Versus the competiton:
Over the decades, Pontiac has built an identity within GM as a division that builds vehicles that are youthful and exciting. The excitement usually comes down to one visual cue: plastic cladding.
Those lumpy, bumpy trim bits wrap up Pontiac’s intent in one quick styling gimmick. It has helped sustain Pontiac over the past 20 years and started with the Grand Am in the early ’80s. Its ultimate expression is the Pontiac Aztek, a vehicle that proves that cladding no longer works as a styling statement.
So, it’s little wonder that Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman for product development, has declared war on cladding. One wonders what will happen to the plastic-clad Grand Am, Pontiac’s most popular car. Out of the 456,664 cars Pontiac sold in 2001, 182,046 were Grand Ams.
Available as a coupe or sedan, the Grand Am’s expressive styling sets it apart. For those who like bold statements, the Grand Am does so expertly. Besides the cladding, the bat-wing-like rear spoiler, loud chrome wheels and large headlamps and taillamps proudly announce its presence in a sea of little, bland, blobby sedans. But the basic shape of the
Grand Am is quite attractive, even without cladding. The graceful roofline and overall size and stance of the car are quite fetching, as evidenced by its Oldsmobile cousin, the soon-to-die Alero.
Inside, the vocabulary is just as loud as outside.
The dash bulges over each gauge, following the contour of the round air-conditioning vents. Add in three of four shades of plastic trim and the red dashboard lighting and there’s quite a bit of visual excitement.
While it’s functional enough, it’s also distracting.
The center console is new for 2002, with integrated cupholders. Fit and finish is nothing special, but with all the visual activity, you won’t notice.
The Grand Am comes in SE and GT trim levels.
There are two engines: a new 2.2-liter double-overhead-cam four-cylinder, which GM has dubbed the “Eco-Tec.” It’s standard on the SE and produces 140 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds of torque. Optional on the SE and standard on the GT is a 3.4-liter overhead-valve V-6. It’s rated at 170 horsepower and 195 foot-pounds of torque. If you opt for the Ram-Air option, it increases to 175 horsepower and 205 foot-pounds of torque.
Other standard GT upgrades include four-wheel disc brakes instead of the SE’s rear drum brakes, upgraded automatic transmissions and larger wheels and tires. In addition, the GT gets more standard gear. A manual transmission is available on the 4-cylinder SE and unavailable with the V-6.
But it’s the base car that has changed for 2002, and that’s what Pontiac supplied as a test vehicle.
The 2.2-iter “Eco-Tec” was a pleasant surprise.
Although furnishing about 10 less horsepower than the 2.4-liter four-cylinder that powered last year’s model, it feels more refined. It’s still vocal while power builds, but it feels quicker than you might suspect.
Still, as good as the engine is, the rest of the car doesn’t live up to it. Despite a fully independent suspension, the ride feels stiff and crude. Initial acceleration makes the nose bob and weave skyward. Steering is quick on-center, not so off-center. The traction control allows some tire squeal, even when traction is needed.
The steering-wheel-mounted cruise control buttons have poor fit and take up too much space on the steering wheel. The trunk is roomy, but the lift-over is high. The front seats are flat; the rear seats are too low.
But most people buy this car for its obvious style at a low price. This is where the Grand Am excels.
The test car starts at $18,110. For that you get the refined four-cylinder engine and its good gas mileage (24 mpg city, 32 highway), anti-lock brakes, tire-pressure monitor, traction control, automatic on-off headlamps, automatio loks, fog lamps, air-conditioning, split folding rear seat, remote keyless entry, power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, 15-inch aluminum wheels, tilt steering wheel, rear defogger, oil-life monitor, and an AM/FM/CD audio system.
The only options are the automatic transmission ($825) and a “Solid Value Option Package” ($1,630). The package includes a power moonroof, 16-inch tires and wheels and an 8-speaker Monsoon AM/FM /cassette/CD audio system. Bottom line is a reasonable $20,525. But there are trade-offs.
Whether that matters is a personal choice. If you like the bottom line and its aggressive looks, this Grand Am is your ride.