EXPERT REVIEW

The Morning Call and Mcall.com's view

With all the bad news about GM lately, especially concerning the automaker’s efforts to change its marketing, it’s too easy to overlook Pontiac, one of the company’s success stories.

It’s too easy to forget that almost two decades ago, it was Pontiac that had lost its way. Like Oldsmobile today, rumors swirled concerning the future of the division. But Pontiac updated its ’60s image as the performance division of GM, and one of its biggest successes was the Grand Am.

That’s still true today, with the Pontiac selling more Grand Ams in 1997 than Volkswagen sold cars in the United States.

What has distinguished the Grand Am in the hotly contested compact car segment is its styling. Some find it overwrought, but many find it appealing, a standout in a sea of tranquility. It also gives the buyer a lot of features for the money. If it’s not quite as sporty as its styling might suggest, keep in mind this car’s ultimate family transport mission.

For the 1999 model, everything’s new. Wisely, Pontiac hasn’t messed with a good thing while still improving the car.

Looks count with this machine. The new model has a 3.7-inch longer wheelbase and is wider as well. The beltline angles down toward the front, while the greenhouse has an arched look, even on the four-door. The result is a sedan with a coupe-like look. This compromises rear headroom a little, but there’s still enough for most people.

The back end features a trunk-placed high-mount brake light, and the rear taillights are revised as well. The car retains its aggressive side cladding, and a rear-deck spoiler features small fins. It’s quite sporting for a sedan, although some passengers disliked the Gotham City look.

Dynamically, this car is a big improvement over the previous version.

Available as a coupe or sedan in two trim levels, SE and GT, the Grand Am comes standard in SE trim with 2.4-liter Twin Cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine that’s rated at 150 horsepower and 155 foot-pounds of torque. Optional on the SE and standard on the GT is a 3.4-liter 170 horsepower V6. The only transmission available is a revised version of GM’s four-speed electronic automatic.

Although not blessed with the low-end grunt of the old 3.1-liter V6, the 3.4-liter V6 has decent power at speed, with mild torque steering on hard launches. Engine noise is generally well hushed, with a slight thrash at higher rpms. The transmission allows the car to run to redline, and it is quite responsive.

Thankfully, the car finally received a four-wheel independent suspension. This improves the ride and handling quality at least to the level of its competition. Bumps no longer bang through to the interior, although the SE test car still exhibited moderate body lean in corners. The improved structure helps the ride over rough terrain. Pontiac claims to have bettered rigidity by 32 percent over the previous model and it feels like it. The car seems solid and much less rattly than the 1998 e dition. Front disc/ rear drum brakes with anti-lock are standard on all models. Braking feels much less spongy than before, and stopping ability seemed improved.

Not helping matters much, though, were the tires on the test car. They lacked grip, squealing a little too readily in corners and spinning too easily in the wet.

Also engaging too easily was the standard traction control. It can be deactivated via a dashboard switch.

Speaking of the dash, it’s even busier than the exterior. Two arched hoods house the essential gauges, although there are no readouts for voltage or oil pressure. Three more arched undulations house three ’70s-vintage round air vents in the center of the dash. The ignition is dash mounted and much more convenient than column mounted. The stereo is housed above three simple rotary knobs that control the air conditioning and heating.

The dash and interior in general are outfitted in various shades of beige and gray. The total color co unt comes up to four — five if you include the red dash-lighting. Exciting.

GM outfits this sedan with some nice touches. The optional steering wheel-mounted radio controls are far enough inward so you won’t accidentally hit them while driving, as you can do on other GM vehicles. Door locks are automatic, as are headlamps. The power window switches are illuminated at night.

The test car came with a decent AM/FM-cassette-CD audio system. Bass was quite strong, fitting for this car. The CD player was housed with the radio, but the cassette player was located at the bottom of the console, easily blocked when the cupholder is in use.

Overall, the dash is quite functional, easy to use and highly styled, a rarity in cars these days.

But the biggest improvement in this car is the seat comfort. To put it kindly, there was none in the old seats. Agony ensued after only 20 minutes. While not world class, the new seats are firm, but not so firm as to deaden one’s derriere.

The rear seats are better too, with improved height, although the seat back is still too reclined.

Trunk space is good, and the split rear seats fold down to extend trunk space.

The base SE sedan starts at $16,070. The test vehicle was an SE2 sedan and started at $18,970. The car, as outfitted, totaled slightly more than 20 grand. This car offers a lot of features for the price, along with a sporting look that finds over 200,000 buyers every year.

This is one car GM is doing right.

1998 Pontiac Grand AM SE2 sedan

Standard: 3.4-liter V6, four-speed automatic transmission, P215/ 60R15 touring tires, oil life monitor, traction control, stainless steel exhaust, dual front air bags, front disc/rear drum anti-lock brakes, daytime running lights, automatic power door locks, theft deterrent system, body side moldings, fog lamps, rear cornering lamps, tinted glass, rear window defogger, intermittent wipers, air conditioning, console with cupholders, AM/FM stereo with four speakers, floor mats, trunk release, tilt steering wheel, battery rundown protection, rear seat heating ducts, SE2 Package (cruise control, power windows, power mirrors, power adjustable drivers seat, split folding rear seat, AM/FM-CD audio system with graphic equalizer, steering wheel radio controls, keyless entry, sport interior group, P225/50R16 tires, aluminum wheels), leather seating surfaces, cassette player, rear deck spoiler, lighter, ash tray.

Base price: $18,970

As tested: $20,375

EPA rating: 20 mpg city, 28 mpg highway

Test mileage: 24.5 mpg

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