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Resurrecting a legend is never easy. Sometimes it's not even a good idea. Especially when it involves a car with the legacy of the Pontiac GTO.
As much myth as reality surrounds the GTO, from the origin of its name, ripped off an even more legendary car of Italian heritage, to its genesis, a skunkworks-like project slipped under GM's corporate radar with nondescript parts names and downplayed performance numbers. By way of proof of the power of the car's name, counterfeit GTOs have been offered for sale in classified ads and reportedly have even been detected, and turned away, by reputable auctioneers. Against this history, Pontiac has elected to take the chance.
Say hello to the new GTO. Will it make the grade as a real GTO, true to the heritage? One thing is without doubt: The 2004 GTO is by all objective measures much, much better than the original. The jury is still out on the other, perhaps more important, question.
Pontiac has made ordering a GTO ($31,795) a paragon of simplicity. After picking from a palette of seven exterior paint colors and three, properly coordinated interior trims (none of which cost extra), a buyer has but one option: a six-speed manual transmission ($695). Ironically, ordering the manual actually saves a buyer money, as the four-speed automatic carries a gas guzzler tax of $1000 that the manual avoids. Otherwise, all GTOs are identical two-door coupes powered by a 350-horsepower 5.7-liter V8 driving the rear wheels.
Consistent with the GTO's promise to be more of a driver's car than a family transporter or utilitarian commuter, comfort and convenience features are minimal, at least by today's standards. Leather upholstery is standard. It comes with power mirrors, power front seats, and power locks. The AM/FM/CD stereo features a dash-mounted six-disc changer. The leather-wrapped steering wheel tilts and telescopes. In deference to memory lapses sometimes induced by daytime running lights, headlights have an auto-on setting. And cruise control gives the driver's right leg a break on long drives. But there's no navigation system available, and shoppers wanting set-it-and-forget-it climate control will be disappointed because the HVAC is manual. Nor are there memory settings for a driver's preferred seating and mirror positions, stereo station presets, suspension stiffness, and so on. About the only item possibly falling outside the category of modern necessaries are the standard front and rear floor mats.
Much the same holds for safety gear. For occupants, three-point seatbelts and dual frontal airbags are about it. There is an alarm system, and a keyless remote, but no side airbags or head curtains. Similarly, while antilock brakes, traction control and a limited-slip differential are standard, absent is any form of electronic stability control.
Pontiac's stylists confronted a difficult task in designing the new GTO: Rather than starting with a blank computer screen, they began with an existing assembly of sheet metal mostly imported from Australia. They deserve a round of applause, then, for crafting a look that is clearly Pontiac, and especially for doing so without slathering great expanses of plastic cladding along the sides or hanging garish lower trim pieces fore and aft. In the case of the new GTO, understatement has been a good thing.
The front end suggests a slimmer, toned down Grand Prix or even Bonneville, with the split grille bookended by high tech headlights behind clear aero lenses sweeping subtly upward as they wrap around the front fenders. A large air intake fills most of the lower fascia, which also houses fog lights recessed in the curvature of the bumper. Widely spaced wheels give the car a sturdy, planted look. Alas, no scoop disturbs the hood's graceful lines, though Pontiac is studying the possibility of adding hood scoops for 2005 to appease traditional GTO enthusiasts.
In silhouette, the GTO shows evidence of substantial wind tunnel time. From the sleek, aero nose, the outline flows smoothly from the gradual arc of the front fender over the steeply raked windshield and properly proportioned glass house to the somewhat stubby boot, giving the car a mild wedge-like shape. In an apparent bow to the car's muscle car-cum-sporty heritage, a less than graceful spoiler is draped over the trailing edge of the trunk lid. Mild blisters stretch the top of the fenders out over the tires, which leave no wasted space in their circular wheel wells.
The hind end is vaguely reminiscent of a previous-generation Chevy Monte Carlo, the very rounded, Lumina-esque iteration. Save for the taillights, that is, which are accented by a brace of round, white lenses stacked vertically along the outer edges of the trunk lid. The twin tips of the authentic dual exhaust peek out from beneath the left end of the rear bumper. And again, wide tires placed at the outer edges of the car's body give the GTO a look of confidence, of stability.
For people who like to drive a car, as opposed to just steer it, the Pontiac GTO is a good fit, not quite custom-tailored, but much better than off-the-rack.
Front seats are nicely bolstered, but not overly so. Seat bottom cushions could offer a bit more thigh support. Inexcusable is the omission of a dead pedal for bracing the left leg, which might reduce fatigue on longer drives. But the shift lever falls readily to hand, and the steering wheel adjusts to any driver, tall or short, lanky or otherwise.
