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Expert Reviews 1 of 9
By Bob Golfen
July 5, 1997
The Grand Prix GT Coupe is a performance machine that can double as the family runabout. Muscle cars certainly aren't what they used to be. In the old Pontiac Grand Prix days, you wrestled with a sheet-metal dinosaur powered by a huge V-8 lump
that roared like thunder, pulled like a race horse and drank like an unrepentant gasoholic. The world rushed by as the heavy cruiser heaved on its mushy suspension, all going well unless the driver was required to navigate a bend in the road or come
to a stop. No, the finer points of handling and braking were lost on the '60s muscle cars. And the Grand Prix, while more sophisticated than most, was no exception. Many will argue that those were the good old days. But that's hard ground to
hold when driving a thoroughly modern muscle car such as the '97 Grand Prix GT Coupe. Although there's no booming V-8 under its hood, this brawny beast packs a 240-horsepower supercharged V-6, helping to carry the torch for today's all-American
approach to performance iron. And though it lacks the back road finesse of its European counterparts, the Pontiac has the broad-shouldered strength and raw edges desired by boy-racers on this side of the Atlantic. Redesigned for '97, the Grand Prix
has returned to one of its former virtues: wide-track styling. As well as benefiting handling and interior space, the approximately 3-inch gain gives the coupe an aggressive stance, which also should be appreciated by the muscle-car crowd. The
curvaceous body is downright voluptuous, from its flaring black nostrils to its stylish twin, cast-aluminum exhaust tips. As befitting a sports coupe, the roofline is low and beautifully integrated into the body lines. Big 16-inch spoked wheels shod
with wide performance tires and a menacing black paint job completed the picture on our test car. It may be a foolhardy color for Phoenix summers, but a gleaming black coupe looks so good. The supercharged engine is something of a chameleon, quiet
and relaxed when puttering around town, tough and aggressive when pushed into action. The "blower" forces the V-6 to crank out 45 horses more than the naturally aspirated version, no slouch at 195, as well as lots of motivating torque across the board.
A supercharger, by the way, is a belt-driven air pump that forces the gas and fuel mixture into an engine to boost power, similar to the more-common turbocharger, which is driven by exhaust pressure. Supercharged passenger cars have been fairly
uncommon in recent years, with General Motors taking a lead position in supplying the 3.8-liter version in several cars, including Buick's highly regarded Park Avenue Ultra. It's really a good way to get hot-rod power from a V-6, with modern-day
electronics making it possible for supercharging to be tractable and reliable. The GM version, a relatively simple pushrod engine, is surprisingly smooth and sophisticated. The Grand Prix's exhaust note is significantly more rowdy than t
he one on the more-dignified Buick. Unfortunately, no stick shift is available, though the automatic's "performance" setting does a decent job of keeping on top of things. The interior of our road-test Grand Prix was as black and swoopy as the
exterior. Pontiac has toned down its interiors from the loopy, show-car look of recent years, and the Grand Prix manages to be cozy and forward-looking at the same time. Leg room is somewhat tight in the rear, but not too bad, for a coupe. The
passenger seat slides forward easily, making rear-seat access a bit less painful. A four-door version of this same package also is available. The space-age heads-up display, a unique Pontiac option, projects speed and a couple other pieces of
information on the lower part of the windshield, helping the driver monitor these things without taking eyes off the road. Interesting and usable but, ultimately, an unnecessary piece of high-tech fluff. And I found the steering-wheel rad io control
s to be more of a pain than a convenience: I kept whacking them accidently when turning or backing up, switching channels or cutting the volume when I least wanted that to happen. For those longing for the psychic release of a strong performance
machine, which still can double as the family runabout, the Grand Prix GT Coupe delivers the message that there is more than one way to build a muscle car. 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door coupe,
front-wheel-drive. Base price: $19,189. Price as tested: $24,645. Engine: 3.8-liter supercharged V-6, 240 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 280 pound-feet of torque at 3,200 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,396 pounds.
Length: 196.5 inches. Wheelbase: 110.5 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes. EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. Highs: Powerful engine. Aggressive styling. Well-designed interior. Lows: Difficult torque
steer. Clumsy radio controls. Mediocre gas mileage.