by Sam Moses
Venerable classic grows modern.
Base Price $20,375
As Tested $26,845
Pontiac's Grand Prix catches your eye with wild styling that harks back to muscle cars of a bygone era. It's thoroughly modern, though, with great brakes and excellent handling. The GTP version puts enough horsepower through the front wheels to keep drivers interested and alert. Yet its price is impressively low when compared against imported sports sedans.
The Grand Prix line includes the SE Sedan, GT Sedan, GT Coupe, GTP Sedan and GTP Coupe. Three different V6 engines are available, along with two automatic transmissions.
SE comes standard with the trusty 3.1-liter V6 with an aluminum cylinder head. It has been massaged for 2000, resulting in more power and better fuel economy. It now produces 175 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque.
GT models are equipped with an iron-head 3.8-liter that produces 200 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds of torque. The GTP Performance Package takes the GT's 3800 V6, but adds a civilized supercharger that boosts horsepower to 240 and torque to 280.
Grand Prix's styling is bold and stunning; it drew magazine and industry awards when it was launched for 1997. In an era when Asian, European and American shapes flow toward neutrality, the Grand Prix is the most American of cars. Its lines are sophisticated, while evoking memories of the muscle cars of the '60s.
Our GTP Sedan test car came in a shiny graphite shade that was new last year. Striking and classy, this paint does much for the car's lines. But nothing does as much as the low, sleek coupe-like roofline; remember how, just a couple of years ago, four doors meant a squared roofline? Other eye-catching elements include the twin-post aerodynamic side-view mirrors, the oval-shaped mini-megaphone twin exhaust tips, and low-profile tires mounted on chromed five-spoke wheels with broad holes that reveal beefy disc brakes and calipers.
The Grand Prix's wide track of 61.7 inches is the platform for the overall shape, which is impossible to fault. Its sculptured wide hood flows down toward Pontiac's trademark split grille, smooth fender flares bulge just the right amount, reflector optic headlamps form sharp clear eyes, and big muscular hips make it look ready to pounce. But it's clearly a Pontiac with fat rocker panel fascia, deep round foglight holes, horizontal black bars in the taillamps, a rear deck spoiler that's low enough but beneath the rest of the car's style, and finally, definition grooves in the wraparound bumpers.
Our test car was equipped with the $1650 option package that included comfort and convenience items, plus the rear spoiler and chromed aluminum wheels. It had great leather seats in matching graphite gray. Lumbar support and heat were part of the electrically operated driver's seat, whose track is wide to allow more foot room in the back. (The passenger side has none of this.) The console is comfortable when nudged by the driver's right leg, and there are perfect padded armrests for driving with both elbows parked. The cabin is very friendly for long drives.
And speaking of long drives, the Grand Prix comes standard with an eight-speaker Bose sound system, with no less than nine adjustments. It's all that you might expect in sound quality and volume. With selector controls on the steering wheel, and CD and radio data alongside mph in the windshield's head-up display, it's clear that tunes are a high priority among Grand Prix buyers. The self-dimming rearview mirror, part of the option package, is nice. Over-the-shoulder visibility is restricted, however.
There's less head room in the back seat than front, but it feels like more because a passenger's head is aft of the headliner. Two cupholders are contained in a wide shared armrest, which folds down and steals the third seat in the rear, while allowing limited access to the trunk. There's a pocket on the back of the front seats, but no storage in the rear doors, which have a reflector but no light to warn traffic of an open door at night. (The front doors have lights). There's a grab handle over each rear door, but unless your passengers' shoulders are double-jointed, they'll be grabbing the front-seat headrests to exit.
Fresh-air lovers will appreciate the big sunroof and rear windows that open all the way. The steering wheel seems skinny for a performance car, while the gear selector is shaped like a big leather pear. The layout and visibility of the analog gauges is very good, and the head-up digital display of speed in the bottom of the windshield is not a gimmick, it's an excellent technical innovation and a safety feature that hasn't caught on. As for the orange-red instrument lighting, opinions have long been strongly subjective. An information center offers useful data and some gimmicky stuff. Unfortunately, it lacks a compass. The information center indicated a 22.4-mpg average after 820 miles that included quite a few floorboard shots just to feel that supercharger rush. That's good mileage for 240 horsepower, and one virtue of supercharging. The bad news is that 92 octane is required.
This car has muscle. The supercharged V6 is always there for you. Its whiz is restrained, its boost linear. The engine and transmission don't lunge, they surge. The transmission, in performance mode, downshifts under acceleration remarkably smoothly, although it probably should have been programmed to downshift earlier when accelerating hard at lower rpm. With the standard traction control turned off, you can burn rubber just like the old days. Except it's the front wheels laying down the black strips.
Powerful engines and front-wheel drive mean torque steer. Most front-wheel-drive cars will torque-steer abruptly with a yank on the steering wheel when the throttle is floored, and then it's over; but the GTP's supercharger puts out smooth, linear torque, holding its impressive 280 foot-pounds over a flat curve from about 2500 rpm to nearly 5000. The effect is a gentle, steady tug from the steering wheel that may lead to wandering if you don't stay on top of it-and it adds to the fun. But be careful; when passing quickly with a stretched-out swerve on a two-lane, for example, almost all of your steering is done under the influence of supercharged torque steer. The GTP employs variable-effort electromagnetic power steering, which, frankly, we didn't feel. This is good, because it means the tuning is spot-on-unlike an earlier GM attempt with the Oldsmobile Aurora. We were aware of how tightly the car steered at speed, not how much more effort the steering wheel required.
The Grand Prix's strong brakes are one of its best features, with a very solid pedal feel. The 11-inch four-wheel discs are vented in front, and don't get hot when being overused down steep hills. The brakes can be used confidently when slowing dramatically from high speeds, and the ABS is noisy but dead true under panic stops from 65 mph.
Handling is responsive with quick, solid turn-in. The chassis, thanks to the wide track and rigid body construction using transverse beams, is wonderfully flat and steady when pushed through the smooth twisties. The P225/60R16 Goodyear Eagle tires squeal under aggressive cornering, but the GTP handles rapid changes of direction with confident, road-hugging equanimity. The suspension gobbles quick little chatter-inducing bumps well, although it clearly announces its softness when the twisties get uneven. But that's a reasonable compromise for the comfortable ride, which is firm but not harsh, with very little vibration transmitted through the seat of your pants. The four-wheel independent suspension uses MacPherson struts and anti-roll bars (30 mm front, 18 mm rear); the suspension tuning allows a significant amount of jounce at the corners, which you feel in your shoulders. Sometimes it feels as if the suspension wants to keep on working, after the bumps are crossed. But overall, the car is well suspended.
Pontiac has taken a lot of unfair raps for limited refinement to its engineering. But this car doesn't pretend to be a BMW. The GTP is a very good effort: fast but not too fast, sporty but not too sporty, excellent handling within limits, great brakes. Despite some body gimmicks it's wonderfully sculpted and sleek yet it's roomy inside. You might think of it as a poor man's M3, but you'd probably be insulting its owners. They have their own identities, thank you.
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