EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view

Pontiac Grand Prix GTP gets a boost in power, looks

For my grandfather in the early 1950s, years of work for the Boston & Maine Railroad paid off with the answer to a lingering steel dream: a gleaming green Pontiac parked in the yard between his little house on a hill and his chicken coop, just up the rise from the Sears, Roebuck outhouse.

I look through Pontiac histories now and again, trying to determine just which Pontiac it was, and to the best of my recollection I figure it was a 1950 Chieftain Deluxe Catalina Coupe. Wrapped in heavy chrome, an Indian’s head for a hood ornament, its center line was bisected by ribs of chrome that looked much like a racing stripe.

Memories of that wonderful car have stayed with me down the years, even as Pontiac, in my mind, disappeared into the fleet of rental cars, faded into nostalgia kept tangible only by lingering reverence for, and hope for the rebirth of, the GTO. Of course, before the GTO there was the 1932 V-8 powered “convertible coupe” (wonder if there are any of those left?), then the 1958 Bonneville introduction, and the 1962 Grand Prix, wonderful cars all.

Today, before the GTO’s much anticipated comeback in the months ahead, we get a recasting of the Grand Prix (not a full makeover, which is several years away), but a nice boost in fit and finish, horsepower, and handling.

The 2004 Grand Prix has at its heart a cast-iron, 3.8-liter, V-6 pushrod engine that, in base form, produces 200 horsepower. Opt for the GTP edition (as tested) and you get an Eaton supercharger that boosts power to a respectable, if not rocketing, 260 horsepower.

And for a sportier version (same powerplant), you can opt for a Competition Group Package that includes advanced stability control, stiffer-tuned suspension, and paddle shifts for the steering wheel, adding a manual option to the standard 4-speed automatic transmission.

The danger here for Pontiac is that, piling on options bumps the car up against newer (this is basically a seven-year-old design) competition from BMW, Audi, Acura, and others. The GTP as tested had a base price of nearly $26,000, and just with the addition of features such as leather, sound system upgrade, and a power sunroof, we were rolling into the $30,000 price range.

That said, the GTP did exhibit a nice bit of European stiffness and stability.

It was remarkable that, with 260 horses tugging at its front-wheel drive system, it evidenced very little torque steer. The four-speed automatic transmission, responding to a seamless electronic throttle, was silky smooth in its shifts, though I would like to see a fifth gear added.

The GTP was smooth and quiet on the highway, moving out to pass easily, though torque seemed to wind down a bit prematurely. On rougher roads, the stiff suspension that keeps it free of body roll in rapid lane changes led to a bit of aggressive feedb ack through the steering wheel. It also, predictably but controllably, was prone to some understeer in hard cornering.

The suspension system includes, upfront, independent struts, control arms, coil springs and antiroll bar, and, in the rear, independent struts, multi-links, coils springs, and antiroll bar.

As for the exterior, there is good news and bad news.

The good news is that designers have given the car a crouched stance, an appealing wedge that hints at performance, that even with four doors, looks like an aggressive coupe. And thankfully, all hints of body cladding have gone away, replaced by sharp creases for an aerodynamic look.

The bad news is that that crouched look comes at the price of interior room. I am only 5 feet 8 inches tall and I found I had to lower the driver’s seat fully in order to not be rubbing my dome on the headliner.

The rear, where the roof slopes sharply down, was even tighter — and being so lo already, knees rise above hips in sitting position.

A nice change for the interior, however, is that the rear 60/40 seat folds virtually flat and so does the front passenger’s seat, making for very usable cargo space, easily accessed through a lowered lip at the trunk.

That trunk opening, in fact, is 10 inches wider than in the past and the lift-over height is six inches lower.

But for a bit of heavy, textured plastic at the center dash control pod, the interior fit and finish are a big improvement. If Pontiac wants to charge $30,000 for a car, however, the plastic needs to go.

That control pod is positioned so it slants toward the driver, giving easy access to audio and climate controls, all of which are big and easy to manipulate. The big speedometer and big tachometer were features befitting the GTP’s essence of power.

Standard equipment includes rear-seat heating and cooling outlets, rear reading lamps, electronic cruise control, a driver information center, and rear-seat pass through. Air bags are standard with side impact, head-curtain air bags optional.

The reworked Grand Prix GTP seems to be an effort, until a complete redesign comes in a few years, to keep Pontiac in the race for mid-level, performance sedan sales. In that regard, it is a fine, if aging, competitor.

I suspect that with the new GTO in the works, Pontiac designers and engineers decided to just tweak this car and wait to see what they learn from the GTO effort.

Indeed, the GTO, powerful and edgy (and yes, there are plans in the future to bring back the hood scoop) could provide not only design and engineering DNA to the Grand Prix of the future, but

could easily bathe that car in its halo glow. As you recall, in the 1960s, the GTO’s existence certainly did not hurt sales of the LeMans. Of course, for some it will be tempting to jump right over even the Competiton Group Grand Prix and go straight to the new Goat.

Nice touch: The articulating ball system to control air flow. Provides seemingly infinite numbers of ways to direct hot and cold air.

Annoyance: Maybe it’s because the ceiling is so low, but I actually hit my head twice on the on/off button for the overhead light at center windshield.

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