There's a simple reason the Grand Am is Pontiac's best-selling vehicle: You get a lot of car for not a lot of money. Our test car, a 1997 Grand Am SE sedan, had a 150-horsepower twin-cam engine that beats a lot of the competition, plus a base price of $14,734. Add goodies like a rear spoiler, alloy wheels and a (yuk) smoker's package and you'll still be well below $20,000. Our test model barely nudged the $18,000 mark. While the '97 edition hasn't changed much from the previous year, Pontiac has thrown another bone to the budget-pinched - standard air conditioning on all models. There's an added benefit, too, that you won't see advertised. The interior is so cramped it finally may force you to go on that diet. She: The Grand Am would be an easy target to pick on. A lot of the competition, like the Toyota Camry and the Nissan Altima, clearly are better engineered and more sophisticated cars. But they're handicapped by price. That's where the Grand Am shines. Our test car was loaded up with all kinds of options and it still squeaked in with a total price of just $18,015. That will barely buy you an entry-level Camry these days. While the Grand Am's chubby steroid "sporty" style may not suit everyone's taste, at least you're not getting some bland insurance-company car. Price and personality. How can you beat that? He: Let me count the ways. Just look at some of the Grand Am's siblings at General Motors, like the new Chevrolet Malibu and the Oldsmobile Cutlass. Both are better-built, better-looking, better-handling and better-equipped cars for around the same price. Plus, a new Grand Am is coming next year. I would say buy the 1997 model only if you can get a heavy discount on the sticker. I imagine you'll have a pretty good chance of wheeling and dealing on the Grand Am. She: That's half the fun for some people. Where the Grand Am disappoints is in the cabin, which is short on space and has just about the worst-looking plastic I've ever seen. Our test-vehicle had a teal-colored interior, which just seemed to intensify the cheapness of the plastic. It seemed too grainy and garish. The rear seats feel quite cramped. He: The whole interior is cramped for a six-footer, and the front seats are so thinly padded, you'll feel every pothole in the seat of your pants. Other than that, the Grand Am is not much better than a middle-of-the-road car. She: I'm surprised to hear that from a former Saturday-night hot-rodder. I thought you'd love the engine power in the Grand Am. He: Whaddya mean, "hot rodder"? In my beat-up '65 Fairlane with the 289 V-8, "three on the tree" transmission and bald, retread tires, you gotta be kidding. I know 150 horses in the Grand Am's size and price class is nothing to sneeze at. But let's not kid ourselves, this is no sports car. The steering is not as crisp and precise as it could be, nor does the car feel all that agile, despite the fact that it has struts and coi ls in front and a semi-independent trailing-arm setup in the rear. As I said, it seems like just a step behind some of the newer products in the segment. She: Of course this is a sports car. Just look at some of the competition. You get an anemic 98-horsepower engine in the Suzuki Esteem and a 100-horsepower engine in the base Saturn SL1 sedan. I don't want to get into a philosophical argument with you about what's sporty and what's not, but the Grand Am is sporty, believe me. If the engine isn't zippy enough for you, just look at the two new paint colors - both metallic and one's even purple. He: Oh, come on. I'm just trying to say that the Grand Am seems to have lost a little of its spunk and personality. It's even more apparent when you consider what a great job Pontiac did in redesigning its big brother, the Grand Prix, this year. I just hope some of that excellence and enthusiasm filters down to the Grand Am when they redo it next summer for the 1999 model year. She: I think it's more spunky than ever. Especially if spunky means able to handle whatever is thrown at it in terms of weather and road conditions. You get standard antilock brakes, and with the optional four-speed automatic transmission you also get a form of traction control. So you get sporty and sensible. Tote up all the safety features, including daytime running lights and child-proof rear door locks, and the Grand Am seems fun and practical. I admire that. He: Wait a minute. I'm fun and practical. You never said you admire me. She: I wonder how your specs would hold up next to the Grand Am's. He: How about more rear-end room and a louder exhaust? 1997 Pontiac Grand Am SE Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger sedan. Price: Base, $14,734; as tested, $18,015 (inc. $525 destination charge). What's new for '97: Standard air conditioning, two new colors (medium blue metallic and medium purple metallic). Standard equipment: Power rack-and-pinion steering, power door locks, custom bolt-on wheel covers, fog lamps, tinted glass, air conditioning, illuminated entry, tachometer, console with cup holders, dual visor vanity mirrors, AM/FM stereo with four speakers, remote fuel and trunk releases. Safety features: Dual air bags, four-wheel antilock brakes, daytime running lamps, child-proof rear door locks, traction control (optional). Options on test vehicle: Option Group 1SB ($825) including tilt steering wheel, intermittent windshield wipers, cruise control, rear window defogger, AM/FM stereo radio with clock and cassette player; 4-speed automatic transmission with enhanced traction system ($810); power windows ($355); 15-inch crosslace aluminum wheels ($300); rear deck spoiler ($170); remote keyless entry ($150); P195/65R15 touring tires ($131); smoker's package ($15). EPA fuel economy: 22 mpg city/ 32 mpg highway. Engine: 2.4-liter four-cylinder; 150-hp at 6000 rpm; 155 lb-ft torque at 4400 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Competitors: Buick Skylark, Chevrolet Cavalier, Chevrolet Malibu, Dodge Neon, Dodge Stratus, Ford Contour, Ford Taurus, Geo Prizm, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Sephia, Mazda Protege, Mazda 626, Mercury Mystique, Mercury Sable, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Altima, Nissan Sentra, Oldsmobile Achieva, Oldsmobile Cutlass, Plymouth Breeze, Saturn SL, Subaru Impreza, Subaru Legacy, Suzuki Esteem, Toyota Camry, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta. Specifications: Wheelbase, 103.4 inches; overall length, 186.9 inches; curb weight, 2,877 pounds; legroom, 43.1 inches front/34.9 inches rear; headroom, 37.8 inches front/37.0 inches rear; shoulder room, 52.2 inches front/ 52.6 inches rear. 12-month insurance cost: According to AAA Michigan: $949, Rates based on an average family of four from the Livonia area whose primary driver is aged 40 with no tickets who drives three to 10 miles each way to work. Rates reflect multicar discount and, where appropriate, discounts for air bags and seat belts. Where built: Lansing
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