Fifteen months ago, General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner gave his engineers the green light to modify the Holden Commodore for the North American market. Fifteen minutes after I met Doug Houlihan, global vehicle chief engineer for the Pontiac G8, he told me that "the heart and soul of the G8 is its chassis." And fifteen seconds after I climbed behind the wheel of a G8, I pitched it sideways on the skid pad, stood on the throttle, and churned out enough tire smoke to blot out the sun.
Predictable, right? Journalist gets the keys to a new rear-wheel-drive American muscle car. Journalist pronounces said muscle car "good hooligan fun" but nevertheless declares it ultimately flawed for random reasons X and Y. End of story.
What came next, however, wasn't so predictable. After leaving the track, I ventured onto a few twisty mountain roads. Remarkably, the G8 did something few muscle cars do: It handled. And stopped. And it did these things in a surprisingly un-Pontiac-like manner, which is to say, well.
Hold on. We're talking about a Pontiac? Let's back up.
Like the 2004-06 Pontiac GTO, the G8 started life at GM's Australian Holden division. Its existence is the result of GM's recent globalization: over the past two and a half years, the General has shuffled an enormous amount of talent and resources worldwide, all in the name of building better cars.
This reorganization has yielded a number of different "world car" projects - the forthcoming 2010 Chevrolet Camaro is the most well-known of these - built on a small number of shared platforms. By tailoring the fundamental dimensions of these platforms to each market and model and centralizing development based on historical success (small cars in Europe, rear-wheel-drive sedans in Australia, trucks in North America), GM hopes to play to each division's strengths.
The Pontiac G8 is one of the first cars to emerge from this process and find its way into North American showrooms (the GTO was conceived prior to recent globalization efforts). Coming as it does from a brand that long specialized in unfulfilled ad hype and flabby body cladding, the Pontiac's spec sheet is shockingly appealing. The top-of-the-line G8 GT boasts a 361-hp, 6.0-liter pushrod V-8, 51.0/49.0 percent front-to-rear weight distribution, a standard limited-slip differential, a six-speed automatic transmission, independent front and rear suspensions, and rear-wheel drive. Not to mention styling that actually looks as if it was penned in this century. It's enough to wake even the sleepiest car freak. Heck, on paper, the Pontiac even garners that most coveted of all sport-sedan compliments: it seems a lot like a BMW.
That comparison - along with a 2003 quote from GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, who said, "We want to make Pontiac an affordable, American BMW" - got our calculators going. At $30,690 in base V-8 form, the G8 falls into the same price bracket as BMW's 3-series. If you go by horsepower, engine configuration, weight, and sheer size, however, the G8 more closely resembles BMW's larger, more expensive 5-series. As such, we succumbed to the spec sheet and brought along a ringer: the 360-hp, V-8-powered BMW 550i, which starts at $59,275. Lutz - who was an executive vice president at BMW from 1971 to 1974 - knows cars, and he knows of what he speaks when he invokes the Bavarians. If the G8 fares well alongside its twice-the-price German competition, then you can be assured that GM's long-awaited turnaround is in full swing.
Like the 2010 Camaro, the G8 is built on GM's Zeta rear-wheel-drive platform, which is the same platform that underpins Holden's Commodore and Ute, the Chinese-market Buick Park Avenue, and - don't laugh - the Korean-market Daewoo Veritas. In line with the newly "globalized" GM, all Zeta engineering and development occurs in Holden's Melbourne, Australia, facility.
Holden has long been known for producing inexpensive, fun-to-drive, V-8-powered sedans and coupes - in other words, modern updates of the traditional American muscle car, albeit ones intended for Aussie soil. Like the GTO, the G8 is based around a current Holden, in this case, the Commodore. Little is changed for our market: front and rear bumpers are different, and subtle changes have been made to emissions configuration, air-bag layout, instrumentation, and badging. All told, the Commodore and the G8 share roughly 80 percent of their components.
Chiefly, suspension tuning also carries over. All U.S.-bound G8s share their FE2 suspension calibration with the top-of-the-line Commodore SS V. A strut-type front setup accompanies a four-link independent rear layout. Happily, V-8-powered G8s (a 256-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 is offered, too) also receive the aforementioned limited-slip differential and performance tires as standard equipment. Eighteen-inch aluminum wheels are standard across the board, with nineteen-inch wheels available through the optional sport package, which was fitted to our car.