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Pontiac's Grand Am is a major sales success. Although compact in size, it looks big and important; at a quick glance it could be easily mistaken for its bigger brother, the Pontiac Grand Prix. Inside, Grand Am's elaborate cockpit could make any Walter Mitty feel like an airline pilot.
That impression wouldn't evaporate the first time Wally opens the throttle because Grand Am backs up its racy looks with frisky performance and sport-coupe handling.
For 2002, Grand Am features a new base engine designed for smoother operation, better fuel economy and lower maintenance costs, with no significant loss in performance.
Bold bodywork with elaborate cladding is destined to draw attention to this sporty compact. The designers have put pseudo-aerodynamic ribs everywhere: starting at the front bumper, wrapping around the front fenders, sweeping back along the doors and rear fenders and finally around the rear bumper. The rib motif is echoed 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 further support the 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; they direct a beam at a 45 degree angle from the side and rear of the vehicle. They should help illuminate ditches and other obstructions when backing up at night.
Grand Am's bold exterior theme is carried through inside with a sporty retro dashboard. Circular hoods shroud the instruments and ventilation ducts and remind us of sports cars past. It's an attractive look that adds to the Grand Am's appeal. 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. Big round knobs adjust heating, ventilation and air conditioning. An eight-speaker Monsoon stereo is standard on the GT1 and optional on GT and SE1 models.
Strapping on the new Grand Am reveals that the seating position is slightly higher than in previous-generation models. Coupled with a lower cowl and thin A-pillars, that makes it easier to see out front. Our SE1 was equipped with a four-way adjustable driver's seat, which we found to be comfortable during our travels around greater Miami. A six-way power driver's seat is standard on GT1 models.
Several features add convenience to the Grand Am. Automatic headlights can be set to switch on at nightfall, then turn off 20 seconds after the ignition is shut down, 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. The doors automatically unlock when the shifter is placed in park and the ignition is turned off.
The Pontiac Grand Am offers a smooth and controlled ride. There's a noticeable absence of shimmy, shake or rattle over potholes. It's also quiet inside. Sharp steering response connects the driver to the road.
We haven't tried a Grand Am with the new EcoTec engine, but last year's four-banger delivered plenty of power around town, and offered good acceleration for tackling freeway on-ramps. We don't expect the new engine to perform much differently. What really counts is torque, and here the EcoTec only falls short by 5 pound-feet (150 vs. 155). That the new engine reaches its torque peak 400 rpm sooner, at 4000 rather than 4400 rpm, might more than compensate for the shortfall.
The four-speed automatic shifts smoothly and positively.
That wide-track Pontiac stance gives the Grand Am an athletic handling response. A wide front track (the distance between the left and right front tires) and a stretched-out, 107-inch wheelbase adds to the Grand Am's aggressive, sporty appearance. It also increases stability at high speeds, in corners and in cross winds.
Beneath the Grand Am's sporty appearance is a rigid unit-body structure. That stiffer unit-body 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 the previous-generation Grand Am left something to be desired.
Big front disc brakes stop the Grand Am in a reasonable distance. Aluminum brake calipers result in lower unsprung weight, which improves handling in bumpy corners. All Grand Ams come with antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic traction control, both of which make the car easier to control in slippery situations.
Pontiac's Grand Am offers bold styling and is loaded with convenient interior features.
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