Pontiacs are ubiquitous in the Motor City, but the rest of the country is less interested in the marque. During our first test-drive of the new G6, which replaces the Grand Am, a Pontiac engineer admitted that when he flies to California, he holds his breath after leaving the airport terminal until he sees a Pontiac. Sometimes he nearly passes out before conceding that there are no Grand Ams, Grand Prixs, or Bonne-villes swimming in the sea of Hondas, Toyotas, and BMWs. Pontiac is hoping to change that with the G6 and has even ditched its best-selling nameplate-Grand Am-to make the point that this is a truly different Pontiac.
The G6's sleek, unadorned styling is certainly a refreshing change from the Grand Am's ribbed plastic and bizarre spoilers. The car's long, 112-inch wheelbase, which is shared with its Epsilon platform mate, the Chevrolet Malibu Maxx, helps give the car a great road stance, with a flowing profile and short overhangs. The interior is less appealing. Although a huge improvement over the Grand Am's, it still suffers from subpar switchgear, imprecisely molded plastics, and discordant shapes and textures. Legroom is plentiful, but headroom is sacrificed for a low, sexy roofline.
This year, a 3.5-liter V-6 sending 200 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque through a four-speed automatic is the sole powertrain for both the base model and the GT. While smooth at idle, the pushrod V-6 coarsens as the revs rise. For 2006, a GTP model will debut with a 240-horsepower, 3.9-liter pushrod V-6 and an optional six-speed manual. A modern, DOHC, 2.4-liter, 170-horsepower Ecotec four-cylinder also arrives next year, along with coupe and convertible body styles.
Pontiac offered a Mazda 6, a Nissan Altima, and a Honda Accord for comparison, all of which had markedly better interiors and more refined powertrains. The Pontiac's numb, electrically assisted steering conspires with excess weight to dumb down the driving ex-perience. Lots of grip from stiff springs and big tires can't overcome excessive understeer and a lack of damping. The brakes are excellent, though.
Despite Pontiac's claims of "a value proposition," the G6 is priced in lockstep with the Mazda and the Honda, at $21,300 for the base model and $23,925 for the GT. Distinctive styling only goes so far, and other than generous rear legroom and an available panorama roof, the G6 has little to distinguish it. It's a significant step up from the Grand Am, but the G6 is still off the pace in a segment full of great cars. GM has shown it can make cars that you really might see driving through the passenger-pickup lanes at LAX-witness the Chevrolet Corvette and the Cadillac CTS-but we wouldn't hold our breath waiting for a G6.