A sporty entry into the mid-size market. by Mike Sante
Sporty looks. Competent performance. Competitive price. That's what made Pontiac Grand Am the seventh best-selling car in the country last year.
Pontiac has spent millions to establish itself as General Motor's high-performance "excitement" division, and the Grand Am certainly has that aggressive attitude from its fog lamps to its spoiler. Even though the basic look is more than a decade old, the Grand Am still stands out in a crowd of far more mundane looking family sedans.
You might be a little disappointed once you get a Grand Am out on the road. The car's fetching exterior promises more of an exhilarating performance than the Grand Am actually delivers. But its suspension and powertrain are perfectly acceptable and the ride is quiet and pleasant enough.
While the Grand Am may not out-perform most of the cars in its class, you can't ignore its price. This Pontiac will get around with some flair for a couple of thousand dollars less than a comparably equipped Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.
So while we suspect a lot of folks are initially smitten with the Grand Am's sporty appearance, common sense tells them to buy because its a good deal.
Just looking at the Grand Am, it's hard to imagine that it shares the same basic design as two of GM's dowdiest mid-size cars, the Oldsmobile Achieva and Buick Skylark.
It's amazing how some plastic body cladding and a few hot rod touches, like an air dam, aluminum wheels and that rear wing, can give the Grand Am such a young and aggressive personality.
This is clearly a car that GM hopes to sell to young singles and families who aren't ready to let kids and mounting responsibilities take away all of their fun.
And even though the basic design has been around since 1985, GM is still refining both the styling and powertrain.
The '96 Grand Am has a slightly cleaner, smoother look thanks to new headlights, tailights, front and rear bumpers, wheels, spoiler and grille. (Two horizontal vents have replaced the car's original honeycomb grille.)
The car is safer too, with daytime running lamps and a passenger-side air bag joining the driver-side bag and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment. A hand brake on the center console has also replaced the old foot-operated parking brake.
But the big story continues to be under the Grand Am's hood, where the standard four-cylinder, 16-valve engine continues to be modified and improved.
The original version of this engine was quite powerful for its size, but it also created a lot of noise and vibration that annoyed many owners.
For '95 the engine was equipped with so-called balance shafts that rotate in the opposite direction of the engine's crankshaft to damp out most of that vibration, and the result is a definite improvement.
This year the engine grew quite a bit, from 2.3 liters to 2.4 liters, to make it smoother and increase torque, or pulling power, at low engine speeds. So, while the engine produces the same 150 horsepower, it will haul a Grand Am from 0 to 60 mph about a second faster than last year's version.
For $395 more, you can get a 155-hp 3.1-liter V-6 that has even more muscle at lower engine speeds, which allows it to work more smoothly with an automatic transmission.
A quick peek at the window sticker shows that the base price for a two-door or four-door SE model is $13,999, including destination charges. The sportier, more heavily equipped GT coupe and sedan start at $15,999.
The SE sedan we tested had a package of options that included tilt steering, air conditioning, cruise control and a few other amenities that boosted the price by $1630. Other touches, including automatic transmission($795) and power windows ($355), upped the final price to $17,690.
The Inside Story
Slip behind the wheel and the Grand Am's racy personality immediately shows up in the instrument panel -- a cacophony of orange and red dials that rival a carnival midway when they're lit for nighttime driving.
You soon get used to that, however, and all of the controls are pretty easy to figure out and use. The radio buttons are especially big and friendly, and the heating and cooling system is operated by three large, simple knobs just below the sound system. But getting comfortable in the Grand Am is more of a challenge than in most other mid-size cars. The front seats seem to sit lower to the floor and there's a slight sense of having to look up and over the dashboard to see out. Many drivers also find that they have to sit too close to the steering wheel in order to comfortably reach the pedals.
The Grand Am's cabin feels smaller than in many competitors, including the Accord or Dodge Stratus. Pontiac says the Grand Am has comparable leg room and headroom. But four adults will feel much less cramped and more comfortable in an Accord or Stratus, and we don't need a ruler to tell us that.
Aesthetically, the Grand Am's interior fabrics and plastics have been improved for '96, and they're pleasant enough to pass muster. Less pleasing are the two big round vents that have appeared in the middle of the dash, just above the radio. They're new for '96 and Pontiac says they'll rattle less than the old rectangular vents and contribute to the overall harmony of the Grand Am's interior. We found them to be so prominent as to be almost annoying.
Ride & Drive
Turn the key and the Grand Am's exhaust emits a sporty rumble; so far, so good. Step on the gas and the Grand Am gets off to a fine start. It doesn't snap your head back or anything, but there's certainly no life-and-death drama trying to get on the freeway.
Exit onto a country lane and the Grand Am looks like it should be ready for all the twists and turns you care to tackle. On good pavement, that is the case; there was some body roll, but we stuck to the road pretty well.
On rougher roads, the Grand Am is much less sure-footed. When the going gets bumpy, the car's rear wheels have a tough time maintaining contact with the road, compromising its sporty premise.
All in all, our SE test car didn't handle any better than many competitors that have no pretense to sports car performance.
So if the Grand Am isn't as sporty as advertised, is it at least comfortable enough to get around in? Yep.
There's still some noticeable engine noise on most takeoffs from stop signs or traffic lights and the repeatedly refined four-cylinder engine still isn't as vibration-free as, say, the Accord's.
But the Grand Am keeps the traffic and wind noise to acceptable levels. The front suspension sends a few more bumps up through the steering wheel than we would like, but the overall ride is not wearing.
If hard-driving performance is truly important to you, then a Ford Probe or Chrysler Sebring might be a better choice than the Grand Am.
But if you just want an affordable car with a little personality, one that will get you to and from work during the week and haul a couple of kids to the circus on Saturday, then the Grand Am is a candidate.
It's a perfectly adequate mid-size car with enough attitude that you won't feel like you've surrendered to driving a bland family vehicle on your way to a minivan.
The Grand Am's aging design is no match for newer mid-size models like the Accord, Stratus or Camry. But if the price is right, you could be quite happy together.
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© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.