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Since 1962, the Pontiac Grand Prix has been a family-size car with custom-car styling and a performance-car attitude. The first two generations of Grand Prix were big cars, too, even by 1960s standards. For 1969, the Grand Prix shrank to mid-size, but its theme of dramatic style continued to today. For 2004, Pontiac released the ninth-generation Grand Prix, and it's better than ever.
The previous Pontiac Grand Prix had been known as a fine mover, a good stopper, a fair looker and a reasonable handler. The current car brings improvements in all those categories, and a real revolution in interior design, not only in eye-appeal and ergonomics but in versatility, flexibility and utility. The latent creativity of the General Motors design staff has been stirred into activity coming up with more good ideas than a carton of cartoon light bulbs.
If the name "sport-utility vehicle" wasn't already taken for more cumbersome, truck-like machines, it could have been applied to the Grand Prix, which has a valid claim to both "sport" and "utility." It's fun to drive in the twisties and you can stuff a nine-foot kayak into it and still close the trunk.
Detail improvements for 2005 include an upgraded generation of OnStar standard on all models, and the availability of MP3 audio, DVD-based navigation, dual-zone automatic climate control, and remote starting. Model and trim designations have been rationalized, while the Comp G option package still stokes excitement at the top end of the range.
The 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix is offered in three primary trim levels: base, GT and GTP, with an additional ultimate-handling Competition Group available on the GTP. All are five-passenger, four-door, front-wheel-drive sedans with 3.8-liter V6 engines and four-speed automatic transmissions.
Base and GT models come with a V6 engine that develops 200 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 230 pound-feet of torque at 4000. In California and the Northeast, this engine meets SULEV (Super Low Emissions Vehicle) standards.
The standard Grand Prix ($22,900) is well equipped, with air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD stereo, full front floor console, driver information center, two 12-volt accessory outlets, OnStar, 60/40 split folding rear seats, Pass-Key III security, fog lamps, P225/60 touring tires on 16-inch steel wheels, and all the usual power conveniences. ABS ($600) is optional and comes with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), advanced traction control, and a tire inflation monitor. A Driver's Package ($500) combines a power driver's seat, front and rear floor mats and 16-inch polished aluminum wheels.
GT ($24,800) adds ABS with brake-based traction control, electronic (rather than hydraulic) power steering, power front seats, upgraded interior appointments, aluminum wheels, and MP3 capability for the stereo.
GTP ($26,560) gets a supercharged version of the same V6 engine that generates 260 horsepower at 5400 rpm and 280 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. Additional equipment includes full-function traction control and P225/55HR17 touring tires on 17-inch aluminum wheels.
The Competition Group, or Comp G, ($1,395) is an option package for the GTP that adds a sports suspension, B.F. Goodrich Comp T/A performance tires, StabiliTrak Sport, TAPshift, and a more aggressive 3.29:1 final drive gear (instead of the standard GTP's 2.93). StabiliTrak Sport is a vehicle-stability system tuned to provide maximum hands-on control during cornering. TAPshift (Touch Activated Power) provides a set of small paddles on the steering wheel allowing semi-manual shifting of the automatic transmission.
Options for GT and GTP models include dual-zone automatic climate control ($275); XM Satellite Radio ($325); a 235-watt Monsoon audio system ($695); DVD-based navigation with Monsoon audio ($2,390), trip computer with head-up display and dual-zone automatic climate control ($875); leather upholstery ($795).
Side-impact and curtain airbags ($395) are available on all models. So is a remote starter ($150) and engine-block heater ($35).
A commitment to style separates the Grand Prix from other mid-size transportation pods. A coupe-like tautness characterizes the exterior design of this four-door sedan, thanks to a more extreme wedge shape and a roofline five inches longer than that of the previous-generation model. The rear end is as muscular as a speed skater's. Pronounced, enlarged taillights are mounted at the corners. A discreet spoiler finishes the deck lid.
Through the taillights and extended into the sheet metal are two horizontal bulges, like cladding segments escaped from the sides of a Grand Am. If this were a fashion story I would say they were "to add eye interest" to the rear. And oddly, they do. Anyway, following a Grand Prix down the highway is a pleasant occupation. The rear is important in appearance and certainly distinguishable from its road mates.
