The Grand Am is Pontiac’s bestseller and one of the top ten best-selling cars in America, year after year. As such, it poses challenges shared by any manufacturer of a high-volume model: what features and attributes to package, and at what price point?
You can get a Grand Am in either a two-door coupe or four-door sedan, at three different trim levels for each: SE, SE1, or GT. The company lists the Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, Ford Mustang, Dodge Stratus, Acura Integra, Mitsubishi Galant, Mercury Cougar, and Volkswagen Jetta as key competitors—an admirable group to emulate, to be sure. And a big one.
The big news this year is the new, base-level, 2.2-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine, found in our Galaxy Silver Metallic SE1 sedan. It delivers 140 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 150 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm without sacrificing smooth, unobtrusive operation. According to Pontiac, its twin balance shafts, all-aluminum construction, hydraulic roller-finger valve operation and outstanding structural rigidity provide “first-rate” noise, vibration and harshness control, although to my ear the engine lacked the quietude and refinement found in, say, a Honda powerplant.
The Ecotec four was designed for minimal maintenance, and features an innovative paper-only oil filter cartridge for easy replacement and disposal. A hydraulic tensioner keeps the timing chain adjusted for life, and extended-life spark plugs deliver 100,000 miles of service.
At 305 pounds fully dressed, the Ecotec is the lightest engine GM has produced in its displacement class, and one of the most compact four-cylinders in the world. Just as importantly, thanks in part to its 10.0:1 compression ratio, it delivers decent acceleration and good drivability, with a broad, flat torque curve.
Putting the power down through the Getrag five-speed manual is fairly pleasurable. The throws are longish, and the linkage is somewhat rubbery, but the double-cone synchronizers in gears one and two, and the sintered bronze blocker rings in gears three through five, make for a smooth shifting experience.
2002 Pontiac Grand Am
You can’t get the manual, however, with the 3.4-liter V-6, which comes in normal and Ram Air flavors. One suspects that its inclusion in the line is solely to provide a low entry price point.
The four-wheel independent suspension—MacPherson struts front and rear, with lower control arms in front—uses aluminum suspension knuckles to reduce unsprung weight, but I would have liked a firmer ride and better rubber. Torque-axis powertrain mounting uses two mounts to support the mass of the engine and transaxle and two others specifically tuned to resist torque and damp idle vibrations. Mounting Grand Am’s power rack-and-pinion steering system directly to the hydroformed chassis cradle provides precise on-center feel with excellent isolation of road disturbances.
The suspension bits remain the same no matter what Grand Am you get, so naturally the baseline will be tuned more towards the comfort sought by the masses buying a Grand Am. Under hard driving, there is a disconcerting degree of wallow and body roll. The optional chrome 16” wheels, fitted with 225/50R16 Goodyear Eagles, provided good looks and little else. I noted later that the tires had only an “S” rating—this after a bumpy surface induced some trailing-throttle oversteer and lurid slides on an access ramp. Not providing a performance tire upgrade with the wheels surprised me, particularly in a car that hints at sportiness as much as this one does.
The exterior buys into Pontiac’s performance design ethos big time — all curves, bulges, strakes, and flared nostrils. The interior was comfortable enough, and the controls were simple to operate. The heart-shaped outline of the main instrument cluster, however, was somewhat odd, and there was a horrific amount of dashboard glare. The cruise control switchgear, placed under the steering-wheel airbag casing, scraped my knuckles whenever I tried to assume my favorite highway-cruise posture, which involves holding the bottom of the steering rim. Overall interior fit and finish was better than on most GM products.
Profit margins are thin at the low end of the car business, but volume sales of the Grand Am should allow for the inclusion of better rubber and suspension underpinnings, particularly in the GT packages. Not doing so goes counter to the Grand Am’s sporting image, and could even bring new customers into the mix.
Over to you, Mr. Lutz.
2002 Pontiac Grand Am SE1 Sedan
Price as tested: $19,850
Engine: 2.2-liter in-line four, 140 hp
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 186.3 x 70.4 x 55.1 in
Wheelbase: 107.2 in
Curb weight: 3116 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 25/33 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control
Major standard equipment (SE1): Power windows and mirrors, cruise control, stainless steel exhaust, fog lamps, tachometer, tilt steering wheel
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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