Last Laugh 

Pontiac’s Grand Prix showcases all-new formula for style, performance, practicality

Pontiac’s Grand Prix showcases all-new formula for style, performance, practicality

Familiarity breeds contempt, so maybe it’s my parents’ 1970 Pontiac Catalina—the one I first drove with my newly minted driver’s license in ‘72—that has forever colored my perception of the Pontiac brand. Far too often in the past, Pontiacs have appeared as if they were trying a little too hard to be cool, like my Dad in the early ‘70s trying to “rap” with my friends and me about the Butterfield Blues Band at Woodstock, like me trying to rap with my own kids these days about The String Cheese Incident at Bonnaroo.

Pontiac’s styling sense for the last decade or so certainly hasn’t helped matters. Interior features in particular have ended up so fleshy looking, rounded and tumescent that they’re positively Hefnerian. My own daughters laughed out loud a few years ago at the twin bulges over a Grand Am instrument panel that looked for all the world like cleavage. Driving the thing was the equivalent of looking down Brittany Spears’ cami top without being able to avert your eyes. Here, too, familiarity breeds contempt after enough miles roll by.

It is an unexpected pleasure, then, to note that the recently debuted 2004 Grand Prix represents a rather dramatic revision of Pontiac’s anachronistic reliance on disco-styling. This mainstay sedan has grown up, and despite many features that remain decidedly on the dull side of the cutting edge, the new Grand Prix is surprisingly modern and contemporary.

The new exterior, for example, is sleek and windswept. Yes, there’s still a touch of Pontiac’s trademark body cladding here and there, so that, from the side at least, the sheetmetal looks like one of those maximum-strength face lifts in which all the skin has been pulled taut towards the back of the scalp. But generally the effect of rounded, uncomplicated corners and gentle flares is quite pleasing in a less-is-more sort of way.

Less-is-more also characterizes the Grand Prix’s various powertrains. For years, Grand Prix has offered a choice of 3.1-liter and 3.8-liter V6s, and 2004 is no different. These are venerable push-rod workhorses that thumb their noses at twin-cam rivals. There may be a bit less technology underhood, but both V6s are plenty gutsy, uncomplicated and reliable, delivering 175 hp and 200 hp, respectively. Unless you opt for the Grand Prix GTP model reviewed here, that is. In this case, Pontiac slaps a supercharger onto its “3800 Series III” motor and gooses output up to 260 hp and 280 honking ft.-lbs. of torque.

This is just about as much power as you can stand in a front-driver, if you don’t want to be smoking wheels at the least provocation. In the new Grand Prix’s case, the aesthetics of acceleration are very nicely managed by the laser-precise electronic (“drive-by-wire”) throttle on the one hand and by the deft ministrations of optional StabiliTrak traction control on the other. Further enhanced by four-wheel independent suspension and ABS disc brakes, the Grand Prix showcases road manners that are convincingly athletic for a touring car.

It is electronics, in fact, that do so much to contemporize a Grand Prix reputation dating back over 30 years. Throttle response is crisp and instantaneous thanks to that “drive-by-wire” technology. Speed sensitive MagnaSteer power steering uses magnetic induction to balance control and road feel of the rack-and-pinion hardware. Optional TAPshift puts a new spin on clutchless manual shifting that could only have come from Pontiac. As if to one-up the discreet paddle-shifters on Porsches and Ferraris, TAPshift plants two giant polyps on the steering wheel, inboard of the 3:00 and 9:00 o’clock positions. You whack ‘em fore and aft—like video game controllers, I guess—to upshift and downshift as required. In practice, they work just fine, with prompt, proper gear changes. Sadly, there are only four forward gears to choose from, so you’re basically reduced to shifting into and out of overdrive most of the time.

Inside, the new Grand Prix has essentially banished all of the fleshpot styling cues that my daughters and I formerly found so laughable. Instrumentation and controls are logically placed and instinctive to use. Some of the pale orange readouts give my color blindness fits on bright days, but generally, all controls relating to audio and climate control are located where I don’t even have to see them to use them. My personal favorite feature is the optional XM Satellite radio, built seamlessly into the AM/FM/CD head unit from Delphi-Delco. Brace yourself for over 100 channels of mostly commercial-free music—from Butterfield Blues Band to String Cheese Incident, mind you—with talk, drama, comedy and news programming thrown liberally into the mix.

Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is Grand Prix’s secret alter ego as a convertible. I’m not talking about the ragtop variety, of course; rather it’s the Grand Prix’s magical ability to convert into a pseudo-SUV with the simple drop of three seat backs. In doing so, the 16 cu. ft. trunk conjoins with a huge backseat cargo pit measuring about 54 in. by 34 in. by 30 in.—that’s over 31 boxy cubes of stow space. But don’t stop there: the front passenger seat also folds completely flat, yielding another 17 cu. ft. of space. All told, there are about 64 cu. ft. for cargo, atop a flat floor and with a maximum length of almost 10 linear ft. in what otherwise passes for a sedan.

It’s a supercharged sedan, moreover, that manages about 27 mpg on the highway (although only 18 mpg in town). Even with the GTP’s requirement for premium fuel, the Grand Prix represents an interesting, unlikely alternative to fuelish SUVs. Hooda thunk it: Pontiac’s image-conscious Grand Prix all grown up for 2004 into a mature, subtly stylish, closet utilitarian. For a change, a car whose styling often used to elicit laughs may well manage to get the last one this time around.

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