by Mitch McCullough
Base Price $16,040
As Tested $18,100
Bold styling with aggressive ribbed body work is designed to draw attention to this sporty compact. Pontiac redesigned its Grand Am for 1999 with new exterior styling, a redesigned interior, a re-engineered chassis and suspension, a bigger optional V6 engine, and more convenience features. For 2000, a new Getrag 5-speed manual gearbox is available.
Two body styles are available, a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan. Sedans cost about $300 more than comparable Coupes. Sedans offer slightly more rear headroom, but otherwise they are nearly identical to the Coupes.
A 150-horsepower 2.4-liter twin-cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine comes standard. An optional 170-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 offers substantially more power. SE and SE1 models come standard with a new 5-speed manual transmission built by Getrag, a renowned German gearbox manufacturer. Other trim levels come equipped with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.
Models and trim levels include SE, SE1, SE2, GT and GT1.
Base SE trim comes with air conditioning, aggressive P215/60R15 tires mounted on 15-inch wheels and many other standard features. Grand Am Coupes in SE trim start at $16,040. SE1 Sedan, which adds cruise control and alloy wheels, retails for $17,550. The $19,880 SE2 Sedan includes the V6 and low-profile P225/50R16 tires on 16-inch alloy wheels. GT models range from the $19,670 GT Coupe to the $21,470 GT1 Sedan.
Grand Am's look-at-me styling features Pontiac's trademark ribbed body cladding. Ribs are everywhere. They start at the front bumper, wrap around the front fenders, along the doors, down the rear fenders and around the rear bumper. The design is carried through the side mirrors and the optional rear spoiler. It all works together to give the Grand Am a sporty look. Body-colored door handles and side moldings support this theme. Add cats-eye headlamps, a twin port grille, round driving lamps and that wide track stance and there's no question this is a Pontiac.
Small round cornering lamps positioned on the edges of the rear bumper are designed to complement the standard backup lights by directing light at 45-degree angles to the sides and rear of the vehicle. They should help illuminate obstructions and ditches when backing up at night.
Grand Am's bold exterior is carried through inside with a sporty retro-dash. Circular hoods shroud the instruments and ventilation ducts and remind us of sports cars past. It's an attractive look that adds to the sports appeal of the Grand Am. Warm, red light illuminates the instruments, which are large and easy to read. Audio and climate controls are angled toward the driver for easy access and heating, ventilation and air conditioning are adjusted with big round knobs.
Strapping on the new Grand Am reveals that the seating position is slightly higher than previous-generation models. Coupled with a lower cowl and thin A-pillars, that makes it easier to see out front. The Grand Am we drove was equipped with a four-way manually adjustable driver's seat, which we found to be comfortable during a stint around greater Miami. A six-way power driver's seat is optional with SE2 trim and Grand Am engineers put a lot of effort into its adjustable lumbar support.
Several features add convenience to the Grand Am. Automatic lighting control can be set to switch on the headlights at nightfall, then turn them off 20 seconds after the ignition is switched off, giving the driver some time to unlock a house or garage door. Battery rundown protection automatically turns off all accessory lights after 20 minutes in case they were left on by mistake.
A delayed locking feature can be programmed to automatically lock the doors within seven seconds of closing the last door. That eliminates the need for trusting passengers to lock their doors and permits quick retrieval of forgotten items. When the driver removes the key from the ignition, three chimes indicate the system is activated. It locks the car seven seconds after the last door is closed. If a door is opened before that time, the timer stops and starts over when the door is closed again. Exterior lights flash twice and the horn beeps to confirm the doors are locked. A related system automatically locks the doors when the shifter is moved out of the park position. Doors automatically unlock when the shifter is placed in park and the ignition is turned off.
Driving around South Florida revealed that the Grand Am offers a smoother, more controlled ride quality than pre-1999 models. There's a noticeable absence of shimmy and shake and rattles over potholes. It's also much quieter inside.
Miami's busy roads provided little opportunity to fully explore chassis dynamics, but compared with the previous model, the new Grand Am feels taut. It provides sharper steering response and makes the driver feel better connected to the road.
We focused on a sedan equipped with the standard 2.4-liter engine and the SE1 trim package as that's what most people buy. With its relatively flat torque curve, this engine delivers plenty of power around town and offers good acceleration for tackling freeway on-ramps. The four-speed automatic offers smooth, positive shifts and seems a good match for the engine.
That wide-track Pontiac stance gives the car more athletic handling response. The front track - the distance between the left and right tires - is a significant 3.3 inches wider than pre-1999 models, yet the width of the car has increased only 1.5 inches. Likewise, the wheelbase has been stretched a substantial 3.6 inches, while the overall length of the car is slightly reduced. In effect, the wheels have been pushed farther out toward the corners of the car. This gives the Grand Am a more aggressive, sporty appearance. It also increases stability at high speeds, in corners and in cross winds. Grand-Am's 107-inch wheelbase is longer than other compact cars.
Beneath the Grand Am's sporty appearance is a rigid unitbody structure. Pontiac says Grand Am's structure is more rigid than that of the Ford Contour and Nissan Altima. That's good news for drivers and passengers because a stiffer unitbody allowed GM engineers to design a three-link rear suspension that offers more precise control of the wheels and better noise and vibration damping. That adds up to improved handling and ride quality, areas where previous-generation Grand Ams left something to be desired.
Big front brakes offer good braking distances. Aluminum brake calipers present lower unsprung weight, which improves handling in bumpy corners. All Grand Ams come standard with antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic traction control, both of which make the car easier to control in limited traction situations.
Pontiac's Grand Am offers bold styling and is loaded with convenient interior features.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.