2004 Pontiac GTO Review

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Martin Padgett Martin Padgett Editorial Director
November 9, 2003

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Review continues below

By now, you know the story of American musclecars. The thumbnail: plain-Jane domestics crammed with massive V-8 power, shoved into the spotlight in the Sixties and strangled by clean-air acts in the Seventies. Some noble attempts have been made to resuscitate the genre — think GNX — but even those of us born after the Sixties know the sound of a classic retread isn’t as sweet as the original.

GM was pretty much out of the musclecar business as recently as two years ago, when the Firebird and Camaro were discharged without honor in 2002. Sure, the Corvette is and was still around, but when 2+2s were considered, the portfolio was missing something. At Pontiac in particular, where every car since has been measured against the famed GTO’s yardstick, the omissions were a major source of wounded pride.

Every GM brand has its icon, and for better or worse, most Pontiacs are judged now by the insane speeds and badass bravado generated by the original GTO, qualities lacking from entire legions of Bonnevilles, Parisiennes, Sunbirds, and even the sporty but dainty Vibe hatchback. But GM’s rear-drive pantry has been pretty empty until lately, and it wasn’t until the General cast its eyes abroad that it found the best, most authentic way to bring the GTO back to life.

That’s right: the new Pontiac GTO is born halfway around the world in Australia and shipped over, having swapped about 20 percent of the content of the Aussie-market Holden Monaro for more appropriate American parts, the most important of which is the Corvette’s heart and soul, a 350-hp version of the ’Vette 5.7-liter V-8 and a standard six-speed manual gearbox.

Life under hood

2004 Pontiac GTO

2004 Pontiac GTO

The crown jewel of the GTO project is its American heart, the 5.7-liter V-8. GM should find even more ways to sell this gem of a powertrain. It’s rivaled only by Dodge’s new Hemi in authentic V-8 rumble and roar, something no version of Ford’s modular V-8s seems to capture. With 350 hp at 5200 rpm and 365 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm, nearly any gear in the standard six-speed manual is appropriate for sliding around SUVs and the like on two-laners; two-cog gear drops rocket you ahead of whole packs of slow-moving cars with dizzying pace.

The four-speed automatic, though it sounds a little anachronistic, is even more fitting to the big two-door’s personality and barely slower. Pontiac claims the GTO will accelerate to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds in manual-equipped versions, a tick slower with the automatic. The manual will run through the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 105 mph, in the same time but 3 mph faster than the automatic. Short of a Corvette, General Motors can’t offer you much else that’s faster or sleeker or V-8 powered.

The powertrain is complemented by other feel-good controls. The GTO’s steering is pretty good, with slight variations noted on the two cars we drove from Santa Barbara through to Ojai. On-center feel is swell, and though it doesn’t transmit all the feeling you’d like through the wheel, the GTO turns in quickly and responds swiftly to hairpin commands, about as well as any big rear-driver without German credentials or fewer seats. It’s not the latest fancy GM electric power steering, which ends up being to its benefit.

The brakes are largish vented 11.7-inch discs up front, solid 11.3-inchers in the rear. Four-channel anti-lock control is standard. At slower speeds our first test car had longish pedal travel that dissipated with heavier use. Panic stops in both a manual and an automatic version, though, brought sure and effective stopping power.

The suspension is a combination of MacPherson struts in front and trailing arms in the back — another throwback that, in this application, works more fluently than you’ll recall from other muscular cars of previous eras. The GTO can ride a bit stiff over longer stretches of rumbly pavement, but otherwise the ride motions are minimal, body roll inconsequential, and available grip off the usual passenger-car meters. With 17-inch 245/45ZR tires and smart-looking five-spoke wheels, the grip’s no surprise, but the comfort is.

Shaping up

2004 Pontiac GTO

2004 Pontiac GTO

The sleek, almost sublime shape of the ’04 doesn’t telegraph “GTO” to anyone we asked, but nonetheless it slots neatly into Pontiac’s lineup. They say it’s what the GTO might have grown up and into had it not stopped in its tracks in 1974. It echoes everything from a new 6-Series BMW to a Pontiac Sunfire to the aforementioned T-Bird SC — and is every bit as conventional as the original. Maybe, given the Sydney Opera House and Kylie Minogue, they were expecting something more shapely to come from Down Under?

2004 Pontiac GTO

2004 Pontiac GTO

Inside the cabin has been dolled up to fit the current Pontiac idiom, with red lighting, color-keyed gauges (red on our test cars), and aluminum-like trim neatly applied. But some changeovers would have been too expensive, so the GTO wears a last-gen GM power mirror controller, a Blaupunkt CD changer/radio head unit, tiny little HVAC vents, and other clues that maybe this Aussie hasn’t quite lost all of its native accent. Side airbags or curtain airbags are notably absent, as they are in Australian cars in general, but daytime running lights are standard (and by our tastes, unwelcome).

The front buckets feel amazingly soft for the amount of support they offer — and are wide enough across the seatback for the target market we think they’re aiming for (the word “Budweiser” figures prominently in focus groups, we’re betting). The back seats are an oddity in modern cars — big and comfy enough for two adults to ride in for long distances. It’s the getting-in that sucks: the GTO’s long, heavy doors are just the first hurdle. The second is your buddy asking, why didn’t you just get a four-door or, heathen, an SUV?

The major tragedy in retrofitting the GTO to U.S. specs is trunk room. Because our fuel tank requirements are more heavily influenced by lawyers in search of Jaguar payments, the GTO’s tank has been moved behind the rear seats, where it swallows almost half the available space, leaving the GTO with enough room for a couple of roll-ons or possibly two sets of golf bags.

Pontiac says its new Aussie-built GTO will be priced from $32,495 — not including the unavoidable $1000 gas-guzzler tax imposed on automatic-transmission models. Order the six-speed Tremec manual transmission (a $695 option) and the GTO avoids the tax because the manual produces 17/29 mph fuel economy ratings. With the automatic, the ratings drop to 16/21 mpg, for a composite rating of 21.5 mpg.

Purists won’t rejoice, but the new GTO is as close to a spiritual successor as GM can offer today. There’s more speed, more safety, better handling, and a world-class powerplant. And the tuner possibilities, from supercharging to body kits, can make today’s GTO every bit as bawdy as the Judge.

GM is making it easy for real muscleheads to decide:  it's just $33,190 for a new GTO that’s better in nearly every way, including the Aussie accent.

2004 Pontiac GTO
Base price/as equipped
: $33,190 (manual); $33,495 (automatic)
Engine: 5.7-liter V-8, 350 hp/365 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Six-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 189.8 x 72.5 x 54.9 in
Wheelbase: 109.8 in
Curb weight: 3761– 3774 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 17/29 mpg (manual); 16/21 mpg (automatic)
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, power driver's seat, cruise control, AM/FM CD sound system, 17-inch alloy wheels
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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