family? Put him in the back seat and rest that cast-clad leg on the fold-flat front seat. Mobility in luxury.

Driving Impressions

If memory serves, the Pontiac Grand Prix has always been fun to drive. The 2004, more rigid in body than before and still solidly wide of track, has become a most gratifying performer.

The ideal touring car makes itself transparent to the driver. The driving experience is noticeable, not the vehicle providing that experience. Anyone test-driving such a car has to consciously force attention through to the vehicle instead of simply enjoying the ease of motion, the willingness of the engine, the responsiveness of the brakes. The testing driver has to notice what the designers have worked to make seamless. I made myself notice and allowed myself to enjoy.

To maintain peak performance athletes might clamp an oxygen mask to their face. That's what an engine is doing with a turbo- or supercharger: forcing more oxygen inside. While a turbo comes into play after the engine is spooled up a bit, the supercharger is there from the get-go.

The 3.8-liter V6 in the Grand Prix is normally aspirated in the GT model but supercharged in GTP versions. That lowers gas mileage slightly, but accounts for the addition of 60 horsepower (to 260) and the reduction by some two seconds in the time it takes to reach 60 mph from zero. We're talking just 6.5 seconds in the Comp G, a comforting figure when merging or passing in tight situations. At that the gas mileage is respectable: The GT gets 20 city and 30 highway with two mpg less for the supercharged versions.

Usually when power even approaching 200 hp is put through the same wheels that steer the car (i.e., the front wheels) a phenomenon known as torque steer ensues. This is that disconcerting tug at the steering wheel under rapid acceleration. It's like the front wheels are in a race with each other. Happily, there's little to no torque steer in the 2004 Grand Prix. Pull away smoothly with the right foot down hard and the Grand Prix is as stable as an Acura.

The four-speed automatic shifts in smooth increments. An electronic control system (ETC) has a speed-based response mechanism meaning that the car is tractable around town without goosey overreaction but answers the call for power instantly at highway speeds.

The Comp G has steering wheel mounted shifting paddles, more thumb-controlled buttons really, called TAPshift (Touch Activated Power). Unlike the road-car systems modeled more closely after Formula 1 (left paddle for downshifts, right for upshifts) the controls in the Grand Prix both do the same thing: press down on either to select a lower gear, up on either for a higher gear. (All is controlled so you can't over-rev.) Quick to respond, TAPshift is a way to experience the control of a manual in hard pushing while retaining the leave-it-be ease of an automatic for stop-and-go crowds.

The ride quality of a car is perhaps on a par with styling when it comes to subjectivity. The traditional American ride is far softer than the traditional European ride. But disappearing is that extra-soft billowiness that separates a car from the surface it's riding over and is thus dangerously misleading in turns. Why that American ride is going away could be because those who've preferred it are spending more time in rockers and less on the road. And, too, because suspension engineers are finding ways to allow for some softness on the straights and yet snug down to business when it comes to serious cornering. (Improved chassis rigidity is one example.)

The ultimate feel of the road, and thus a car that loves quick kinks and endless esses, requires a tight suspension. The knit-back gloves driver is grinning, but others may be groaning at a ride too rough for them.

I separate suspension systems into three levels. One: you can't tell what your tires are running over on the road except that it's pavement. Two: if you run over a dime you'll know it. Three: you not only know it's a dime you know what year it was coined.

These levels are descriptions, albeit extreme, of what the engineers have brought about in the three Grand Prix models. The GT offers the most traditional ride; the GTP is tighter for secure cornering yet retains enough ease to satisfy the soft-ride devotee.

The Comp G itself is grinning through the corners. And why not? Its suspension system renders it capable of 0.83G lateral acceleration force. Included in the Comp G package is StabiliTrak Sport, a four-wheel stability system that is unlike anything in the market segment. You'd grin too. And it does it without jarring a tooth on the straights. Nicely done, suspension guys. As for stopping, the brakes in the 17-inch wheels of the Comp G pull it to a stop from 60 mph in 139 feet. Commendable and satisfying.

Summary

In the early '60s when Pontiac first released its Grand Prix, I muttered: "There Detroit goes again, bouncing its image off of others peoples' trophies." Pontiac had never been near Grand Prix racing, not even as a spectator. I expressed some doubt their American public could even pronounce the name right (which would be poetic justice). Bonneville, now that's another matter. That was earned.

Pontiac prevailed. My attitude mellowed. I quit taking car names literally. And I can say honestly that I like the 2004 Grand Prix a lot. I welcome the commitment GM is making to the function of the machine as a utilitarian transporter of people and things and a stimulator of the brain's pleasure center. Having car guys in charge matters.

Many Americans who turned to Europe and Asia for cars to suit their needs would like a reason to buy American again. Pontiac has given them grounds to consider the 2004 Grand Prix. It is hot to drive and cool to live with.


Model Line Overview

Model lineup: GT1 ($21,760); GT2; GTP ($25,860); GTP Competition Group ($27,255)
Engines: 3.8-liter V6; 3.8-liter supercharged V6
Transmissions: 4-speed automatic; 4-speed automatic with TAPshift
Safety equipment (standard): front-seat airbags
Safety equipment (optional): ABS, traction control, side-curtain airbags
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: Oshawa, Ontario

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Pontiac Grand Prix GTP ($25,860)
Standard equipment: air conditioning, cloth front bucket seats, 60/40 split folding rear seatbacks, fog lamps, twin exhaust tips, 16-inch wheel covers, rear spoiler, body-color sport mirrors, backlight radio antenna, tinted glass, Driver Information Center, remote keyless entry, anti-theft system, power mirrors/door locks/windows, cruise control, rear defogger, tilt steering, tachometer, CD radio with 6 speakers, two auxiliary power outlets, side protective moldings; GT2 adds Steering wheel radio controls, premium lighting (rear assist handles, lighted vanity mirrors, reading lamps front/rear, overhead console with glasses storage), Lifestyle Package (right front folding seatback, reversible cargo mat, covered cargo storage, cargo net), ABS (with enhanced traction system), Magnasteer, variable effort power steering, Driver’s Package (power driver's seat, floormats); GTP adds full-function traction control, driver's power lumbar, OnStar
Options as tested (MSRP): Premium Audio Package ($695) includes 6-CD player and Monsoon speakers; Leather Trim ($795) includes leather-appointed seating, heated driver and front passenger seats, power driver lumbar
Destination charge: ($635)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $27,985
Layout: front-wheel drive
Engine: 3.8-liter supercharged ohv V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 260 @ 5200
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 280 @ 3600
Transmission: 4-speed automatic with TAPshift
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 18/28 mpg
Wheelbase: 110.5 in.
Length/width/height: 198.2/71.6/55.9 in.
Track, f/r: 61.6/60.8 in.
Turning circle: 37.4 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 38.8/54.5/42.2 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 36.2/54.3/36.2 in.
Trunk volume: 57 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: 10001000 Lbs.
Suspension, f: independent, MacPherson struts with coil springs, lower A-arm, 20mm solid anti-roll bar
Suspension, r: independent, tri-link coil over strut, 17.2mm anti-roll bar
Ground clearance: N/A
Curb weight: 3583 lbs.
Tires: P225/55HR17 Michelin Energy
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with ABS
Fuel capacity: 17 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of January 28, 2003.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-762-2737 - www.pontiac.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.
New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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