We have seen Pontiac's problem, and it isn't cladding. Although its 2004 Grand Prix appears scantily ribbed, it is still slavishly obeisant to Pontiac's past. The new Grand Prix rides into the sporty family segment on its laurels, a little underprepared for the competition. It uses the 1997 car's platform, and while the new car is a big improvement over the last, it is still a rehash. Critical gains in areas such as headlamps, engine, and structure can't mask that this car is a baby step toward greatness, not the quantum leap we were expecting. GM claims the car is 80 percent new. We'd say it's more like 20 percent old.
And in the intervening seven years since the last Grand Prix came out, the front-wheel-drive family sport-sedan category has changed dramatically, going from a few playersthe Grand Prix and the Nissan Maxima stand outto a fully rounded segment with offerings as competent and diverse as the Nissan Altima, the Volkswagen Passat, and the Mazda 6.
In light of this stepped-up competition, we confined our driving to the GTP Competition Group edition of the Grand Prix. This most aggressive version goes a step beyond the base 200-horsepower GT and the up-level 260-horsepower GTP with the addition of StabiliTrak Sport yaw control, firmer chassis tuning, Magnasteer II steering, better tires, and a laudable, though not especially relevant, claimed cornering limit of 0.83 g.
For while the Comp G grips like a koala, it doesn't feel like a driver's car. Its chassis lacks suppleness, its steering lacks linearity, and its brakes lack bite. The Comp G might post great skidpad numbers, but it's not a great inspirer of confidence.
Dynamically, the Comp G is bailed out by its revised 260-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6. For the new Grand Prix, this GM workhorse has been given a thorough going-over, with new con rods, a bigger throttle body, and a well-calibrated electronic throttle. The GTPs add an Eaton supercharger for the right balance of maximum power and minimal torque steer. Inside, another rescue attempt proceeds apace. Two thingsthe flexibility of the interior and the availability of XM satellite radiomake up for the swoops and dip-de-dos and other various jigsaw-puzzle pieces that go into a GM interior. The quality of all the pieces is commendable, but the instrument panel bears hallmarks of imprecision in its gaps.
Despite these interior quibbles, the Grand Prix's packaging flexibility is world class. It has a wide pass-through from the trunk to the cabin, rear doors that swing open to about 90 degrees, and a fold-forward front passenger seat. And how about XM radio? As the in-dash CD player was to the 1990s, satellite radio is to the '00s: It makes all cars better.
The Grand Prix GTP Comp G is an emblem of Pontiac's belated awareness of its rivals. Family sedans have been getting more driver-oriented of late, and this car finds Pontiac working from GM's dog-eared playbook, where g numbers and magnetic steering stand in for sensitivity to the finer points of chassis tuning. When asked what sets the Grand Prix apart from the growing list of great sedans from Japan and Germany, Lynn Myers, Pontiac-GMC's general manager, said, "Well, it's a Pontiac." This may be a convenient way to say that the car represents a certain kind of American performance bargain, but it's a comment stuck in an era when all Pontiac had to be was different from Chevy. Clearly, just being a Pontiac is not enough anymore.