EXPERT REVIEW

washingtonpost.com's view

I’m a sucker for American metal, particularly bold, brash pieces such as the new Pontiac Grand Prix GT Sedan.

It’s a car so Detroit, so politically incorrect, I get a rush just sitting behind its wheel.

Driving it in Washington increases the effect. I delight in the disapproving stares of uptight do-rights. I find joy in the uplifted noses of wine-and-cheesers who pronounce “A-merican cahhrr” with utmost disdain.

“A-merican cahhrr”? You betcha! Big, wide, muscular, in-your face — with a deep exhaust note that says the equivalent of “go away if you don’t wanna play.”

That’s good, because play is what the new Grand Prix is all about. It’s classified as a midsize, five-passenger automobile by the Environmental Protection Agency. That label carries all of the workaday aura of a regular family hauler. But it takes only one look at the Grand Prix to see that isn’t the case.

The thing sits wide and low on the ground. Its front track — the distance between the center of the tread of the left front tire and the center of the tread of the right front tire — is 61.5 inches, more than five feet wide! To put that in perspective, the average motor home is about nine feet wide.

All of which means that the Grand Prix is perfectly balanced and stable at highway speeds, and quite tight and right in the corners.

A car like this won’t get you into heaven. But, in terms of driving, it’ll guarantee you a hell of a good time on Earth.

Background: General Motors Corp. completely overhauled the Grand Prix in 1997, stretching its front track by two inches and lengthening its wheelbase — the centerline distance between the front and rear wheels — by three inches. The company also lowered the roof on the front-wheel-drive car, giving it an overall low-slung, growly appearance.

The front cabin was reworked, as evidenced by an elliptically hooded instrument panel that is pleasant to look at. There’s still a bit of button clutter on the center console. But judging from Grand Prix sales, up 43 percent so far this year, that seeming shortcoming actually might be an attraction.

GM and its Pontiac Division are aiming the new Grand Prix at a 38- to 42-year-old crowd, 45 percent of whom are college graduates with an average household income of $60,000. Many of those people are computer-literate buyers who find value in technology, said Grand Prix brand manager Bill Heugh.

Accordingly, Pontiac put lots of high-tech stuff into the new Grand Prix. For example, the tested Grand Prix GT included a heads-up display system that showed speedometer and other important vehicle readings on the inside of the windshield. A “driver information center” provided readings on tire pressure and other functions. GM’s Magna Steer system automatically adjusted steering effort, based on the speed of the car, and an Enhanced Traction System automatically limited wheel slippage in rainy weather.

The test car was equipped with the Grand Prix’s standard 3 .8-liter, overhead-valve V-6, rated 195 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, with torque rated 220 pound feet at 4,000 rpm. A supercharged, 240-horsepower version of that engine is available, as is a quite decent 3.1-liter, 160 horsepower V-6.

The standard transmission is an electronically controlled, four-speed automatic. Standard brakes, power four-wheel-discs, includes anti-locks.

The Grand Prix is available as a coupe or sedan.

1998 Pontiac Grand Prix

Complaints: Fat A-pillars, which frame the windshield, create some blind spots left and right. Rear seating is comfortable for two short people, but it’s a real squeeze for three.

Praise: The absolute fun of it all. Varrrooommm! I love this car.

Head-turning quotient: Split decision. For example, one of the righteous types condemned it as “excessive, garish; everything that’s wrong with Detroit.” But the funkmeisters sang its praises — and I vote with the funky set.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Aces for handling. Very little yaw in the corners. Tracks straight and true on the straightaways. Aces for acceleration — absolute ease in changing lanes at high speeds. Power always was there when needed. Excellent ride for front occupants. Marginal ride for back-seaters.

Mileage: About 24 miles per gallon (18-gallon tank, estimated 422-mile range on usable volume of recommended regular unleaded), running mostly highway with one to four occupants and an estimated 200 pounds of cargo (16 cubic feet in the trunk).

Sound system: Eight-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with optional, console-mounted, single-disc CD player. Installed by GM. Excellent.

Price: Base price of tested Grand Prix GT sedan is $20,099. Dealer’s invoice price on base model is $18,391. Price as tested is $22,669, including $2,020 in options and a $550 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: A good buy. Compare with Dodge Avenger and Intrepid, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Taurus/Mercury Sable and, yeah, the BMW 328i.

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