One of Pontiac`s most significant moves was the introduction of the SSE version of the H-body Bonneville in 1988.
Until the SSE, General Motors divisions cloned cars among one another with regularity. Other than different grilles and a price scale that started with Chevy at the low end and moved up in sharp increments through Pontiac, Olds, Buick and then Cadillac, the divisions had a knack of showing little or no ingenuity in distinguishing cars from one another.
Bonneville, along with the LeSabre at Buick and 88 at Olds, was part of a trio of staid, four-door, rear-wheel-drive sedans. GM converted them from rear drive to front drive in 1987, but the trio still remained conservatively styled four-door sedans catering to doctors, bankers and professors.
Pontiac broke from the mold by adding a top-of-the-line SSE to its lineup in 1988, a car aimed at those who wanted the room and comfort of a four-door sedan, but the looks and performance of a sporty two-door coupe. Wheelwells, rocker panels and fenders were decked out in body-colored plastic. Dual mirrors were body-colored, too. A deck lid spoiler and gold-colored grille were added to complete the appearance package.
The suspension system was tweaked to focus on holding the pavement in corners and turns rather than simply providing cushiony smooth insulation over bumps like all the other Bonnevilles.
For 1992, the next-generation H-bodies debut. In 1991 there was the LE, SE and SSE. For 1992 it`s SE, SSE and SSEi, the latter the high-performance version complete with antilock brakes, driver- and passenger-side air bags, traction control and a 205-horsepower, 3.8-liter supercharged V-6 engine. We test drove the base Bonneville SE that`s in showrooms now. The SSE and SSEi will be out in the fall.
All models have been restyled with a few touches added to distinguish one from the other. For example, the SE has a single bar grille with the Pontiac crest floating in the middle and fog lights flanking a narrow-opening air dam under the front bumper. The SSEi has a barless grille with a floating crest in the center and fog lights in the bumper above a wide-opening air dam. All models have dent- and rust-resistant composite plastic front fenders.
The SE we drove has much the same appearance of the old SSE with its plastic cosmetic dressing to rockers, wheelwells, moldings and bumpers. It added the optional sport package, which incorporates a single-color monotone exterior paint scheme and “fluted“ or louvered rocker panel moldings. It also added the F41 sport suspension with variable-effort power steering, performance axle ratio, 16-inch wheels and tires, dual-outlet exhaust and antilock brakes.
When the SSE version of the staid Bonneville sedan first bowed in 1988, the cosmetic conversion of a Plain Jane family hauler into a sports sedan was a real kick because it was so out of character for GM to have what was considered a macho sedan.
For 1992, the entire Bonneville line has the plastics cosmetics treatment as a styling attention-grabber. With every car in the line now a styling rogue, the design approach loses some of its appeal. The rear taillights on the 1992 are too large and appear a bit too bulky for an aero design; the optional ($95) spoiler lays flat on the deck lid so that it looks less dramatic and less powerful than the raised treatment on the old SSE; and if the intent was to emphasize the modernistic aero look of the `90s, why use the fake side vent window styling of the `70s?
Bonneville is built on the same 110.8-inch wheelbase as in the past, but is slightly longer, wider and taller for 1992. Length has grown to 200.6 inches from 198.7 inches, width to 73.6 inches from 72.1 inches, and height to 55.5 inches from 54.1 inches. Those dimensions mean rear-seat leg and head room and the already ample trunk are beneficiaries of extra space.
The 3.8-liter V-6 engine that has served the Bonneville for years has been revised to generate 170 h.p. rather than 165 h.p. Though only an extra 5 h.p., the car feels more lively moving from the line or merging into the passing lane. The 3.8 is teamed with a 4-speed overdrive automatic.
Though the 3.8 is lively, the suspension system was a bit stiff. And though the power steering system is a variable assist unit that`s supposed to decrease effort in low-speed situations such as parking, it seemed overly stiff regardless of speed and took too much effort in tight corners and turns. As for safety, all Bonnevilles offer a driver-side air bag as standard. The SSE offers a passenger-side air bag as an option, the SSEi as standard, but the SE doesn`t offer a passenger-side bag at all. Antilock brakes are standard on the SSE/SSEi, but are part of a $551 sport package option on the SE.
Traction control is optional on the SE and SSE, standard on the SSEi. Traction control regulates wheel spin when the vehicle acclerates to eliminate loss of traction. Our test car lacked traction control.
There were lots of other bells and whistles, however. The trunk lid release button is in the door below the arm rest, far easier to use than if hidden below the driver`s seat; despite the air bag, Pontiac found room to put radio controls within the steering wheel hub, too, including an on/off power button that`s previously been absent from most hub radio controls.
A compartment in the rear seat center arm rest opens to allow access to the trunk for carrying skis; the spare tire wrench/jack are housed in a stand- up plastic compartment in the trunk that`s easy to get to without fumbling around; auxiliary sunshades provide a visor to block out front and side window glare.
All body panels except the roof are double-sided galvanized metal, and exterior panels are zinc-coated to fight rust; EZ Kool window glass absorbs infrared and ultraviolet light to reduce solar heat by a claimed 27 percent; and front-seat shoulder belts have an adjustment guide to raise or lower them to prevent the belts from rubbing against throat, chin or cheek.
And lest you regular readers thought we`d forget, a single pop-out cupholder is located in the center armrest, single cupholders are built into the driver and passenger door map pockets, and dual cupholders are in the rear seat fold-down armrest.
Standard equipment includes power brakes and steering, air conditioning, power locks/windows, tilt wheel, pulse wipers, low oil level indicator, overhead roof console storage for garage opener and glasses, and theft key deterrent that prevents the car from starting unless the preprogrammed ignition key is used.
The SE starts at $18,599, a hefty $1,765 more than the `91 base model LE it replaces. The SSE and SSEi coming this fall are priced at $23,999 and $28,045, respectively.
1992 Pontiac Bonneville SE
Wheelbase: 110.8 inches
Length: 200.6 inches
Engine: 3.8 liter, 170 h.p. V-6
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 18 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g highway
Strong point: Driver`s side air bag standard. Slight boost in h.p. is noticable. With optional sports appearance package the base SE looks like the robust SSE.
Weak point: ABS an extra cost option in base SE and passenger side bag not available. Side vent window styling unattractive. Steering overly stiff.