It was a bubba-mobile -- red, loud, fast, lacking in certain graces, totally out of place in effete Washington circles. It came with a burping exhaust, sparkling chromed aluminum wheels and a thirst for the good stuff -- premium unleaded gasoline -- which it swallowed with abandon at top highway speeds. And it came with lots of low-end torque that launched it from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.5 seconds, which, thankfully, it accomplished without screeching its 17-inch Michelin Pilot tires. Lordy, it even had a name that reminded me of hot Saturday nights in Louisiana, when muscle and libido tended to dominate reason: Pontiac Grand Prix GTX Ram Air. The GTX Ram Air suffix was not bestowed by the car's original manufacturer, General Motors Corp. GM has gone through lots of changes lately. But getting hip isn't one of them; and getting funky, all down and dirty and everything, definitely was out of the question. No, "GTX Ram Air" came from SLP Engineering, a firm in Troy, Mich., that specializes in turning normal automobiles into motorized beasts. Which is what SLP did to the otherwise tame Grand Prix. It boosted the car's horsepower by ramming more air into its 3.8-liter V-6 engine via a vented, scooped hood and a supercharger. SLP tweaked the exhaust system, adding dual mufflers with dual tips, creating a jet-fast escape route for all of those burned gases. The result is 260 horsepower at 5,200 rpm -- 20 more horsepower than the normally aspirated 3.8-liter V-6. There is more torque, too -- 295 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm, compared with 280 pound-feet at 3,200 rpm for the regular 3.8-liter V-6. The standard transmission in the GTX is a four-speed automatic. SLP left untouched the Grand Prix's suspension system -- MacPherson struts with coil springs and a lower A-arm up front, and independent three-link coil over strut with an anti-roll bar in the rear. That was a fairly decent setup as presented. But the company improved the car's handling, helping it to stick better in the curves, by adding bigger tires and wheels. On one level, it's all silly stuff, an ode to varooming adolescence. There is nothing, after all, socially or environmentally redeeming about the GTX Ram Air. And the more righteous among us might even condemn the car for setting a bad example. I mean, even the "GTX Ram Air" nameplate is designed in such a way as to suggest wanton speed. But people looking at the car that way are missing a certain romance. It is a Walter Mitty machine -- a front-wheel-drive, mid-size car turned into something larger than itself. Few people will ever drive it to its limits -- any more than they will ever do anything else to the max. But they'll love its potential and will be seduced by the possibility, however remote, of turning that potential into an unfettered run along one of life's less cluttered highways.1998 Pontiac Grand Prix GTX Ram Air Complaints: The interior is a bit of a mess. Pontiac's idea of "exci tement" is an instrument panel configured like a fighter cockpit, replete with soft-glow red lights and multitudinous buttons. And the rest of the interior is an affair of tucked and pleated vinyl, especially on the door panels -- a suburban nouveau-riche treatment that seems at odds with the fighter-jet theme and the GTX Ram Air's sporty performance. SLP left this melange as is. Here's hoping, in the future, the company will do a thorough conversion, ripping out that GM-supplied instrument panel and installing something more purpose-oriented, perhaps an offering of simple, black-and-white analog gauges in more spartan surroundings. Praise: Overall, the GTX Ram Air is a hoot to drive, the perfect motorized antidote to political correctness. The perfect anti-Washington, anti-regulatory, anti-goody car. Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent all around. A car for people who appreciate the sheer joy of movement. Good braking. Power vented front discs and solid rea rdiscs. An ti-lock is standard. Head-turning quotient: A hit among people who find beauty in tattoos, long hair, leather wear and unshaven faces. SLP's latest iteration of the blue-collar Batmobile, which, of course, means it rates the Uplifted Nose in tonier, more refined and more responsible circles. Safety: It has air bags and seat belts -- and it's red and shiny. You can see it coming. Mileage: SLP's engineers swear that the GTX Ram Air gets about 28 miles per gallon on the highway. I swear they're full of baloney. I barely averaged 23. The tank holds 18 gallons of premium unleaded. That worked out to a 409-mile range on the usable volume of fuel. Sound system: Eight-speaker AM-FM stereo radio and cassette with single-disc, in-dash CD player. A Delco/Bose collaboration. Excellent. Price: The GTX Ram Air is a specialty car that carries a special price of $30,735, compared with $20,415 for a regular Grand Prix GT Coupe. Purse-strings note: SLP turns out up to 4,000 GTX Ram Airs annually, and it apparently has no problem selling all of them at a profit. This is a total "want" car. Interested parties can call 1-800-533-5673.
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