Appearance is the most subjective aspect of any automobile. Suffice it to say I would rather follow this Grand Prix than spot it in the rearview mirror: I'm not delighted with the front end. The slightly sculptured hood is a good beginning, but when shaping lines come off the hood swooping down to trace around the grille something goes wrong for me. The resulting grille with its trademark Pontiac division is straight across on top with bowl-shaped curving sides. It appears to me like a tight smirk, ungenerous and simpering. It's off-putting. The headlights are even more slanted and attenuated than on the previous Grand Prix.
The so-called Coke-bottle sides are marked (marred I would say) by two parallel character lines through the two doors about a hand's span below the door handles. Gratefully, there's no cladding, but these lines bother me. I think one reason the new Grand Prix looks best in black is because black hides these creases.
The black Grand Prix at the press introduction also had a solution for some of my objections to the new grille: a heavier, more important optional chrome surround. (Now if a black Grand Prix came with a crew armed with California Dusters I'd consider it in a heartbeat.)
The aerodynamic door handles are hard to grab and hold onto.
Inside is where the Grand Prix absolutely shines. Leather and satin nickel set the tone for the interior style of the Grand Prix, and materials pleasant to both eye and fingertips continue the experience.
The seats are supportive and comfortable. The leather-wrapped steering wheel fills the hand just right. The outside mirrors are remarkably large for a sedan. That's a feature SUV drivers often mention as a reason they like SUVs. Here are large mirrors with an informative view of the world behind and yet add no noticeable wind noise.
Initially we thought headroom seemed a little tight, but the Grand Prix offers more headroom than a Honda Accord. One of our few disappointments was the glove box lid, which opens with the clatter of plastic.
The instrument panel, pleasing in its three-dimensional, yet simple, layout, is readily visible through the smart three-spoke steering wheel. The large center speedometer stands out from and overlaps the tachometer (on the left) and the circle containing the fuel and temperature gauges (on the right). Backgrounded with a shadowy grid pattern, these watch-like dials yield their information with simple, uncluttered, handsome functionality.
Technology allows the speedometer to be rimmed with only one set of numbers to designate speed in both miles and kilometers per hour. How? Punch in your choice on the Driver Information Center (DIC) and the numbers change. Cross a border, make your selection and read Ks; punch again and it's miles. No cluttering inner-ring of numbers. How cool is that?
You'll find the optional head up display (HUD) almost subliminal in its presence. You can select the amount of information it gives and at night, to conserve your night vision and limit reflections, you can douse the instrument panel lights completely, fly in stealth mode, and still keep tabs on what's important.
The Driver Information Center with its four-line read-out is just to the right and above your fist in a console canted slightly toward you. Below an organized cluster of white icons on simple black buttons and dials keep the driver tuned in, warm or cool, etc. Pleasing to look at and nothing bewildering.
As comfortable as the seating, as pleasant to look at and feel as the interior is, what is really special is its functionality and flexibility. Not only do the back seats fold down in pairs or singly (with a 60/40 split) to effectively increase cargo capacity, the back of the front passenger seat folds forward (on GT and GTP), table flat.
All this flat and nearly flat space can be accessed through the trunk (with a particularly low lift-over height.) Thus it's easy to fold the appropriate seats and load long objects into the vehicle: a roll of carpet or a ladder or skis or Italian market umbrellas. You can close the trunk door on anything up to nine feet long, like a rigged fly rod, for example. That trunk opening besides being lower is also about ten inches wider. Boxed bikes anyone?
With the rear seat up and five people on board, the trunk still holds 16 cubic feet of whatever those folks need to carry.
Lots of interior toting room is worthless if you can't get the objects you are toting through the holes in the vehicle. In shopping mall parking lots anywhere in the country you'll find cartons that once held TVs, microwave ovens, computer components and barbecues. The products had to be stripped of their packing to manipulate them through car doors. Cognizant of that problem, Grand Prix designers played dentist: "Open wider, please." And now the doors swing out 82 degrees, improving ingress and egress for people and stuff.