Gauges are large, round and easy to read, if covering only the basics, like engine and road speed, fuel level and coolant temperature, leaving some important data to digital displays that have to be punched up on information screens. A nice visual touch is the color coordination of the gauge faces with the buyer's choice of exterior paint color. Misleading, however, is the 200-mph top speed promised by the speedometer, as the GTO is electronically limited to 155; the gauge face is a direct transplant from Australia, which uses metrics, and instead of redoing the gauge face, GM incorporated an electronic adjuster that changes the needle movement between metric and English, allowing the retention of the single set of metric-based numbers. However, we can appreciate that decisions like that do help keep costs and, therefore, prices down.
Outward visibility is about par for a sporty coupe, even a four-passenger one. The steeply raked windshield is no picture window, but it's adequate, and the sloping hood gives good visuals for close quarter maneuvering. Rear quarter vision, though, is limited by the thick C-pillars. And the rear spoiler blocks the lower portion of the back window.
Quality of interior materials and fit and finish are several notches above today's mainstream GM products; plastic, of course, but quality plastic, and snugly fitted panels and trim pieces. Power window buttons are located in the center console, which makes for easy use by the passenger and saves the cost of a button on the passenger door and associated wiring, but its placement is not intuitive and we found ourselves fumbling for drive-up windows and parking attendants. Rear side windows are fixed.
Rear seats are exemplary, a new standard for coupes, with deep buckets, solid head restraints and ample leg room. Access, though, is a pain, requiring long waits while a slow electric motor moves the front seats forward, then back. This makes the GTO a good option for someone who wants a sporty coupe but has one or two kids and another car in the family.
Interior storage is, again, adequate, nothing special or innovative, but with the requisite door map pockets, incorporating expanded rounds for beverage cans, and an average-size center console; the power point is located in the center console, convenient for cell phones but inconvenient for radar detectors.
Practically speaking, the trunk is a joke, more appropriate for a two-seat sports car than a four-passenger coupe. But logically, it makes sense: The gas tank in the Australian car from which the GTO is derived sits beneath the trunk and behind the rear axle, and GM felt compelled for safety reasons to further distance it from rear end crushers, and the only space available was behind the rear seat.
Stereo and climate control switches are convenient and for the most part of sufficient size and heft, and displays are legible even in bright sun and through polarized dark glasses. One major problem with the ventilation system is the spatial relationship between the windshield defogger vents and the windshield glass. At any fan speed, with the system set to defog, the air from the vents deflects from the glass and blows directly into the front seat occupants' eyes. Contact lens wearers, especially, beware.
The new GTO is supposed to beg to be driven, above all else. And here, it delivers, relegating virtually all its shortcomings to minor irritations.
Americans love V8s, and the GTO answers the call. From its throaty, rumbling exhaust note, to the subtle joy of a barely perceptible rocking movement at idle, to pink slip-collecting acceleration, this one is the real thing.
Clutch take up on the manual is smooth, although strong enough to handle a heavy right foot. And that right foot treads on a responsive gas pedal, with a quick tip in giving ready access to the engine's ample power. Shift throws are short, but could be more precise, especially when the lever is directed toward reverse. Annoying is the first-to-fourth gear bypass at speeds below 20 miles per hour, necessary to avoid a gas guzzler tax on the six-speed manual, but only those sufficiently socially responsible to ever even think about leaving first gear at such a snail's pace will ever notice.
The automatic transmission works quite well, quickly sensing the driver's intentions and responding with the correct gear and shift speed. A big readout on the dash displays the selected gear when shifting manually. However, we were surprised and disappointed that the automatic did not have a better manual-shift feature. While a manual-shift feature seems unnecessary on a lot of luxury cars that it comes on, it seems to be missing in action on this sporty coupe.
Suspension is firm, if bordering on stiff, which translates into fun on smooth, windy roads and short trips, but wearing otherwise. The car plows initially when carrying a bit too much speed into a turn, but this is easily countered with the gas pedal. Turning off the traction control let's a driver hang the rear end out at will. (Pressing the T/C button briefly displays a neat digital graphic that tells the driver whether traction control is on.) Braking is linear, with good pedal feel.
Quick transitions from left to right aren't managed with the same finesse as, say, a BMW 3 Series, but this is no shame on the new GTO. It's not only still far and above its legendary namesake, which did one thing well and never mind stopping or turning, but also better mannered than its domestic competition, the Mustang. Not to mention, it has a real rear seat.
Long-time GTO fans likely will hesitate to plunk down 30-plus big ones to park a 2004 GTO in their garage. They want The Look, the hood scoop, the distinctive body lines, the trim accents, all those things they remember their old GTO as being, what it meant to them.
But maybe it's time to grow up. This is what the 2004 Pontiac GTO represents: the car the GTO would be today if it had been kept around and allowed to mature, to learn new moves, to adapt to and adopt new technology, but always remembering how to have fun.