Touchy-feely 

Pontiac Grand Am SE2 Coupe

Pontiac Grand Am SE2 Coupe

It’s startling, when you actually think about it, how subjective is the process of selecting a car. After all, here is this incredibly complex manufactured product, designed with the aid of computers, assembled with the aid of robots, precisely gauged with excruciating precision to the ten-thousandth of an inch, fraction of a liter, unit of horsepower. Everything about the making and selling of cars is numerical, empirical, measurable, finance-able. Yet somehow the buying decision all too often just boils down to “I dunno; I just like the feel of it. Oh, and I like the color too.”

It’s been a good thing over the last few weeks that I like the color red—or at least I don’t mind it much. In quick succession, I’ve put some time behind the wheel of Pontiac’s new-for-’99 Grand Am SE2 Coupe (in “Bright Red”) and Hyundai’s mostly-the-same-for-’98 Tiburon F/X coupe (in “Solar Red”). Although not squarely opposed to one another, competitively speaking—Pontiac’s Sunfire is probably the better match-up—I’m nevertheless struck by the similar way in which both of these models are attempting to lure customers. The technical term, I think, is “touchy-feely”—and both the Grand Am and the Tiburon effuse “touchy-feely” by the handful.

I’m sure I’m treading on dangerous ground here by electing first of all to emphasize the extravagant dashboard of Pontiac’s Grand Am. Um, how can I say this? This dash actually makes me blush. Instead of an aircraft-style cockpit or a racecar-style, no-nonsense layout of switches and dials, the new Grand Am dash is this corpulent collection of swelling curves and voluptuous bulges. Everything is round, suggestive, and fleshy. Oooo!

I’m driving down the road, minding my own business, peering over the twin arching forms that house the tach and speedometer when—aiee bosoomba!—I’m awash with the urge to fondle this giant pair of bazookas heaving up out of my instrument panel. Suddenly the dash is a recamier couch with one of Ingres’ odalisques lolling languidly thereon. Snap out of it! Keep your eyes on the road! And keep...your...hands...on...the...wheel!

Talk about your blatant attempt at subliminal manipulation. No lie—each of my three daughters actually giggled whenever we took the Grand Am out for an errand. Although Grand Am, when both its coupe and sedan versions are combined, is Pontiac’s far-and-away bestseller, it’s traditionally pegged in the trade as a “secretary car” because of the high percentage of women buyers. Somehow, I get the feeling that Pontiac’s marketers are not entirely satisfied with that designation. Somehow, I get the feeling they’re determined to change this car’s gender-appeal ratio with a healthy dose of red-blooded touchy-feely.

Not that this ambition is unwarranted. Red-bloods of either gender will find the new Grand Am coupe a sport-ish contender. With an optional 3.4-liter V6, the SE model delivers 170 perky horsepower through a standard 4-speed automatic with traction control. Throttle response is crisp, and the car’s moderate curb weight of just over 3,000 lbs. creates a sensation of quick acceleration and nimble handling feel. In truth, however, performance is more-or-less typical for a commuter coupe, and the $195 optional winglet over the trunk is just so much extra posturing.

Actually, I like the overall sculptural effect, achieved by lengthening the wheelbase and widening the car. Since overall length, however, is actually shorter than last year, the new Grand Am doesn’t so much take a stance as hunker down. I’ll have to leave to individual preferences, however, any judgment about the bumper-to-bumper body cladding that swaddles the lower half of the car. Personally, I find it plasticky and uninspiring; then again, it is sorta touchy-feely in its own right.

With a base price of $18,770, the V6-equipped SE coupe grows to $19,700 as tested, primarily with the addition of the winglet and an up-level stereo cassette/ CD. Although this represents an increase in price over ’98, it’s not especially out of touch for a market category where stylin’ and profilin’ are important, and where disposable income is usually unfettered by spouses and dependents. Taste is a touchy thing, however. It will be interesting to see if the new Grand Am has the right feel for it during the forthcoming model year.

Hyundai Tiburon F/X

Believe me, there’s nothing even remotely as palpable about the overall sporty coupe package that Hyundai peddles as the Tiburon F/X. But I submit that it’s still a touchy-feely car, albeit in a more figurative sense. First of all, despite the car’s relative obscurity, its essential styling is first-rate. Because there are yet so few around, the Tiburon’s complex sculptural blend of curves and hollows, its tear-drop windows, and its jewel-like overall silhouette are guaranteed to garner stares and thumbs-up in traffic. Its exterior appearance is sly without being sinister, aggressive without being pushy.

Inside the car, all is Spartan—except for the mindless shriek of the LSD-inspired fabric pattern that upholsters seats and door panels. Get outta here! As a four-seater only, the cabin is compact; but for driver and front passenger at least, the ride positions are just about perfect. Instrument layouts for the driver are simple and uncluttered; the steering wheel is just the right size and tilt, and it delivers excellent road feel. Then you reach for the shifter to snick up into the next gear, and—uh-oh...it’s an automatic.

Whatta boo-boo. Here’s a car with articulate four-wheel-independent suspension; it’s kitted out with impressive four-wheel disk brakes behind sporty alloy wheels; it weighs just 2,600 lbs. The 2.0-liter twin-cam motor is a go-gettin’ little-engine-that-could—if only its precious 140 horsepower weren’t sapped into anemia by a power-robbing auto transmission. Make no question about it: Get a Tiburon with the 5-speed and have quite a bit of fun. If you can’t drive a manual, buy another car.

Tiburon’s base price is $14,899. Add the shameless auto transmission for $800; get “Package 12” options with A/C, sunroof, cruise-control, and stereo cassette for $2,277; throw in floor mats and mud guards (!) for $135 more; and you’re up to $18,111, as tested, in a blink. That’s an ambitious number for a small, four-seater coupe from a small, second-tier manufacturer; but it’s not altogether unreasonable. Tiburon is a proven competitor in rally-car ranks, and it features plenty of high-tech where rivals substitute all-talk. Still, in an ultra-crowded category chasing all those under-$20,000 buyers, Tiburon’s curious combination of extrovert styling and introvert reputation represents a touchy situation for a car that feels like it’s got a lot going for it.

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