By Haney Louka
I thought I had this one in the bag.
Pontiac, and its “Built for Drivers” slogan, has always seemed to be more show than go to me. Sure, they use powerful engines in their “sportiest” machines, but the driving experience is about more than just power.
Would this new-for-2004 Grand Prix change my opinion about the so-so substance behind the bold slogan? Would the deletion of plastic body cladding signal a change that was more than skin deep?
Based on first impressions, I had the review already written in my mind. Despite its cleaner outward appearance, inside is still home to a plasticky interior, and gimmicky touches abound. “This is gonna be easy,” I thought. But I was wrong.
Once I got past my initial dislikes, which I’m sure are features that actually sell these cars to some folks, I found a truly capable and powerful sporty sedan that proved to be well rounded beyond any expectations.
Now available in showrooms, the 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix starts at $27,995 for the GT1 sedan. Major standard equipment includes fog lights, rear spoiler, 16-inch tires on steel wheels, A/C, cruise, four-wheel disc brakes, and CD audio system. The base price is up $615 from the ’03 SE model, which was similarly equipped save the motor.
The old 175-horsepower 3100 pushrod V6 no longer finds a place in the Grand Prix lineup. Now the 3800 Series III V6 is standard on both the GT1 and GT2, and puts out a healthier 200 horsepower. GT2 models start at $30,735 and add goodies such as anti-lock brakes, traction control, a tire inflation monitor, and head-curtain side air bags to the standard equipment list.
Serious power addicts will want to save their pennies up and go for the GTP which sports a supercharged version of the 3800 Series III (up to 260 horsepower from last year’s 240). $34,475 nets the more powerful motor plus 17-inch wheels and tires and a few other goodies.
And if sportier handling is on the ‘most wanted’ list for buyers, the GTP can be ordered with the Competition Group Package. The extra $2,215 buys stiffer suspension, variable-assist power steering, “StabiliTrak” stability control, and different alloy wheels that do a better job of showing off the brake calipers, painted red for duty in this full-load model.
My GTP test vehicle was equipped with the Competition Group Package, leather seats, and a power sunroof for a total as-tested price of $40,180 including destination.
Internally dubbed the L32, this year’s rendition of GM’s supercharged 3791-cc V6 is rated at 260 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 280 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. While power is up 20 compared with last year’s L67, torque remains unchanged. A staple in GM’s lineup for years, this workhorse produces numbers only pushrods could be responsible for. It’s something that overhead cam (OHC) engines haven’t been able to accomplish: gobs of low-end grunt and a Manitoba-like torque curve.
Transferring power to the front wheels is another GM staple, the 4T65-E four-speed automatic. A numerically higher final drive ratio (3.29 vs. 2.93) differentiates the Comp G from ‘base’ GTPs.
The big (1,625 kg, to be exact) sedan sits on independent struts all around with a solid anti-roll bar in front and a hollow, 19.4-mm anti-roll bar out back. There’s another perk for Comp G owners to brag about at parties: non-Comp Gs make do with solid 17.2-mm bars.
Four-wheel discs provide stopping power, vented in front. GM makes no differentiation between the brake specs for the Comp G Package, so one can safely assume that the red paint on the calipers is the only difference.
The 2004 Grand Prix is much easier on the eyes than was last year’s model. Taking primary credit for that improvement is the complete absence of body side cladding. The look is much more restrained than last year’s, although it does lose the aggressive front view with its visually taller, more Bonneville-like front end.
But since designers nixed the plastic add-ons, a few tasteful ripples were built into the sheet metal (you expect them to go cold turkey?) along the sides and at the taillights.
There’s one aspect of the Grand Prix that makes the car lose its styling balance. As in the Bonneville, Grand Prix’s front overhang looks way out of proportion compared to many modern designs. As other automakers strive to achieve the better handling and packaging (not to mention styling) that comes with pushing wheels out to the car’s corners, Pontiac is going the other way. A look at the measurements reveals that while the new Grand Prix rides on the same wheelbase as last year’s (2,807 mm), its overall length measures 17 mm longer. A small difference, but in contrast to newer designs from other companies, it seems a step in the wrong direction.
Inside, Pontiac’s character is well represented. While an improvement over last year’s interior through the use of contrasting materials and colours, the quality of the plastics and a few other things keep this from being a world-class cabin. Brightening things up are metallic accents on the steering wheel spokes and gauge rims and charcoal gauge faces.
There are a few quirks that can only be described as gimmicky though: an orange monochromatic LCD screen to the right of the instrument panel displays “Wide Track GP” on engine startup and is covered with a concave plastic lens. Among the choices for display on the screen while driving is an “engine boost” gauge, presumably an indication of how much the supercharger is assisting the engine in providing power. That’s useful and all, but without any numbers to calibrate the gauge, it just becomes another toy to look at while driving.
The information display is home to lots of useful information though. Date, compass, ambient temperature, full trip computer functions, and maintenance information is all accessed via easy-to-use buttons just below the screen.
Another startup oddity is that all gauge needles travel their full range of motion and back again before settling down for the drive.
OK, so I’m not crazy about these things, but I’m sure Pontiac’s marketing gurus have done their research and there are folks out there who see value in it. Who am I to judge?
On the plus side, I was thoroughly impressed with the control layout in the ’04 GP. The steering wheel houses controls for the cruise and audio, and in the case of my Comp G, Formula One-inspired manual shifting paddles. All of these controls are easy to get used to the first time out. The signal and wiper stalks have that well crafted feeling that came as a pleasant surprise, too. Well done.
Also on the list of interior goodies in the Comp G Package is a heads-up display that projects primary information up to the windshield in the driver’s line of sight. It’s an excellent system that instantly becomes a welcome companion on the road.
The Driving Experience
I couldn’t wait to find out how 260 supercharged horsepower felt galloping through the front wheels of this brute. Powerful front-drivers are notorious for misbehaving under a heavy throttle foot. The resulting pull from side to side under these conditions is referred to as ‘torque steer,’ and was notably well controlled in the Grand Prix. A good test of how well a front-drive car’s chassis can control the engine’s power is to accelerate out of a corner, effecting a downshift if possible. When I did it in the GP, I was astounded to find that the front tires held on tenaciously to the pavement and didn’t let the car swing wide despite my best efforts. Kudos to the engineers who tamed this beast.
And this is one torquey motor. Step on the gas, in any gear, at any speed, and there’s never a question that instant acceleration will result. So much so that I found the “TapShift” manual shift mode largely unnecessary. But while power is never an issue, refinement is sacrificed. The overhead-valve V6 produces sounds of an industrial nature and doesn’t like to rev unless it’s forced.
When I didn’t have the go pedal mashed into the floor (and believe me: in a car like this, that was not a rare occurrence), I took note of a few other things that caught my attention.
The Grand Prix subscribes to an age-old trick that Detroiters have used to enhance the feeling of power from behind the wheel. By employing ultra-sensitive response to initial throttle application, cars can be made to feel more powerful than they really are. I feel that it’s hugely unnecessary in the Grand Prix, and it took a bit of time to get used to.
Body motions are well controlled in the Grand Prix, but the ride is not too stiff. It’s a great balance between ride and handling in the Comp G Package, so I have a feeling I wouldn’t be thrilled with the softer setup found in lesser Grand Prixs. Overall I found driving the Grand Prix to be fun because it’s a solid, powerful car that exceeded my expectations.
To Sum It Up
Pontiac has revamped its popular Grand Prix by adding more of everything: size, space, power, and style. And underneath the skin is a capable sedan that has the performance to make “Built for Drivers” a pretty accurate statement.
Having said that, at over $40,000 there are many other cars (the new Maxima comes to mind) that have better styling, more refinement, just as much power, and fewer gimmicks to show off.
While the Grand Prix is much improved over last year’s model, it must still compete against the following combatants to make it into your garage:
- Acura 3.2 TL Type S ($41,800)
- Buick Regal GS ($34,160)
- Chrysler 300M ($40,335)
- Infiniti I35 ($39,700)
- Nissan Maxima ($34,800)
Technical Data: 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP
|Price as tested||$40,180|
|Type||4-door, 5 passenger, mid-size sedan|
|Engine||90-degree pushrod V-6, OHV, 2 valves per cylinder|
|Horsepower||260 @ 5,200 rpm|
|Torque||280 lb-ft @ 3,600 rpm|
|Transmission||Four speed automatic|
|Tires||P225/55R17 all-season performance|
|Curb weight||1,625 kg (3,583 lb)|
|Wheelbase||2,807 mm (110.5 in)|
|Length||5,033 mm (198.0 in)|
|Width||1,875 mm (73.6 in)|
|Height||1,420 mm (55.9 in)|
|Trunk capacity||453 litres (16.0 cu. ft)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 10.4 L/100 km (27 mpg)|
|Hwy: 7.6 l/100 km (37 mpg)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|