EXPERT REVIEW

KansasCity.com's view

My office partner came back from lunch a couple of weeks ago beaming with joy. Months of study and research about replacing her aging 1988 compact car culminated in the purchase of a Pontiac Grand Am SE sedan. Fire-engine red.

Spurred on by attractive financing, she joined the countless other buyers who have chosen Grand Ams for their fashionable styling, decent interior space and, most of all, value.

Her experience reminded me of a crucial ingredient in the car-buying recipe: Most people buy cars because they get good value for their money and like the way they look. For her, the Grand Am fits that description perfectly because, as she said, “It didn’t matter to me about tire size, or engine size, either.” What was important was that she was able to replace her aging buggy, with 147,000 miles, with something new and affordable when equipped with options such as a CD player and sunroof.

Coincidentally, our test car was nearly identical to the model my coworker bought. While the Grand Am may not be the most technologically up-to-date model in Pontiac’s stable, it appeals to folks who want reliable, value-wise transportation with a young and sporty look. Standard equipment includes dual airbags, anti-lock brakes, PASSLock anti-theft system and air conditioning.

Even loaded up with popular items such as automatic transmission, power windows, cruise control, AM/FM cassette, tilt wheel, rear spoiler and keyless entry, our test car’s price tag just barely topped $18,000. Not cheap, but comfortably below $20,000, the average price of a new car.

There are two engine choices in the Grand Am, a 2.4-liter, twin-cam four-cylinder and a 3.1-liter V6. The engine in the car I drove was the four-cylinder. The addition of balance shafts to absorb vibration have tamed this engine considerably in recent years, and coupled with a smooth-shifting automatic transmission, it now feels much more refined. Mash the throttle and you will still detect some vibration near maximum rpm, but in normal driving it is calm.

Its 150 horsepower is adequate for rapid freeway merges or pulling out to pass on a long hill. Even with the automatic transmission it is rated at 22 mpg city and 32 on the highway.

One nifty feature that is standard with the four-speed automatic transmission is Pontiac’s Enhanced Traction System (ETS). Essentially a simplified traction control system, ETS detects wheelspin using the same wheel sensors as the anti-lock brakes. The main computer module then retards the engine’s spark timing to reduce power and restore traction.

Inside, the young, energetic feel is continued by the dash that is dominated by the instrument pod and large, round air vents. The gauges are simple, white-on-black designs that have red lighting at night.

Headlight and wiper stalks are fat, multiple-function switches, while heating/cooling controls are large, round rubber knobs that can be tweaked intuitively, even with glove s on. The stereo, on the other hand, with small knobs and large push buttons, is not quite as easy.

A console with cupholders and a useful storage box separates the front seats.

Probably my biggest beef with the Grand Am is the bottom cushions of the front bucket seats. They don’t support my legs well because they are too short. The seat backs, however, do have adequate contouring for lateral support. After a few days of acclamation, the seats were less bothersome than they were earlier in the week.

The legroom in the back seat is decent but not overly generous. A split-folding back seat is optional. It’s too bad an integrated child seat isn’t available.

Competition in the mid-size sedan class is fierce, and the Grand Am stacks up against challengers such as the Dodge Stratus, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. Both the Accord and Altima are new in 1998, and that gives the Grand Am an even bigger challenge.

Price

The base price of our SE was $14,73 Optional equipment included automatic transmission, aluminum wheels, rear spoiler, tilt steering, power windows, cruise control, rear defogger, AM/FM cassette and keyless remote.

The sticker price was $18,015.

Warranty

The standard warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star’s week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The Grand Am SE is an attractive blend of sporty looks and good value. Anti-lock brakes and air conditioning are standard, as is traction control when the automatic transmission is specified.

Counterpoint: The bottom cushions of the front seat need to be longer, and it is too bad an integrated child seat is not offered since this is a car that appeals to young families.

SPECIFICATIONS:

ENGINE: 2.4-liter, 4-cyl.

TRANSMISSION: automatic

WHEELBASE: 103.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,877 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $14,734

PRICE AS DRIVEN: $18,015

MPG RATING: 22 city, 32 hwy.

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