Red-white-and-blue star-spangled sports sedan. by Don Fuller
Base Price $19,345
As Tested $21,215
The Pontiac Grand Prix seems to satisfy all the check points on the list of what an American sports sedan should be: Performance, roominess, comfort, handling, features and a certain swagger to its stance. Best of all, the Grand Prix won't hammer a budget to smithereens.
In many ways, the Grand Prix rises above the mainstream. It has a muscular, competent and aggressive look that attracts assertive personalities without intimidating others. It's an eye-catcher from front to rear. The Grand Prix was originally designed as a coupe, then the sedan was derived from that. So the coupe and sedan share the roof panel and rear window. This design gives the coupe the room of a sedan, and the sedan the grace of a coupe.
The latest-generation Grand Prix marked a return to that old, familiar Pontiac "Wide Track" theme. Compared to most other sedans, the Grand Prix has a significantly wider track width and the fenders have been noticeably flared to cover the tires. That wide track contributes to superior handling, and the flared fenders add to the aggressive look. Overall, the Grand Prix offers sedan buyers a stylish alternative to conservative-looking sedans.
In addition to the coupe and sedan body styles, the Grand Prix is available in three trim levels, SE, GT and GTP. The SE is only available as a sedan; it comes with a lower level of standard equipment. The more fully featured GT boasts the widest appeal and is available in both coupe and sedan. Above that is the hot GTP, which is an option package for GT models. We drove a GT Sedan with a few carefully selected options.
Three engines are available. Standard on the SE is a 3.1-liter V-6, a trustworthy, if modest, performer of 160 horsepower. It provides adequate performance, but the engine is a bit noisy.
Standard on GT models is GM's well-proven 3.8-liter 3800 Series II V-6. An all-around performer, it delivers 195 hp, 220 lb-ft of torque. It's smooth and delivers very good throttle response, especially at lower, around-town speeds.
The GTP package includes a supercharged version of the 3800. Order it and you will have charge of 240 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque and the opportunity to experience some impressive rates of acceleration.
All Grands Prix come with four-speed, electronically controlled automatic transmissions. Their front-wheel-drive layout helps with traction in bad weather conditions. The suspension is independent front and rear and steering is power-assisted rack and pinion. Four-wheel disc brakes and an anti-lock braking system (ABS) is standard on all models.
Part of the attraction of the Grand Prix is its value. The base SE comes with a high level of standard equipment, including air conditioning, and power locks, windows and mirrors. Also standard are four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and a traction control system, which enhances control on slippery surfaces. Especially appealing to safety-conscious buyers is the inclusion of GM's Next Generation dual airbags, which deploy with less force than previous versions. A rear, center-mounted child safety seat is available as an option.
Choose the GT sedan and you get the 3.8-liter engine, P225/60R16 tires on alloy wheels, cruise control, remote deck lid release, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and an up-level AM/FM stereo cassette with seek functions and clock. It comes with Pontiac's Magnasteer variable-effort power steering, which uses electromagnetism to adjust steering effort to driving conditions.
Our GT Sedan had an upgraded AM/FM/CD stereo with a graphic equalizer and eight speakers. It came with a rear spoiler, theft deterrent system, and the 1SB option package that includes an overhead console, rear-seat pass-through, steering wheel radio controls, trunk cargo net and remote keyless entry. So equipped, it was only $22,495, a pretty good deal in anybody's book.
We also checked out a fully loaded GTP sedan, with supercharged engine and "everything on it," as your dad used to say, which retailed for only $26,920.
Maintenance, or the lack of it, is another strong point: Automatic transmission fluid and spark plugs are intended to last 100,000 miles, and radiator coolant should go 50,000 miles.
The Grand Prix's interior shows a happy blending of modern design and common sense. The car is notably roomy, both front and rear. It feels much more spacious than a Ford Taurus. Rear-seat passengers should find plenty of room for elbows, knees and feet. And since the coupe and sedan share the same roof, the rear seat in the coupe is as spacious as the one in the sedan.
One of the best instrument panels available is in the Grand Prix. Directly in front of the driver are nice big analog gauges. Computerized "driver information systems" are sometimes little more than electronic trinkets, but the one in the Grand Prix relays useful information, such as service intervals, low tire pressure and fuel usage. True technology addicts may also opt for the well-executed Heads Up Display, which shows speed on the windshield, immediately below the driver's line of sight.
In the center console are a couple of nifty cupholders, and a truly deep storage compartment with a coin holder and spots for either tapes or CDs. In the rear, a large center armrest folds down, revealing dual cupholders and a tray. Just be certain the soft drinks are out before it's folded back up.
Equally spacious is the trunk and, just as important, it's of a good shape with a reasonably low lift-over height. Available as part of some option groups is a handy, and fairly large, rear-seat pass-through, for people who carry skis, tent poles, or masts and booms for small sailboats.
Ride and Drive
Pontiac has long been known for cars that handle well and the Grand Prix maintains that high expectation level. A rigid body structure is less noisy, increases long-term structural integrity and helps reduce the chance of future rattles. An extensively revised suspension does a very good job of isolating road noise and vibration from the passengers while delivering precise, responsive handling, a difficult compromise. The steering offers an exceptionally good feel. The Grand Prix was stable at high speeds on freeways and handled well when winding through mountains and plunging down narrow canyons.
We were pleased to find the freeway ride to have a feel more commonly associated with better European sedans. Instead of being soft and cushy and wallowing down the road, the Grand Prix rolls down the highway level, even, well-controlled. It inspires confidence. The feeling of being in control is, in the end, ultimately more relaxing and comfortable than the too-soft, flabby sensations we used to get from all the mobile sofas that were standard fare for American sedans for far too long.
While we really like the supercharged GTP version with its rampaging performance, we think the GT is the better all-around choice for most people. Its 3800 Series II V-6 is a key factor here. It produces good power, making the Grand Prix GT respond quickly when accelerating away from intersections or freeway ramps. At the same time, it's smooth and unobtrusive, with just a hint of an assertive growl as the throttle is opened. All-in-all, a really nice sedan engine.
For those who have spent most of their motoring lives in traditional sedans, the Grand Prix might be the best-handling, best-performing, best-behaved car they've ever driven.
Pontiac's new Grand Prix offers an attractive alternative to buyers who want a four-door sedan, but want leading edge coupe-like styling. It's an eye-catching car among a relatively conservative-looking crowd of sedans. It's roomy and comfortable inside and boasts an excellent instrument panel. The GT model delivers a strong performance with its powerful 3800 Series II V-6 and sports suspension. It offers an excellent value, particularly in terms of performance. Pontiac's Wide Track is back and we're glad to see it.
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