Driving alone may not be an efficient use of fossil fuels but the fact is most cars most of the time carry only a driver. The solo driver can particularly appreciate the fold-flat passenger seat: it's a veritable desk at the elbow with indentations to keep coins at hand and a webbed elastic pouch to keep such things
If memory serves, the Pontiac Grand Prix has always been fun to drive, and this latest rendition is a most gratifying performer.
The ideal touring car makes itself transparent to the driver. The driving experience is noticeable, not the vehicle providing that experience. Anyone test-driving such a car has to consciously force attention through to the vehicle instead of simply enjoying the ease of motion, the willingness of the engine, the responsiveness of the brakes. The testing driver has to notice what the designers have worked to make seamless. I made myself notice and allowed myself to enjoy.
To maintain peak performance athletes might clamp an oxygen mask to their face. That's what an engine is doing with a turbo- or supercharger: forcing more oxygen inside. While a turbo comes into play after the engine is spooled up a bit, a supercharger is there from the get-go.
The 3.8-liter V6 in the Grand Prix is normally aspirated in the base and GT models but supercharged in the GTP. That lowers gas mileage slightly, but accounts for the addition of 60 horsepower (to 260) and the reduction by some two seconds in the time it takes to reach 60 mph from zero. We're talking just 6.5 seconds in the Comp G, a comforting figure when merging or passing in tight situations. At that the gas mileage is still respectable: The base/GT gets 20 city and 30 highway with two mpg less for the supercharged version.
Usually when power even approaching 200 horsepower is put through the same wheels that steer the car (i.e., the front wheels) a phenomenon known as torque steer ensues. This is that disconcerting tug at the steering wheel under rapid acceleration. It's like the front wheels are in a race with each other. Happily, there's little to no torque steer in the Grand Prix. Pull away smoothly with the right foot down hard and the Grand Prix is as stable as an Acura.
The four-speed automatic transmission shifts in smooth increments. An electronic traction control system (ETC) has a speed-based response mechanism meaning that the car is tractable around town without goosey overreaction, but answers the call for power instantly at highway speeds.
The Comp G has steering-wheel-mounted shifting paddles, more like thumb-controlled buttons really, called TAPshift (Touch Activated Power). Unlike the road-car systems modeled more closely after Formula 1 (left paddle for downshifts, right for upshifts) the controls in the Grand Prix both do the same thing: press down on either to select a lower gear, up on either for a higher gear. (All is controlled so you can't over-rev.) Quick to respond, TAPshift is a way to experience the control of a manual in hard pushing while retaining the leave-it-be ease of an automatic for stop-and-go crowds.
The ride quality of a car is perhaps on a par with styling when it comes to subjectivity. The traditional American ride is far softer than the traditional European ride. But disappearing is that extra-soft billowiness that separates a car from the surface it's riding over and is thus dangerously misleading in turns. Why that American ride is going away could be because those who've preferred it are spending more time in rockers and less on the road. And, too, because suspension engineers are finding ways to allow for some softness on the straights and yet snug down to business when it comes to serious cornering. (Improved chassis rigidity is one example.)
The ultimate feel of the road, and thus a car that loves quick kinks and endless esses, requires a tight suspension. The knit-back-gloves driver is grinning, but others may be groaning at a ride too rough for them.
I separate suspension systems into three levels. One: you can't tell what your tires are running over on the road except that it's pavement. Two: if you run over a dime you'll know it. Three: you not only know it's a dime, you know what year it was coined.
These levels are descriptions, a
In '62, when Pontiac released the first Grand Prix, I muttered: "There Detroit goes again, bouncing its image off of others peoples' trophies." Pontiac had never been near Grand Prix racing, not even as a spectator. I expressed some doubt that the American public could even pronounce the name right (which would be poetic justice). Bonneville, now that's another matter. That was earned.
But Pontiac prevailed. My attitude mellowed. And I can say honestly that I like this latest Grand Prix a lot. I welcome the commitment GM is making to the function of the machine as a utilitarian transporter of people and things and a stimulator of the brain's pleasure center. Having car guys in charge matters.
Many Americans who turned to Europe and Asia for cars to suit their needs would like a reason to buy American again. Pontiac has given them grounds to consider the 2005 Grand Prix. It is hot to drive and cool to live with.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Denise McCluggage is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.