Versus the competiton:
If you haven’t heard yet, GM is dropping its Pontiac brand; it’s scheduled to cease operations by the end of next year. Pontiac has a history of performance cars, but it hadn’t had a serious performance sedan in recent years, until the debut of the G8 for 2008. Pontiac upped the ante for 2009 with the 415-horsepower G8 GXP, which is the trim level I tested. The GXP is an immensely gratifying sports car, which is why it’s so disappointing that it will be gone soon.
With a powerful V-8 and responsive chassis, the GXP rewards enthusiast drivers yet is civilized enough for daily use, thanks to its comfortable ride and spacious interior. Weighing it against a Dodge Charger SRT8, I’d take the Pontiac any day of the week. (See a side-by-side comparison of the 2008 and 2009 G8.)
Perhaps even more impressive than the GXP’s 6.2-liter V-8 is its suspension, which does a commendable job balancing the conflicting demands of ride comfort and handling prowess. I was worried the GXP was going to pummel me as I traveled around the rutted roads of Chicago, but it did nothing of the sort. Instead, it soaked up potholes and pavement heaves with aplomb, preventing any undue harshness from entering the cabin. It rode considerably better than the Audi A5 coupe that was in Cars.com’s garage for evaluation at the same time, and — dare I say? — it even had a certain BMW quality to it. That’s high praise, for sure, but the GXP warrants it.
It’s nice that the GXP’s suspension is good at soaking up bumpy pavement, but enthusiasts probably want to know how it handles. The chassis feels pretty balanced when cornering, with the car hunkering down over its outside rear wheel. Even though there’s more body roll than you might expect — perhaps a side effect of the compliant suspension — the GXP maintains a planted feel that inspires confidence.
The thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel has tilt and telescope adjustments. Like ones in other high-performance cars, it features a flat bottom. It takes a moderate amount of effort to turn the wheel, but it’s nowhere near as weighty as a BMW 3 Series. Steering is reasonably precise, but it’s not as razor-sharp as the steering in some performance cars, and there’s also not as much steering feedback as you might expect.
Even though the GXP’s suspension is the most noteworthy element of this sport sedan, its 6.2-liter V-8 is hardly a slouch — especially when teamed with the optional six-speed manual transmission, which is the setup my test car had (a six-speed automatic is standard).
There’s a rawness to the GXP’s V-8 that makes it appealing. Unlike the smooth-revving performance V-8s from BMW and Audi, the GXP’s V-8 feels like it’s going to punch through the hood any minute. From the constant tremors it sends through the cabin at idle to its crackling baritone exhaust note, the engine is a muscle-car enthusiast’s dream come true.
That impression only solidifies when you hammer the gas pedal, as the GXP accelerates with an effortlessness that’s common among high-powered cars, while making a gloriously loud roar. Highway speeds do little to thwart this engine’s urgency, as it can run down cars ahead of you in an instant. Pontiac says the GXP can accelerate from zero to 60 mph in around 4.7 seconds with either the manual or automatic. That decisively beats the Charger SRT8, which Dodge says hits 60 mph in the low 5s.
I like the manual transmission that’s paired with the V-8. The shifter’s throws are short — though not as precise as those from the transmission Infiniti uses in its G37 — and you can feel its mechanical properties as you move through the gears. The clutch offers smooth take-up, and it’s relatively light, too, which your left leg will appreciate in stop-and-go driving.
The manual transmission does have an annoying characteristic known as skip-shift. It’s a gas-saving measure that locks out 2nd gear when accelerating leisurely and shunts you over to 4th as you move the shifter back. This takes the engine out of its power band at low speeds, though you can also go from 1st to 3rd, avoiding skip-shift entirely.
The Chevrolet Corvette also has skip-shift, and I can see the reason for it if it helps a car avoid a gas-guzzler tax (the Corvette isn’t assessed one). However, the G8 GXP — which prefers premium gas — is only rated at 13/20 mpg city/highway with skip-shift, which warrants a $1,700 tax. Perhaps skip-shift keeps the gas-guzzler tax from being higher than it already is. Either way, aftermarket companies offer products that defeat skip-shift.
In addition to my time driving the GXP on the street, I had the chance to take it on a hot lap at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. It’s a technical four-mile road course, and the V-8-powered sport sedan impressed nearly as much there as it did on public roads.
Road America has a few long straightaways that can make many street cars feel underpowered. Not so with the GXP, as its V-8 can stretch its legs on those straights, pushing the sedan to speeds approaching 100 mph with authority.
The GXP’s cornering performance on the track is pretty good, especially considering its comfortable ride on the street. The sedan has a balanced feel to it, and you can use the gas pedal to help steer the car through a corner.
The GXP wears a Pontiac badge, but its interior is unlike any Pontiac on sale in the U.S. That’s because the G8 hails from Australia, where it’s known as the Holden Commodore. Some differences are subtle, like the location of the power window and lock switches in the center console, behind the shifter. Others are more pronounced, like the audio system’s head unit that’s sourced from Blaupunkt. You may also notice that the G8’s dashboard has a symmetry that’s not present in most modern cars, but this helps facilitate both left- and right-hand-drive versions of the sedan.
I found the GXP’s front sport seats to be very comfortable during leisurely driving. They have large seating surfaces that should accommodate drivers of varying sizes, and the bottom cushion offers good thigh support. It’s only when you push the car hard that you find yourself struggling to stay planted in the seat, as the side bolsters don’t do much to keep you in place.
Backseat accommodations are good for some of the same reasons accommodations are nice up front. The outer seats are comfy and large, and legroom is good. The middle spot in the back is actually tolerable — there’s decent headroom, and there’s foot space on either side of the floor hump.
The GXP’s 17.5-cubic-foot trunk is competitive among full-size sedans; the 2010 Ford Taurus’ trunk is larger, at 20.1 cubic feet, while the Dodge Charger’s is smaller, at 16.2. The GXP’s trunk has a nice rectangular shape to it, with few protrusions to make loading luggage difficult. There’s a fairly large trunk pass-through, but the rear-seat backrest doesn’t fold.
The GXP is evidence GM can make a world-class muscle sedan for the masses, but it entered the U.S. market at a particularly bad time. Volatile gas prices have heightened interest in efficient cars, and the recession has battered car sales and contributed to GM’s fight for its very survival. Had the GXP debuted under different circumstances, perhaps it could have captivated more buyers.
Whatever happens with GM, it’s going to need great products, and the GXP — poor gas mileage notwithstanding — is a great product that could serve as the foundation for one of the automaker’s remaining brands. Sadly, all it looks capable of now is serving as an entertaining ride for a few lucky enthusiasts before becoming a footnote in Pontiac history.