The American sport sedan redefined. by Don Fuller
Here's a safe prediction: Pontiac's all-new Grand Prix will be one of the hits of the 1997 model year. It's got looks, performance, roominess, comfort, handling features -- and it's in a price range that won't clobber a budget.
In several ways, the new Grand Prix rises above the mainstream of the competition. Most obvious is the styling, which has a sleekly muscular, competent and aggressive look.
From front to rear, it's a pretty dynamic design job. One key element that adds to the sleekness is that it was designed first as a coupe, then the sedan was derived from that. The coupe and sedan actually share the same roof panel and rear window -- an extreme rarity in automobile design and manufacturing, and it gives the coupe sedan-like room, the sedan coupe-like grace.
Another important aspect of the Grand Prix is that it marks a return to wide trackin' at Pontiac. Compared to other mid-size sedans, particularly its General Motor's cousins, the Grand Prix has a significantly wider track and the fenders have been noticeably flared to cover the tires. The wide track improves stability, and the flared fenders add to the aggressive look.
In addition to the two body styles, the new Grand Prix is available in three trim levels. Base is the SE, available only as a sedan; this will probably be the rental fleet special. Of more interest and with the widest appeal is the GT, in both coupe and sedan. Above that is the go-fast GTP, an option package available for GT models.
For this report, we focused on a GT Sedan, with a few carefully selected options.
There are three engines. Standard with the SE is a 3.1-liter V-6. It's a durable performer, but with 160 horsepower hitched to some 3400 pounds of car, it's no thrill ride. Standard on GT, and optional on SE, is GM's 3.8-liter 3800 Series II V-6. A good all-around performer, it delivers 195 hp, 220 lb-ft of torque, commendable smoothness and crisp throttle response.
The GTP package includes the supercharged version of the 3800, which picks up the pace with 240 hp and 280 pound-feet of torque. Even with an automatic -- the standard and only Grand Prix transmission -- the GTP sizzles from 0 to 60 mph in just under seven seconds.
Like virtually all GM cars, the Grand Prix is built on a front-drive platform, shared in this case with the Chevy Lumina and the new Olds Intrigue and Buick Regal. Suspension is independent front and rear, steering is power-assisted rack and pinion, and standard equipment on all models, includes four-wheel disc brakes and an anti-lock braking system.
There's a very good value story with the Grand Prix. Base price of the SE, with a $550 destination charge, starts at just $19,129 (the SE coupe is $600 less), and that includes dual airbags, air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, programmable power door locks, traction control, AM/FM radio with clock, front bucket seats with two-way lumbar control, tilt wheel, and a Driver Information Center that lets you know if a tire is going low and when it's time to change oil.
Standard anti-lock brakes and traction control system and an optional child safety seat (mounted amidship in the rear) are thoughful safety extras.
Choose the GT sedan and the base is $22,264. In addition to the stronger -- much stronger -- 3800 V-6, the GT includes P225/60R-16 tires on aluminum alloy wheels, cruise control, remote deck lid release, an uplevel AM/FM/cassette stereo, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and Magnasteer, GM's new variable-effort rack and pinion power steering system.
In addition, our test car had a CD changer, rear spoiler, theft deterrent, and an option package that included rear defogger, steering wheel sound system controls, power driver's seat, rear window antenna and keyless remote entry. So equipped, it was $23,859.
The GTP sedan, with supercharged engine and "everything on it," as your dad used to say, comes to $25,802.
Maintenance will be another strong point: the automatic transmission fluid and spark plugs are intended for 100,000 miles, and the radiator coolant for 50,000 miles.
The Inside Story
The Grand Prix's interior shows what happens when modern design coincides with common sense. First, it's notably roomy, both front and back, and feels more spacious than, say, a Ford Taurus. It's typical for front-seat passengers to be well-treated; they're usually the ones paying for the car. But in the Grand Prix, rear-seat passengers will also find plenty of room for elbows, knees, feet and even their backsides. And since the coupe and sedan share the same roof, the rear seat space is about the same, two doors or four.
Control layout is equally accommodating, and Pontiac jazzy. Directly in front of the driver are large analog gauges, and function switches for the sound system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning are close at hand in the center.
In addition to the Driver Information Center, gadget freaks will probably go for the optional head-up display (HUD), which projects a holographic digital speedometer onto the windshield, just below the driver's line of sight. The HUD plays well with the Grand Prix's fighter cockpit ambience.
In the center console are a couple of nifty cupholders, and a truly deep storage compartment with an integrated coin holder and spots for either tapes or CDs. In the rear, a large center armrest folds down, revealing dual cupholders and a tray.
The trunk is also spacious, and well shaped with an average liftover height.
And there's a handy, and fairly large, pass-through, for people who carry skis, or perhaps two-piece Maypoles.
Ride & Drive
Pontiac engineers concentrated on giving the Grand Prix a level of handling competence that's unusually athletic for this type car, and in general we think they succeeded.
The new unitbody structure is stiffer than the previous Grand Prix, which contributes to interior quiet and also enhances long-term structural integrity. The revised suspension does a very good job of, on the one hand, isolating road noise and vibration from the passengers and, on the other, giving precise, responsive handling on smooth pavement.
And without going into the electromagnetic wizardry of the Magnasteer, the steering has an exceptionally good feel, both when going straight ahead and when the road takes more than a few twists and turns.
The freeway ride represents Pontiac's interpretation of the feel associated with sporty European sedans. That is to say, instead of being overly soft and cushy to the point of wallowing down the road and imparting a feeling of sensory deprivation, the Grand Prix rolls down the highway level, even, well-controlled and confidence-inspiring. If there's any criticism to be made, we think it's in the area of shock damping, which is a tad too stiff to respond smoothly to sharp bumps.
But the feeling of being in control is ultimately more relaxing and comfortable than all the mobile sofas that were the American sedan staple for far too long.
While we've driven and enjoyed the rampaging performance of the supercharged GTP, we think the GT is the better all-around choice. A key here is the 3800 Series II V-6. It makes good power, plentiful torque, and pulls the car across intersections or up freeway on-ramps with respectable zeal. It's smooth and unobtrusive, with just a hint of an assertive growl when the throttle is opened wide. And it's devoid of the hint of torque steer that goes with the supercharged engine.
The bottom line: we think the Grand Prix's all-around competence and performance will come as a very pleasant surprise. This car's dynamics more than measure up to its looks.
For buyers who need, or want, four doors, but can't bear the thought of bland mainstream styling and lukewarm performance, the new Pontiac Grand Prix sedan offers an attractive alternative. And, perhaps best of all, it's a genuine lotta-car-for-your-dollar value. We think it's great to see the Wide Track back on the road.
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