Pontiac on the Rebound? by TCC Team (2/3/2003)
GM aims to rev up its “Excitement” division, and to do it without any more Azteks.
SEDONA, Ariz. — Getting here can be half the fun, if you avoid the straight route north on Interstate 17 from metropolitan Phoenix. The folks at Pontiac knew that and devised a 180-mile route using just six miles of I-17, the better to show the 2004 Grand Prix’s improved driving dynamics. Good choice, for the latest iteration of the 42-year-old nameplate takes major strides towards becoming a first-rate performance sedan. Give Pontiac (read corporate GM) some points for good timing too, for as Grand Prix marketing director Bob Kraut pointed out, “More competitors have entered our space. We have to bring this Grand Prix to a new level.”
Especially when you have Bob Lutz looking over your shoulder. After all it was GM’s vice-chairman/product development czar who unveiled the G Force Concept (the Grand Prix’s precursor) in Chicago last year, calling it the “best handling front-wheel-drive sedan I’ve ever driven.” He also gets credit for removing all Pontiac side cladding, (though some Pontiac staffers claim that was in the works before Lutz’s arrival); and according to Pontiac-GMC General Manager Lynn Myers, “Bob’s the man who’s made it his personal mission to take Pontiac to the next level.”
The car Lutz drove was basically the top-grade GTP model with the Comp G (Competition Group) package that helped achieve the .85 lateral Gs that he bragged about in Chicago in February 2002. But the news got even better late in the year when Pro Formance Driving Events tested a GTP/Comp G against 16 competitors in a series of performance and handling tests supervised and sanctioned by SCCA. Comp G, take a bow for your first-place finish, including a .827G reading.
On our ride to Sedona, Kraut admitted: “Having done performance testing before, I didn’t think we’d perform as well as we did.” Then with TCC Publisher TCC Team behind the wheel on Arizona Route 260, he added, “See, you can take that corner (really a curve) at 80 and the car’s completely flat.” Indeed he could, and did, with no drama, testament to “a great car being reborn” with “80 percent new parts, and not just lug nuts or washers,” Kraut had told us during an in-depth technical briefing last November.
Four grade levels
Those parts form four grades of Grand Prix GT1, GT2, GTP and GTP/Comp G, with 60 percent of buyers expected to choose GT1 or GT2, 30 percent GTP and just 10 percent opting for Comp G’s total performance experience. All cars get what Pontiac bills as “the next-generation WideTrack Handling System” that starts with four-wheel independent suspension (struts up front/tri-link with anti-roll bar at the rear) with four distinct phases of suspension damping. There are also direct-acting front and rear stabilizer bars to limit body roll, standard 16-inch wheels on GTs, (GTP and Comp G get 17s) and three different tires and axle ratios on depending on model. Brakes are four-wheel discs with standard anti-lock and tire pressure-monitoring system (except GT1).
Grand Prix power emanates from the familiar 3.8-liter V-6, but GM engineers massaged this Series III 3800 with an engine management computer with 50 percent more memory and a 60 percent faster operating speed. It paved the way for a new speed-based electronic throttle control (ETC) system, more precise engine controls and fuel delivery, and a broad, flat torque curve. A fifth-generation Eaton supercharger that’s thirteen percent more efficient than last year’s unit helps raise the GTP’s horsepower to 240 from 260; torque remains at 280 pound-feet. Numbers for the normally aspirated 3800 stay 200-hp and 225 lb-ft, while the former base model (SE) and its 3100 V-6 disappear.
GM’s 4T65-E four-speed Hydra-Matic is the sole transmission, but Comp G Package cars get TAPshift (Touch Activated Power) manual shift mode via steering wheel-mounted paddles. “That idea came from the Ferrari Formula 1 cars; they have the most prominent paddles,” said Bob Kraut. To its raison d’être: “Our philosophy was to make it seamless and act more like a manual transmission. We wanted to make it the fasting shifting, to take out the hesitation; and at six-tenths of a second, I don’t think anybody else is faster.” TAPshift does work well; but it doesn’t quite give you the positive, feels-like-a-manual as Infiniti’s G35s do; and BMW’s SMG (a $2,400 option) is in a class by itself.
Speaking of options, the Comp G Package adds $1,395 to the GTP’s $26,495 sticker. Besides TAPshift, it adds V-rated 225/55 performance tires on 17-inch multi-spoke wheels; a 3.29:1 axle ratio; “Info Tech,” a multi-function trip computer that includes a heads-up display with a stealth mode; Magnasteer II and StabiliTrak Sport. The latter two noticeably improve Grand Prix’s driving dynamics. MagnaSteer II is speed sensitive and per customer input, more effort is needed during cornering or aggressive maneuvers, much less during low-speed maneuvering or parking. “StabiliTrak Sport is different than two-channel StabiliTrak,” Kraut told us. “It’s four-channel run by a Bosch 5.3 system. Our benchmark was to make it like a tap on the shoulder rather than a bear hug. The person who drives this car doesn’t want their driving style interfered with; it’s the Libertarian version of driving if you will, with less intervention involved.”
Free will interior
2004 Pontiac Grand Prix
2004 Pontiac Grand Prix
Styling didn’t need much revision. “Current owners love their cars,” said chief designer John Manoogian III. “Coupe-like styling on a four-door, that’s what folks wanted, to disguise their four-door, basically.” Styling of the ’04 Grand Prix is evolutionary, with the exception of “the obvious story, no cladding; let me repeat that, no cladding.” Manoogian added: “We don’t share doors with Chevy or Buick.” The new car seems to sit up on its haunches more, with a more pronounced C-pillar that does help disguise the fact that it’s a sedan. If you accept Manoogian’s theory of satisfied customers, you don’t tinker too much with a car that produces a quarter-million annual sales just for the sake of change. Just remember the Ford Taurus re-style that dropped it from the top sales spot.
Despite increased competition, the new Grand Prix should easily hold its own if not improve its position in the marketplace. It’s still a step or two removed from BMW or Audi, but as Bob Kraut told us, “We’ve got some things we haven’t done yet on this car.” Let’s watch and see if GM lets him take those last big steps.
2004 Pontiac Grand Prix
Base price: $21,760 (GT 1); $25,860 (GTP), plus $635 destination
Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 200 hp/225 lb-ft (GT 1/GT 2) 3.8-liter supercharged V-6, 260hp/280 lb-ft (GTP and GTP/Comp G Package)
Transmission: Four-speed electronically controlled automatic; TAPshift manual shifting mode only on Comp G Package
Length x width x height: 198.3 (GTs); 198.2 (GTP) x 71.6 x 55.9 in
Wheelbase: 110.5 in
Curb weight: 3477 lbs (GT 1); 3484 lbs (GT 2); 3583 lbs (GTP)
EPA City/Hwy: 20/30 mpg (GTs) 18/28 mpg (GTP) (estimated)
Safety equipment: Dual-stage front airbags, head curtain side airbags (optional), four-wheel disc brakes, anti-lock & tire pressure monitor standard on all but GT1, traction control standard on GTP, Stabilitrak Sport stability control system standard on Comp G Package
Major standard equipment: six-speaker AM/FM/CD sound system, air conditioning, power windows, mirrors & locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles