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By Jeremy Cato
The re-made 1997 Grand Prix started Pontiac back down the road to recapturing the essence of what it was in the ’60s and ’70s.
It was a welcome correction.
Pontiac took a horribly wrong turn in the ’80s, transforming the once sexy and powerful Grand Prix into a boxy people-hauler focused more on fuel economy than performance.
By contrast, ’97 and newer Grand Prix models are a ground-hugging, “in-your-face” salute to this model’s own 1960s roots.
What are those roots? The 1962 Grand Prix arrived as a sexy luxury coupe with this tag line: “sporty elegance with a youthful flair.”
The ’97 Grand Prix was and remains most definitely a sporty design, one intended to appeal to a more youthful audience than the version it replaced (which ran from ’90-’96).
The latest version of the Grand Prix arrived in both coupe and sedan form, with three versions offered: SE, GT and high-performance GTP. The base car was powered by a 3.1-litre V6 (160 horsepower), but most buyers have opted for the 3.8-litre V6 rated at 195-hp. And the SE has since been dropped.
The latter engine, the 3800 Series II V6, is an excellent powerplant — at one time rated one of the 10 best engines in the world, according to Ward’s Auto World. It’s lightweight, durable, gutsy and boasts low emissions levels. Note also, the 3800 sips fuel at about the same rate as the less powerful 3.1-litre V6. So used buyers should look for the 3800.
For tire-spinning muscle there has been a supercharged version of the 3800 available with the GTP package. It puts out 240 horsepower and a whopping 280 foot-pounds of torque. Lots of gusto, but it will require more attention as it gets older.
Regardless of engine choice, all recent Grand Prix models share the same basic styling. It’s very much a ground-hugging look, with the wheels pushed out to the corners, a wide track, low roofline and sharply angled windshield. Adding to its muscularity are flared wheel openings, oversized twin-post side mirrors and standard foglamps up front.
Pontiac stylists had lots to work with in creating this sports car for family-type buyers: There was a longer wheelbase than in the previous car. That meant generous legroom inside and a wider track to improve handling while also giving the car a cat-like stance.
The engineers also stiffened the body structure, beefed up the brakes and re-designed the suspension, all with a mind to improving ride, handling and braking. On smooth pavement, the Grand Prix feels solid and responsive. Better still, the effects of broken pavement do not shudder through the body structure, as with the previous car (’90-’96).
The new suspension was, in particular, a big improvement, in no small measure thanks to coil springs replacing plastic leafs at the rear. Body motions are well controlled and corning is flat. Still, when pushed hard on rough roads, the Grand Prix tends to get a bit skittish.
The improved brakes for ’97 proved to be very strong and easy to modulate through a short-stroke pedal with smooth, linear action. The re-designed rack-and-pinion steering showed itself to be reasonably communicative and I liked the variable boost of the optional electromagnetic Magnasteer. Useful in winter driver is the GT’s standard traction control; it limits wheelspin in slippery start-ups.
Inside, the redesigned Grand Prix cockpit was very roomy and comfortable. The instrument cluster, backlit in warm red lighting, seemed to have taken its inspiration from a F-18 fighter jet. The standard front buckets, however, have proven to lack padding in the key places.
Pontiac also included a Driver Information Centre minicluster that issues warnings when doors are left open, fluid levels are low, an oil change is needed and even when tire pressure is low. A head-up display was optional. Control knobs for the heater, radio and the rest were and still are beefy and easy to use.
Used buyers should note that the Grand Prix shares the same basic architecture and some parts as other sedans on the W-car platform (including the ’97 Buick Regal and Century and the ’98 Oldsmobile Intrigue). Still, it has its own looks and driving characteristics. Of the bunch, the Intrigue is the most refined.
Prices? They’ve remained affordable with nearly new versions holding average resale values. Be alert to quality issues, however, especially with ’97 models.