Versus the competiton:
FORGET MONTE CARLO and other exotic auto racing locales. I offer a more challenging course — the streets of Washington’s National Airport.
Did I say “streets?” Precision demands correction. National Airport has no streets. It has paths — ill-marked, ill-conceived and obstacle-strewn. Getting through National Airport thus requires more than a good car. It requires luck and good driving. What better place to hold a race?
Imagine! The Washington National Grand Prix! The idea occurred to me on a recent trip to the airport in a 1995 Pontiac Grand Am coupe. I was looking for a long-term parking space, a slot in that newfangled, brick-and-glass garage across from the airport’s main terminal.
I thought I followed the signs exactly, but I wound up near the end of the airport grounds, faced with a choice to “exit” or “return to main terminal.” I took the “return” option and was fascinated by the path’s twists, turns, deceptions — absolutely boggled by the jumble of it all.
I finally made it back to the garage, only to find that place full, which meant another tour around the airport grounds in search of satellite parking lots A, B or C. I wound up at B after several near-collisions and a couple of rounds of tight-corner maneuvering.
The Grand Am GT handled the trip much better than I did. But I’d love to come back again with a racing helmet, race car and more liberal speed limit. I mean, even at 20 mph, some of those airport curves were, um, very interesting.
Background: Think of the Pontiac Grand Am as a family car with libido. It looks hot and almost drives that way. But it’s an economy car, no doubt about it.
The front-drive Grand Am, introduced in its present form in 1985, comes four ways: base SE coupe and SE sedan, and sporty GT coupe and GT sedan. The car really looks and feels better as a two-door coupe. But the Grand Am is aimed at young folks, many of whom are married, have children and need doors3 and 4.
The youth theme is evident in the slope of the Grand Am’s hood, the sassiness of its bifurcated grille and the flippancy of its rear end. The problem is, youth appeal turns to something more adolescent in the design of the car’s instrument panel — a whimsical, be-buttoned thing that could use some of the sophistication found in the dashboard of the Nissan Altima.
But there’s no such miscue with the Grand Am GT’s standard engine — a 2.3-liter, double-overhead-cam, 16-valve, 4-cylinder job rated 150 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. Torque is set at 145 pound-feet at 4,800 rpm. An optional 3.1-liter V-6 is available. But why bother? It offers only a marginal increase in horsepower, 155 hp at 5,200 rpm. Torque with the V-6 goes to 185 pound-feet at 4,000 rpm.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all Grand Am models.
Optional transmissions include a four-speed automatic overdrive and a three-speed automatic. The three-speed is a total wimp. F orget it.
A driver’s air bag is standard. No passenger bag is available on the 1995 Grand Am.
Standard brakes include front discs/rear drums with four-wheel anti-lock backup.
Complaints: No passenger bag. Door-mounted “automatic” seat belts and shoulder harnesses up front. Yecchh! Adolescent dashboard.
Praise: Nice power delivery from the standard 16-valve, 4-cylinder engine. Very smooth five-speed manual gearbox.
Head-turning quotient: Very attractive exterior styling. Different. You know that it’s a Grand Am.
Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent. Competes with any compact coupe or sedan. Excellent braking. You’d be making an error if you left this one off your shopping list. Mileage: About 26 mpg (15.2-gallon tank, estimated 383-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), combined city-highway, running driver only.
Price: Base price is $14,854. Dealer’s invoice on base model is $14,086. Price as tested is $17,414, incl ding $2,065 in options and a $495 destination charge.
Purse-strings note: For best value in the Grand Am, go easy on the options. You’ll still wind up with an attractive, nice running car.
Compare with Ford Probe, Dodge Avenger/Chrysler Sebring, Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique and Nissan Altima.