Pontiac's timing in bringing a large, rear-wheel-drive sports sedan to market isn't great: gas prices are sky-high and the economy is heading south. Luckily for the retooling brand, the new G8 delivers driving excitement and good looks at a price reasonable enough that anyone in the market for such a sedan should give it a shot.
The Future of Pontiac
Pontiac's last full-size sedan was the Grand Prix, which can still be found on dealer lots as a 2008 model. The problem with the outgoing Grand Prix isn't just that it's big and heavy, it's that its power — whether from the anemic 200-horsepower V-6 or the 303-hp V-8 — goes to the front wheels. It's also antiquated inside, where it's awash in tacky plastic surrounding frumpy seats.
The G8 washes all that bad taste out of drivers' mouths. It's priced close to the Grand Prix, but for their money drivers will get one of the best-handling large sedans on the road. Chrysler received kudos for its powerful 300C and Dodge Charger sedans, but those cars were strictly straight-point performers. The G8 carves corners while also doing that straight-point thing pretty well. All in all, this is the best-performing sedan in the segment.
The base G8 comes with a 256-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, which I'm sure is a competent engine, but the one everyone is interested in is the 361-hp V-8 that rumbled beneath the nostrilled hood of the GT version I tested. The cost to move up to the V-8 is just $2,400, moving the MSRP from $27,595 to $29,995 — a relative bargain.
Surprisingly, Pontiac dialed down the rumble of this powerful engine; when you turn the ignition it kicks on like any other family sedan. This is in stark contrast to the last Australian V-8 import, the Pontiac GTO, which shook so violently at idle you thought something must be wrong with it.
This is where the G8 really excels: There's enough power for drivers who've ever desired a muscle car, but the G8 can play nice, too. The only downside to the engine is that it's paired with a six-speed automatic. I don't mind automatics as a rule — in fact, the Hemi-powered Chryslers are a joy, and they only come as automatics. The G8 isn't as smooth off the line as those cars; you really have to use the manual-shift feature to get the most out of the engine in those important early moments. This might throw off drivers expecting traditional muscle-car prowess at all times. Passing at highway speeds, though, is effortless, with the automatic always managing to find oodles of power.
Also impressive is the large car's handling and rear-wheel drive. Long the mark of a "performance" car, having power go to the rear wheels leaves the front tires free to handle the steering, meaning a good driver can navigate corners with more speed than in any front- or even all-wheel-drive car. The problem is most people aren't that good of drivers. I'm probably not that good of a driver either, and when I pushed the G8 on some extremely winding roads I could feel that back end begging to come out and play, and it often did, even with the standard stability system left on. I managed to tame the rear wheels when needed — at the expense of speed and thrills — but I'm a tad worried a novice would not be so lucky when attempting high-speed shenanigans. The optional all-season tires also lacked the kind of grip you'd want in such a car. Let's hope Pontiac upgrades those tires — otherwise I'd advise buyers in warm climates to go for the standard summer tires and those in cold climates to add a winter tire and wheel combo or better all-season tires.
The steering is heavy, a tradeoff for such remarkable handling. It reminded me of a BMW's weighty wheel. Drivers' arms may actually get tired on long trips. The ride on such drives, however, will be exceptionally smooth for a vehicle so attuned to the performance side of things. I was very impressed with the cabin's quietness over loud concrete highways and rough city roads. Wind noise was also minimal.
Now for the gas mileage: The V-8 features cylinder deactivation to get the best mileage possible, so when cruising at a consistent speed the engine shuts off four of its eight cylinders to conserve gas. My test car was routinely driven at optimum speeds and with a heavy foot, and during an extended drive on highways, undulating switchbacks and strip-mall-laden suburban roads, the trip computer returned an average of 16 mpg. Overall mileage, which included driving in downtown Chicago, was slightly less, though still falling within its 15/24 mpg city/highway EPA rating. That mileage estimate is slightly better than the less-powerful Hemis, which also feature cylinder deactivation. The V-6 G8 is rated at 17/25 mpg.
The G8 isn't going to snap necks with its looks like the Chrysler 300 did when it debuted, but the bulging hood can't be missed when seen in the rearview mirror. The rest of the angles, sleek sidelines and understated taillights are remarkably contemporary. When I parked it in our garage downtown I was impressed with how upscale the G8's lines looked when it was parked next to luxury cars.
Inside the G8, American buyers will immediately realize they're not in their father's Pontiac. The car's Australian roots show glaringly in the placement of the window buttons — dead center below the shifter on the center console. That's also where you'll find the door locks and mirror adjustment. Our test car's window switches had an automatic function, but it took a split-second longer than one would think necessary.
Material quality on the dashboard and around the center stack was above average, but again just a tad "different." The plastic is of an entirely different finish than other recently introduced GM products, which have gotten noticeably better. I didn't find this Australian-bred plastic better than the upscale interior of the new, European-styled Saturn Vue, and the car probably would have been just fine with the same parts as other new GM products. That's not to say the quality is bad; it's just different. Of course, it's worlds better than the Grand Prix.
The gauges are straightforward and good-looking in a sporty red, matching the two-tone leather seats in our GT tester. Standard G8s or those with plain black leather get black and gray gauges.
The GT's seats were comfortable, clad in red and black leather. Heated leather front seats are part of a $1,400 Premium Package, which I'd recommend. Without the leather, even things like the armrests on the doors are covered in a cheaper-feeling cloth material. In this price range, moving from $29,995 to $31,395 shouldn't be a deal-breaker, even if it pops the psychological $30,000 price bubble.
The front seats have power controls, but the recline adjustment is done via a large knob and the lumbar support via a smaller knob. Neither of these knobs is easy to reach while driving and were quite hard to rotate. If more than one driver will be piloting this car, that might be a concern. The relatively firm seats might bring out some aches on long drives, but they also hold you snugly during aggressive cornering.
The backseat offers plenty of room and is pitched at a slight reclining angle to offer more headroom. There are even side bolsters on the rear seats, which is unusual. Compared to the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Ford Taurus, I'd say the G8 easily holds its own when it comes to rear seat comfort and roominess.
Cargo & Features
The G8 has a relatively large, 17.5-cubic-foot trunk. That outdoes the 15.6 cubic feet in the Chrysler and 16.2 cubic feet in the Dodge, but doesn't match the cavernous 21.2 cubic feet in the Ford. You'd still be able to fit at least two golf bags with sizeable luggage, and the large opening would make loading easy. A large center pass-thru will handle skis, a golf bag or quite a few pieces of lumber.
The G8 comes with a few different options, including a sunroof, larger wheels, leather seats and an upgraded sound system. Pontiac offers an array of packages that allow access to these add-ons at fairly reasonable prices. Our tester only had the Premium Package and all-season tires, costing an extra $1,400, but load one up with the sunroof and Sport Package and the price still doesn't top $33,000.
As of publication, the G8 has yet to be crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It comes with standard side-impact airbags, plus side curtain airbags for both rows of seats. Stability and traction control are also standard.
A tire pressure monitoring system is standard, as is a system that keeps track of the tires' treadwear.
Pontiac G8 in the Market
Driving enthusiasts have been clamoring for a car like the G8 for years, and GM delivered it to the right brand in Pontiac, once known for performance cars like the GTO and Trans Am. The G8 GT is certainly superior to its direct competition, and I expect Pontiac loyalists will line up for test drives.
For the regular buyer, there's a lot of value and performance at a good price. The big question will be if the sour economy and sky-high gas prices will get in the way of Pontiac's best chance in years to regain its former glory.
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