2008 Pontiac G8 GT

Sam Smith
Robert Kerian

Inside, the G8's expatriate heritage is immediately obvious, if only because it looks and feels like no other stateside GM offering. Soft-touch plastics and attractive (if somewhat dated-looking) layouts abound. A few lingering Aussie and right-hand-drive touches remain (open the trunk, and you'll spot the battery on the left to offset the weight of a right-side driver), and certain choices give us pause (a Blaupunkt radio - does that brand even mean anything here?), but the overall effect is one of budget-oriented Euro confidence, not down-to-a-price, cop-out cheapness.

Most people don't buy a $30,000, V-8-powered sedan for the interior, though - they buy it for what's under the hood. After all, if you want frugal, boring transportation, Toyota will happily sell you a Camry. To that end, the Pontiac succeeds. The G8's 6.0-liter spits out 361 hp at 5300 rpm, and while it's no high-rpm screamer - fuel cutoff comes at an ordinary 6000 rpm - the V-8 is tractable, full of midrange grunt, and possessed of enough top-end pull that you end up winding it out just for kicks. It doesn't sound like much from inside the cabin (mostly muffled, uncharacteristically weedy exhaust rasp), but it's a damn fine engine. Surprisingly, though, it doesn't become your main focus. That distinction is reserved for the suspension.

Toss the G8 down a curvy road, and you'll probably be a little surprised. The overboosted steering doesn't deliver a lot of feedback - it's a little too woolly and self-centering and tends to err on the side of fighting you, not working with you - but that's one of the chassis' few flaws. Excess wheel and body motion is easily (albeit softly) kept in check, and the dampers become overwhelmed only over the harshest of midcorner bumps. The G8 understeers a little, bounding from corner to corner easily, always doing what you expect. Switch off the standard stability control, stab the throttle, and you can drift across tight switchbacks, cackling endlessly.

So: the Aussie transplant is good, but is it good enough? Can the gold standard of sport sedans - especially in brawny V-8 guise - be upset by a half-price, Oz-hailing Detroiter? The answer is yes. And no. And . . . it depends.

Park the G8 next to the 550i, and take a good long look at them both. The Pontiac looks for all the world like the BMW's twin, from its perfectly copycatted C-pillar and rear flanks to its twin-port grille, fender marker lights, and squared-off wheel-arch lips. Exterior dimensions differ little, and the proportions and stance all match up. Imitation as flattery, or imitation as complete and total creative forfeit? To be honest, we're not quite sure.

Stepping into the 550i from the G8, the differences are immediately apparent - sure, the big, bad, $70,000 car beats up on the $30,000 one in terms of interior quality and finish, but that's to be expected. What isn't expected is the striking difference in involvement. The G8 seems pretty good until you get into the BMW and almost have the wheel wrenched from your hands. There's that much steering feel. The 550i's 4.8-liter V-8 doesn't feel like it lacks grunt (its peak torque actually arrives 1000 rpm lower than the G8's does), and yet, unlike the G8's pushrod 6.0-liter, it also thrives on revs, emitting an intoxicating, glassy snarl at its 6500-rpm redline. The BMW's transmission, whether you choose the standard six-speed manual or the optional automatic, also far outpaces the Pontiac's automatic for both smoothness and entertainment, although the G8 does offer blip-throttle downshifts and gear-holding in manual mode. And the 550i's braking performance, brake feel, and cornering grip are each a few ticks better than those of the G8. All in all, the difference is simple: if the Pontiac begs to be driven, then the BMW begs to be flogged.

Of course, doing an apples-to-apples comparison between a tire-shredding, big-engine Pontiac and a doubly expensive BMW isn't really fair. Given the cost difference and the pedigrees of the two manufacturers, it only makes sense that one car would be more satisfying to drive than the other. Yet by the numbers - and on American roads - the 5-series and the G8 are equals. Nine out of ten drag races between them end in a dead heat. Weight distribution, speed through the gears, and quarter-mile performance all check in relatively close to each other. Even given the contrasts in braking and grip, on a twisty road, helmed by similarly talented drivers, neither car will pull ahead.

On that note, the point isn't how well the Pontiac stacks up to the BMW. It's that it stacks up at all. Should a $30,000 sport sedan - much less a Pontiac - even be comparable to a $60,000 one (let alone the $70,000 5-series we tested)? Not on your life. And yet, in more than a few ways, the Pontiac holds its own. Thirty grand for the speed, interior space, and much of the capability of a BMW 5-series? A modern Detroit sedan with . . . dare we say it . . . personality? Pontiac as a relevant carmaker again?

How's that for predictable?

The SPECS{{{Pontiac G8}}} {{{GT}}}BMW 550i
Price (Base/As Tested)$26,995/$32,745$59,275/$69,670
Engine{{{OHV}}} 16-valve V-8DOHC 32-valve V-8
Displacement6.0 liters (366 cu in)4.8 liters (293 cu in)
Horsepower361 hp @ 5300 rpm360 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque385 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm360 lb-ft @ 3400 rpm
Transmission Type6-speed manu-matic6-speed manual
SteeringPower-assisted rack-and-pinionPower-assisted rack-and-pinion
Suspension, FrontStrut-type, coil springsStrut-type, coil springs
Suspension, RearControl arms, coil springsControl arms, coil springs
BrakesVented discs, ABSVented discs, ABS
TiresBridgestone Potenza RE050A{{{Continental}}} SportContact2
Tire Size245/40WR-19245/35YR-19
LxWxH196.1 x 74.8 x {{{57}}}.7 in191.1 x 72.7 x 57.8 in
Wheelbase114.8 in113.7 in
Track F/R{{{62}}}.7/63.3 in61.3/62.2 in
Weight4120 lb3946 lb
EPA Mileage15/24 city/hwy15/22 city/hwy

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