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The Wizard from Oz

Glenn PaulinaphotographersEddie Altermanwriters

Before the chin implant and the oversized Foster Grants, before the silvery eponymous sports car and the little Baggie of cocaine, John Z. De Lorean got famous by slipping his Pontiac GTO under the bluenoses at GM and into the hearts of big-engined-car enthusiasts everywhere. Forty years later, through slightly different means, Pontiac has pulled another fast one. Replace De Lorean with Bob Lutz (except for the chin implant and the coke), replace the Pontiac Tempest LeMans with the Australian Holden Monaro, and the story picks up where the original muscle car's left off.

Although this new GTO won't smash GM's silly ten-pounds-of-car-per-cubic-inch-of-engine rule the way the '64 did, it will maneuver smartly around another auto industry chastity belt: the UAW. And while this Aussie-built Goat won't detonate a high-horsepower explosion in this country as the first GTO did—we've got Germans for that now—it is as much a departure from the Pontiac status quo as was the original. In fact, the new GTO may be the best, most erect-walking Pontiac ever put on sale. It's just a little sad that GM had to go all the way to Australia to find it.

You could think of the 2004 GTO as a pony car—a more sophisticated replacement for the Firebird, or a merciless Mustang slayer, or a competitor for Japanese performance coupes such as the Infiniti G35. You could also think of it within the tenets of muscle-car theology as simply an intermediate-size coupe with a big engine. According to many GTO faithful, there is some debate about what this car is: Has it earned the right to wear the badge, or is it just a marketing exercise engineered to cash in on it? Jim Wangers, the former advertising and marketing guru who is the public face of the GTO flock, renders the speculation inconsequential. "I don't want to hear any more noise from anyone in the hobby or outside the hobby about this car until they've driven it," he said recently. "I know what a GTO is all about. This car absolutely blew my mind. . . . It's a torque monster, and, by God, that's really what it was all about on Woodward."

A man with slightly more at stake in this version is the GTO's chief engineer, Bob Reuter, who says the new car, like the old, is basically a "powertrain program. The emphasis is on power, launch feel, and exhaust sound. . . . And it's faster than snot." Pontiac made about 450 changes to the Holden Monaro, all of them to ensure that the American GTO would not embarrass its legend. It uses the Monaro's (and the Corvette's) 5.7-liter LS1 V-8, producing 350 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque. GM has tweaked the powertrain with a bellowing exhaust note, higher-lift cams, a higher final-drive ratio (3.46:1), a faster-acting limited-slip differential, and a short-travel accelerator pedal. Mated to the optional six-speed Tremec transmission from the Corvette Z06 (a four-speed Hydra-Matic is standard), the GTO cracks off 0-to-60-mph runs in 5.3 seconds. It hits an electronically limited 155 mph with either gear set. Those numbers are dangerously close to the Corvette's.

But, unlike the Corvette's, this car's powertrain doesn't feel as if it wears overalls to work. It's not the kind of Sunday V-8 that cracks a beer, hose-fills the aboveground pool, and asks its wife to pull its finger. Even though it uses the fairly agricultural gearbox from the Z06, the GTO's lower torque rating and seamless, rushing power make the engine-transmission pairing one of the best in America. The gears slide into engagement with short, positive throws, and clutch take-up is gradual and natural, happening right in the middle of the pedal's travel. Despite a few footwell oversights (no dead pedal, too much distance between the brake and the accelerator for heel-toe downshifts) and GM's annoying first-to-fourth skip-shift, we would still choose the six-speed over the rough-shifting four-speed automatic without hesitation.

Mechanically, the GTO's layout hasn't changed much from the Monaro's. Both start with a shortened and widened Opel Omega/Cadillac Catera platform, featuring a MacPherson-strut front and semi-trailing-arm rear suspension. The biggest architectural difference between the Monaro and the GTO is the location of the fuel tank, which Pontiac moved from behind the rear bumper to the back of the trunk. This relocation slightly raises the car's center of gravity and diminishes trunk capacity, but, more important, it reduces the likelihood of Pinto-style immolation after a rear-end collision.

Structure added to protect the fuel tank and new chassis tuning have helped to create a car that is both stout and agile. It steers beautifully, without a trace of artifice in its center. A high degree of body control means that the car quickly composes itself after turning in. Ride is a bit on the brittle side, in spite of the high-sidewall seventeen-inch tires, yet the dampers stifle wheel rebounds quickly, without any lingering suspension memory. The Bosch ABS-equipped disc brakes are direct and haul the car down from 60 to 0 mph in 147 feet. Such evenly matched controls give the GTO a linebacker's burly precision. And its quick-revving character, defeatable traction control system, and smallish rear tires make it a power-oversteer idiot king, scooting sideways with the slightest poke at the throttle.

The GTO doesn't seem quite American, in that it doesn't have the ponderous, disjointed feeling you sometimes get in American cars. But neither does it have the hummingbird personality of a Japanese sport coupe. It is heavy (3725 pounds), strong, and straightforward. It feels almost European, with a dash of lunacy from its outlaw country of origin—a country, incidentally, whose unofficial national anthem seems to be a two-minute rondo of breaking beer bottles. At home, the Aussies have elevated rowdiness to high art, and the GTO is an envoy for that contribution to world culture.

Outwardly, though, the car seems pretty tame. Even after serious rhinoplasty, the GTO looks very ten years ago, sharing its podlike, jellybean shape with that of the old Cadillac Catera. But modern things are afoot inside. The GTO's seats are trimmed in thick leather and have ample lateral, if not thigh, support. Unlike those in many so-called two-plus-twos, the canted rear buckets are incredibly roomy, with acres of head, hip, and knee room. This is almost a two-door sedan, as the original GTO was. Rear-seat access is also excellent; a button under the lift handle electrically moves the seat back and forth.

The tactile quality of the interior, long an area of GM cluelessness, is great. The lower part of the doors and the dash are swaddled in Alcantara in the color of your choice (red, black, blue, or purple). Stalks and vents feel crafted rather than spit out. There are color-keyed, highly legible gauges, polished doorsills, grippy rubber and aluminum pedals underfoot, and color-keyed stitching on the steering wheel and the shifter. It feels like more than $33,000 worth of car.

And for $33,000, you get everything (the $695 six-speed gearbox is the only option). This all-inclusive configuration makes the car a bit of a blank canvas, but its stealthiness is in keeping with GTO heritage. Nowhere on its flanks does it even say the word Pontiac—the only badging is the Pontiac spear, GTO/5.7 badges on the back, and the classic GTO checkerboard on the front fenders. This is not a car Pontiac should be embarrassed to put its name on. But maybe its marketers were wise to make this thing a GTO first and a Pontiac second. The car is so good that it might fool a whole generation of European auto enthusiasts into driving American. For a car whose name has become synonymous with neat tricks, this would be its neatest yet.