EXPERT REVIEW

chicagotribune.com's view

A colleague spotted the Grand Prix in the lot and noted: “It looks mean.”

Pontiac considers that a compliment.

The 2004 Prix that goes on sale this month, along with the ’04 Pontiac GTO and ’04 Chevrolet Malibu that go on sale this fall, are members of the midsize sedan family at General Motors designated to lure buyers back to cars from sport-utility vehicles.

More important, they are designated to lure consumers away from the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima that owe their heritage to Japan even if they are assembled in the U.S.

Prix, as with the GTO and eventually an SS version of the Malibu, is taking a daring approach. It boasts performance over mileage.

Fun over function.

Excitement.

Perhaps not politically correct, but those who prefer function over fun and boredom to excitement can always pick out a Toyota Prius hybrid to motor to the next Sierra Club meeting.

For ’04 Grand Prix has undergone a major remake. The most noticeable difference is that it no longer is in decorative body cladding. Same will be true of the Grand Am remade for ’05.

The reason?

“For some pizzazz and less foo-foo,” said Bob Kraut, marketing director for the Prix and the upcoming GTO and Bonneville.

Foo-foo?

One reason for less foo-foo, Kraut said, is that Pontiac wants to attract a more refined buyer to a more refined car, one, for example, with thicker glass to quiet the cabin.

“Studies show that 55 percent of cars are bought by people who make $75,000 or more a year and we need to appeal to them,” Kraut said of people obviously not swayed by foo-foo.

Prix is offered in GT1, GT2 and GTP versions, no more SE and no more coupe, just sedans.

The GT1 and 2 are powered by a 3.8-liter, 200-horsepower V-6 (the 3.1-liter, 175-h.p. V-6 is gone), the GTP by a supercharged 3.8-liter V-6 that develops 260 h.p. if you use premium unleaded, 240 h.p. if you opt for regular.

We tested the GT2 at length and briefly the GTP, the only Prix to which you can add (for $1,395) the competition package with 17-inch performance radial tires speed-rated at 142 m.p.h., tap-shift automatic with a head-up display, or HUD, in the windshield to show the gears, a sports-tuned StabiliTrak stability system, stiffer shocks, higher-effort steering and beefed-up stabilizer bars.

Whether GT or GTP, and whether GTP with or without the competition package, the focus is on power. But the emphasis is on much better handling, especially the GTP, which takes tight corners and sits flat without unnecessary lateral moves when maneuvering through twisting countryside roads.

Spirited but stable, especially the GTP with its precise steering response and more agile handling. Serious performance from a car that has a serious (yellow not offered)–perhaps mean–look to it.

“A front-wheel-drive car that handles like a rear-wheel-drive car” is how Kraut describes it.

All Prix’s share the same exterior look, but suspension tuning, steering tweaks and different tires give each a different personality. The base GT1, for example, comes with 16-inch touring tires and is tuned for softer ride; the GT2 comes with 16-inch radials as well, but is tuned for firmer ride and a little more steering effort. The GTP comes with 17-inch handling tires and even higher-effort steering, and the GTP with the competition package has those 17-inch tires speed-rated at 142 m.p.h. and the highest-effort steering. For optimum performance and handling, however, you pay in terms of stiff ride in the GTP.

Whether GT2 or GTP, response is quick, but neither is the ultimate Prix nor the ultimate Pontiac in performance.

At last year’s Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas, Pontiac unveiled plans for a GXP performance series.

Lynn Myers, Pontiac/GMC division general manage showed GXP versions of the Bonneville, Grand Prix, Grand Am, Vibe and Sunfire at SEMA, though with Sunfire to disappear in ’05, few paid it notice.

The Bonneville is the only GXP approved for production. It goes on sale in the first quarter of ’04 and will be powered by a new 4.4-liter, 285-h.p., 32-valve V-8.

The Grand Prix GXP, expected next, offered a supercharged 3.8-liter, 285-h.p. V-6; the Grand Am GXP, after that, a supercharged 3.4-liter, 275-h.p. V-6; the Vibe GXP, a supercharged 1.8-liter, 180-h.p. 4-cylinder, same as in the Sunfire GXP.

The V-8 in the Bonneville GXP, by the way, is the first offered in that car since 1986. When Pontiac dropped the Firebird at the end of the ’02 model year, the V-8 went with it.

“We’re considering [putting a V-8] others, because with a V-8 you have both show-and-go excitement,” Myers said.

Pontiac gets the V-8 before Chevy in any of its high-performance SS models. GXP and SS are products of GM’s new Performance Division, charged with creating limited editions for every division.

One reason for the emphasis on performance is “the Japanese imports on our landscape–the [Nissan] Altima now has a 245-h.p. 6, the [Honda] Accord a 240-h.p. 6,” Kraut said.

Yet neither looks “mean.”

Other than performance, the ’04 Prix offers such touches as rear doors that open nearly 90 degrees, fold-down rear seats to hold cargo and wide-mouth trunk openings.

“These are features we call tiebreakers when it comes to us versus the Japanese,” Kraut said.

Another way to attract folks is with value, the reason the GT2 is priced only $50 more than, and the GTP $550 less than, the ’03 models.

While performance runs counter to mileage, Prix with the 200-h.p. V-6 is rated at 20 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway, but drops to 18/28 when supercharged.

What would a GXP obtain?

“We’ll apply displacement-on-demand engines in the future,” Kraut said, which would shut down 4 cylinders on a Bonneville GXP V-8 at cruising, for example, to boost fuel economy.

Prix is not without faults, the worst one being the patch of rubber that’s supposed to keep the key fob from banging on the lower dash while driving. The patch needs to be softer and/or thicker because the rattling is unrelenting.

And any car designed for performance must have bigger outside mirrors to enable you to better see what is approaching. Of course, any high-performance car should offer an all-wheel-drive version, too.

“Not this year,” Kraut said.

Only other warning: Prix looks mean, but not always clean, in black.

Base price of the GT2 is $23,660, the GTP $25,860. Standard equipment includes anti-lock brakes with traction control, power locks/mirrors/windows, tinted glass, rear-window defogger, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, power outlets, spoiler and remote keyless entry.

Among options, a power su nroof runs a hefty $795, side-impact air bags $395. If you do lots of driving and radio listening, the XM satellite radio ($395 plus a monthly fee) provides commercial-free/static-free sound from 100 stations.

2004 Pontiac Grand Prix GT2.

Wheelbase: 110.5 inches

Length: 198.3 inches

Engine: 3.8-liter, 200-h.p. V-6

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 20 m.p.g. city/30 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $23,660

Price as tested: $25,345. Includes $795 for power sunroof; $100 for CD/cassette radio; $395 for XM radio; and $395 for side air bags. Add $635 for freight.

Pluses: Redesigned for ’04 to make it more of a lean, but mean looking machine minus plastic body cladding. Good power from the base 3.8-liter V-6, but considerable muscle when you move up to the supercharged V-6. Above-average handling that becomes exceptional when you move up from the GT to the GTP with its competition package of performance-tuned suspension; 7i ch, speed-rated radials; and sports-tuned StabiliTrak.

Minuses: Rubber dash cover to keep ignition keys from rattling fails in its mission. Outside mirrors a bit skimpy.

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