Pontiac ramped up its performance-car credentials with the big G8, a new rear-wheel-drive sedan that tends more toward driving finesse than Detroit thunder.

Even the V-8-powered GT version performs with strong but surprisingly quiet acceleration, enhanced with sharp maneuverability that rivals some high-priced Europeans, though without nearly the same level of refinement.

New for 2008, G8 is the replacement for Pontiac’s overweight, underpowered Grand Prix, a front-wheel-drive sedan that failed to uphold Pontiac’s role as General Motors’ “excitement division.” G8 is a new deal for Pontiac that could herald a return to those heady muscle-car days of yesteryear. Or not.

G8 derives from GM’s Australian division, Holden, in a similar way that the recent, ill-fated GTO was created from the Holden Monaro. Under its skin, G8 is a Holden Commodore with a heavy dose of Pontiac styling DNA; Pontiac designers must have learned from the too-mild, buzz-killing looks of the GTO.

Three engines are available: a 256-horsepower V-6 base engine; the GT’s 361-horsepower V-8; and a 402-horsepower V-8 in the performance GXP, new for 2009. None of these versions get stellar fuel mileage, though the 6-liter V-8 in the GT gets some help from cylinder-deactivation technology that pushes the mpg to 24 on the highway.

G8 GT is a satisfying sports sedan, cornering with sharp precision while charging along behind the muscular engine. The six-speed automatic works well enough, though the manual-shifting lever feels annoyingly clunky. Only the GXP has an available manual transmission, which is too bad.

Both the GT and the V-6 models would benefit from stickshift, especially since Pontiac would like the G8 to attract current drivers of European sport sedans, many of whom shift for themselves.

Pontiac G8 GT

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, rear-wheel drive.

Engine: 6-liter V-8, 361 horsepower at 5,300 rpm, 386 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Wheelbase: 114.8 inches.

Overall length: 196.1 inches.

Curb weight: 3,995 pounds.

EPA rating: 15 city, 24 highway.

HIGHS: Sharp handling, engine power, handsome interior.

LOWS: Audio-control woes, clunky shift lever, needs stickshift option.

PERFORMANCE: The V-8 packs loads of torque, giving G8 GT a ready-to-run feel at any speed. Fuel mileage was just fair but reasonable for this performance car. The cylinder deactivation, which cuts out four cylinders at highway speeds for better fuel mileage, acted seamlessly.The six-speed automatic upshifted smoothly, though downshifts were occasionally abrupt. The manual-shift lever was clunky and unpleasant to use. There are no steering-wheel paddles or shift controls, surprising in this sporty sedan.

DRIVABILITY: G8 has a super-nice ride, firm but never harsh and able to absorb rough surfaces without complaint. Handling is razor sharp.The steering is responsive though heavy at low speeds, which doesn’t bother me but could be too much for some drivers.

STYLING: While I’m not normally fond of hood nostrils, I found G8’s look to be sporty and distinctive, with a solid stance and good proportions.G8 is a big car but manages to look trim.

INTERIOR: The G8’s interior is largely derived from the Holden’s, which is not a bad thing. Nice textures on the surfaces, good placement of gauges and switches and an almost European attention to detail. There is a weird, blank panel in the high center of the dash that mystified me.The audio system was a chore to operate with difficult video and button controls.

BOTTOM LINE: Now here’s a proper Pontiac, even if it is a Holden, with head-turning looks and admirable performance. The V-6 model starts at a decent $28,000.

Base price: $30,675.

Price as tested: $34,110.


Premium package with leather power seats and leather shift lever, $1,250.

Sunroof, $900.

Sport package, with metallic pedals, 19-inch alloy wheels with performance tires, leather steering wheels, $600.

Shipping, $685.

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