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GM Measures “The Lutz Effect” by
TCC Team (10/4/2004)
Seminar suggests GM finally may be finding product czar’s religion.
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The morning dew is still thick on the grass as we pass through the security gate at “Casa Lutz.” Our shuttle winds its way up the long drive towards the oversized Swiss chalet that belongs to General Motors car czar, Bob Lutz, dropping us off on the edge of a lush, green pasture where a small fleet of sedans have been parked, waiting for the morning drive to begin.
Our starting point is an appropriate one if you consider that Lutz, the one-time president of Chrysler Corp., came out of retirement three years ago to help transform GM’s moribund product development system. The brand-new Pontiac G6 is one of the first and most significant products the automaker has rolled out bearing Lutz’s indelible stamp.
The mid-size G6 is a critical new entry for Pontiac. It replaces the aging Grand Am and fills a niche just below the division’s larger Grand Prix. The G6 goes up against an array of well-known import competitors in a spectrum that runs from the Honda Civic to the larger and more expensive Accord.
In recent years, the Grand Am has been little more than an afterthought in the increasingly competitive U.S. market, with a large share of its production earmarked for daily rental fleets. But Pontiac is looking to shift the focus to the retail market with the G6, and is confident consumers will buy the new car without the support of heavy incentives.
“This is the first new GM car that reflects a new ethic — rather than do something barely adequate to its segment, we’ve set out to deliver a tremendous value proposition for the customer,” explains Lutz, as he leads the way down to a display of the G6 lineup.
Three of a kind
2005 Pontiac G6Enlarge Photo
Eventually, there will be three new vehicles displaying that badge; a stylish coupe and a surprisingly slick hardtop convertible are still a bit away from launch. For the 2005 model year, the G6 arrives in sedan form, a logical move that targets the heart of the market.
All three versions are based off of a new global architecture dubbed Epsilon. The G6 shares this platform with a variety of GM passenger cars, including the Chevrolet Malibu and Saab’s 9-3. But for Pontiac, this flexible chassis has been stretched to yield a wheelbase of 112.3 inches, six inches more than the Chevy version. This offers several advantages, GM claims, including a more stable ride, as well as a roomier interior.
The G6 created quite a stir when it first debuted at the Detroit auto show awhile back. The styling of the show car was sleek and striking, and suggested that, indeed, General Motors was getting serious about design again. The production version maintains most of the cues that were so appealing on the prototype, something that could help it stand out in a segment dominated by generally bland Japanese sheetmetal.
The basic wedge shape, with its short overhangs and steeply raked windshield, gives the car an aggressive stance, in keeping with the image Pontiac has long sought to project. But the division has finally abandoned the fluted moldings that had become a dated trademark on products like the old Grand Am. Touches such as the projector fog lamps, a mesh twin-port grille, and bright taillamps give G6 a more modern appearance, the overall look cleaner and more precise.
Exterior styling may draw your attention, but it’s the interior that you see every day on the way to work — and which strongly influences the way you feel about your car over the course of ownership. The Grand Am offered little in the way of refinement, reflecting a problem endemic to GM in recent years. Pontiac designers set out to address that issue with the G6, and the look is definitely more upscale. The driver-centric instrument panel introduces some nice touches, including chrome and brushed metal, surrounding a nicely illuminated gauge cluster. But there’s still way too much of that gray-black plastic in the center stack that dumbs down the overall appearance. Visually, it’s the G6’s weakest point.
The front seats are firm and well-bolstered, underscoring Pontiac’s performance bent. Equally important, the rear seat delivers on the promise of the car’s longer wheelbase. But while there’s lots of legroom, headroom seemed a wee bit compromised for taller passengers.
Sport and sedan, too
For a car that promises to mate “sport” with “sedan,” powertrain is a critical element. And the G6 GT’s 3.5-liter V-6 is, at 200 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque, a reasonably fleet package.
It’s quick and responsive, and GM engineers are quite proud of the refinement work they’ve done on the engine. But there’s a sense of defensiveness in their boasting. This is still a pushrod engine in a world increasingly dominated by overhead-cam layouts. So, plenty of work went into refining the V-6’s NVH, or noise, vibration, and handling, characteristics. Overall, the effort was successful. Our quibble is with the way the 3.5-liter package sounds under full acceleration: as if it were gasping for air. Listen, rather than look, and you might think the engine is running out of steam by the time it hits 4500 rpm. Fact is, it’ll keep pulling well past that point.
We’d also like to see a five-speed automatic, rather than the four-speed unit GM rolled out, though we realize this helps deliver a very competitive price package. The four-speed’s manumatic shifter is a reasonably good interpretation of a stick, but not a real substitute.
Going forward, GM has a lot planned for the G6 line, not only the coupe and hardtop convertible, but a range of additional powertrains. Before the ’05 model year is out, there will be a GTP edition with a 3.9-liter, 240-hp V-6 — with both an automatic and stick in the works. And, for the following year, Pontiac will add a 170-hp, 2.4-liter in-line four as the entry-level powerplant.
The Epsilon platform has a lot going for it, and like the sporty Saab 9-3, Pontiac makes good use of what it’s been given to work with for the G6. The front suspension is a MacPherson strut design, the rear a four-link independent with twin-tube shocks. There are direct-acting stabilizer bars, front and back. The combination more than meets expectations. The G6 is stable, sporty and a delight to drive. We had to remind ourselves not to charge every possible corner. The car is equipped with variable-assist electric power steering. Most drivers will likely appreciate the system, though to our taste, it feels a little notchy and ever so slightly unnatural.
To add to the pleasure of driving the G6, Pontiac is offering the Panoramic roof, a four-panel, electrically operated glass sunroof that yawns wide enough to let even rear-seat passengers share in the open-air experience.
Overall, the new G6 is a welcome and promising new entry into the mid-size segment. It has moved worlds beyond the limits of the old Grand Am. We have a few quibbles, but on the whole, the package lives up to Lutz’s promise. It is definitely a good value equation that you’ll best enjoy from behind the wheel.
2005 Pontiac G6 sedan
Base price: $21,300, including $625 destination charge
Engine: 3.5-liter V-6, 200 hp/220 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 189.0 x 70.6 x 57.1 in
Wheelbase: 112.3 in
Curb weight: 3420 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 20/30 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags for front row, ABS brakes, traction control, daytime running lamps
Major standard equipment: Keyless entry; power windows, mirrors, and locks; AM/FM/CD audio system; air conditioning; folding rear seat; tilt steering wheel; cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles