By Laurance Yap
The new Pontiac Grand Prix is a challenging car. Not challenging in the sense that it’s difficult to drive or anything (far from it) but challenging because of the way it messes with your mind, plays with your preconceptions, has you second-guessing your second-guesses, trying to separate the truth from the hype, the substance from the style. It’s a car that largely lives up to GM’s claims of improved quality, superb structural rigidity and sophisticated driving dynamics, but those positive characteristics also have the effect of making some
of its flaws all the more frustrating.
Consider, for instance, the car’s interior, which is where the Grand Prix has been most significantly improved. The perception of quality is indeed way up, with mostly solid-feeling plastics, comfortable seats, and nicely-executed details like the heavy chrome door handles and
column stalks that are now up there with the best in the business. Pontiac’s traditional shiny gray buttons are gone, replaced by matte-black ones with well-damped motions and grown-up graphics rather than long text labels. Panel gaps are a lot tighter, and there are no
squeaks and rattles.
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Yet, though it seems to have grown up a lot, the GP’s interior displays in places what one writer described as simply a lack of maturity. What’s with the instrument graphics rendered in red numerals so wide and low that they’re nearly illegible? Or the central display that displays a brightly-lit “widetrack GP” logo when you start the engine? Or seats that have a power adjustment for the base and a fussy manual one for the backrest (which you’re more likely to want to adjust finely on the move)? Or the two dash pieces made out of hard, brittle plastic
that looks all the worse when set against the solid, soft-touch stuff of the rest of the interior? Or the steering wheel, which is wrapped in nice leather, but is plastic right where you want to hook your hands into it?
No question about it, though, the new GP drives like a very grown-up car. If anything, GM’s claims of improved structural integrity seem to be an understatement; over the road, the car feels as solid and secure as a Mercedes, and the doors make a lovely sound when you slam them.
The steering is nicely-weighted, the brakes have good feel (they’re powerful enough on the base 200-horsepower GT model if not quite up to snuff on the 260-hp GTP), and the there’s plenty of cornering grip.
Stability is never in question. Whether it stands direct comparison with front-drive sport/luxury sedans like the Maxima and Acura TL is another question, but one that I think is largely spurious. With its big tires, big power, and responsive transmission, the GP can certainly produce the numbers, but aggressive corner-carving and back-roads tomfoolery aren’t really its thing – but, let’s be honest, neither are they really the TL’s or Maxima’s thing. So while the big Pontiac may lack the ultimate sharpness or responsiveness of either of these cars in extremis, the difference is largely academic, and on the highway and in town, the GP easily measures up in terms of passing power, steering feel, and cabin quietness. And, at least in its milder versions, it also rides better than either.
I’ll be the first to admit that the big, flashily-styled Grand Prix isn’t my kind of car, so it came as a surprise that I ended up liking it much more than I expected to. The cleaned-up exterior, once so over-the-top it verged on the cartoonish, looks rakishly aggressive, especially lurking curbside in the evening (if only they’d fix the huge gap between the rear bumper and the rest of the car). Over a few hundred kilometres of commuting, I also came to appreciate the gutsy engine, comfortable interior, and smooth ride. Every passenger I had in
the thing – except for two really tall guys who found rear headroom lacking – also really liked it.
Though the Grand Prix isn’t likely to attract import intenders – most of whom choose imports precisely because they’re more understated, less obviously aggressive – those that do give it a try won’t be disappointed. What we have here isn’t a direct competitor for the imports, but simply a car that prefaces a slightly different set of priorities, that’s simply got a different, more extroverted attitude. Judging by the number of people I see walking the streets in poofy silver jackets, stylin’ European sunglasses, and military-grade boots, there’s certainly a market out there for design drama.
That Pontiac is far and away GM’s most successful division suggests that they know better than us pundits what the public wants. And, to paraphrase the beer commercial, people who want the Grand Prix will want it a lot.