1996 Pontiac Grand Prix SE Coupe
1996 Pontiac Grand Prix SE Coupe. Click image to enlarge

By Jeremy Cato

There was a time when Pontiacs were fearsome stock-car racers, formidable drag-strip contenders and even coveted street machines. That was the 1960s and Pontiac was hip. Then along came the late ’80s and early ’90s. Those years were very troubling for old-time Grand Prix lovers. Alas, it was when the Grand Prix became a rather dispirited front-wheel drive car.

That version of the Grand Prix had its debut in 1988, powered by a 130-horsepower 2.8-litre V6. During 1989 a 140-160 hp 3.1-litre V6 was phased. But regardless of engine, the 1988-96 Grand Prix was a pale shadow of the V8-powered Grand Prix of my boyhood. The styling was dull, performance anemic, it was noisy, and handling was barely passable for a car with sporting pretensions – despite the ’89 version having a coefficient of drag (Cd.) measured at a very slick 0.29.

GM tried to address the deficiencies in the early ’90s by giving the Grand Prix a reasonably powerful but thoroughly unrefined 2.3-litre Quad Four (twin overhead cam) engine. The 160 horsepower was competitive for its time, but the engine was raspy and rough. If you’re looking at a Grand Prix from that era, the better engine choice is the 3.4-litre Canadian-built twin-cam V6 rated at 200-220 hp.

GM finally introduced a vastly improved Grand Prix as a 1997 model. But during the early- and mid-1990s the financially strapped automaker had little funds for major Grand Prix upgrades. So GM settled for tarting up the car with various stylistic add-ons and electronic gizmos. For instance, a heads-up instrument display was introduced in 1991, a sport package arrived in ’93 and along the way various other treatments and facelifts came and went.

For the record, a four-speed electronically controlled transmission arrived for the 3.1-litre V6 in 1993 and for 1994 GM added dual airbags, PASS-Key II theft deterrent and a revised instrument panel. All very good moves. For ’95, variable-effort power steering arrived with the GT/GTP packages and the body structure was beefed up to meet 1997 side impact standards. Even better.

I should also point out that Grand Prix GTP coupe’s snug-fitting bucket seats were good; they adjusted in 11 different ways. Yet for some reason controls located in the centre console activated changes in lumbar support and so on. Meanwhile, on the side there were controls for rake, height, fore and aft.

GM, in fact, was very good at compensating for Grand Prix deficiencies by stuffing certain versions (e.g., the GTP coupe) with just about every electronic and mechanical do-dad in the corporate parts bin. The challenge with this model is to figure out how to use an array of 50-plus buttons and switches right across the dashboard console.

Regardless of demographics, a good many of those who bought a Grand Prix from ’88 until the ’97 makeover had to deal with more than their fair share of problems. So used car buyers beware.

Among other things, there were reports of fuel return lines that fractured, cracked front shoulder belt guide looks, cracked steel wheels, malfunctioning parking brakes, troublesome transmissions and even wiper/washers that would only work intermittently. It’s no surprise, then, that used prices have dipped below the average.

Of course there are well-built, reliable examples of older Grand Prix models out there. And the twin-cam 3.4-litre V6 is an interesting and powerful engine. My bet is that GTP models with the 3.4-litre will prove to be collector cars in the next millennium. Just be sure to have a thorough mechanical inspection before making any used buy.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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