I sometimes get sentimental for the Good Old Days, a bygone era when gas was cheap (and the good stuff was called Ethyl), back seats were the ticket to romance, and tailfins were a mark of distinction, rather than bad taste. Back in the day, the coolest metal was Detroit born-and-bred, bearing real nameplates that paid homage to fast animals and faraway places and auto races, not to alphanumeric jumbles inspired by IRS tax forms. It was during one of these recent waves of nostalgia that I found myself looking forward to spending some quality time flogging one of America’s last remaining full-size touring sedans, the Grand Prix. That is, until I drove one.
True to its legacy as a highway cruiser, the Grand Prix is, well, big. At 198 inches, the grand dame consumes as much curb space as a 7-series BMW. Unlike its original 1962 namesake, the current Pontiac looks uninteresting and ill-proportioned. The blandly inoffensive profile is disrupted by a garish boy-racer front air dam and a bulbous, excessively ridged tail that has all the charm of a plumber’s hindquarters. It’s quite sporty looking– assuming you limit your choices of sport to roller derby and championship wrestling.
Enter this lame-duck’s cabin and welcome to another GM-sponsored edition of "Bad Designers Gone Wild." The Grand Prix' dashboard is an unfortunate mishmash of odd angles and mismatched plastics, paired with conspicuously cheap aluminum trim that missed the turn for the soda can factory. The buttons are lower rent than an apartment overlooking Chicago's L and as awkward to manipulate on the fly as a Psion organizer (from the same era).
The large-print gauges are intrusive pie plates more suited to geriatric reading rooms than an inspired driver’s car. The steering wheel continues the size trumps all theme. The mass transit-sized interface obviates the possibility of serious switchbacks shenanigans– if only because the metal cladding is ideally located to cut into any sporting driver trained to place his or her hands at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions.
The Grand Prix’s cloth buckets are adequate for extended cruising. However, they lack lumbar and side support; I never managed to maneuver the six-way power adjustments to a position that was anything better than rental car compliant. But interior space is abundant, and the spacious trunk will please even the most ambitious of Costco shoppers.
Although most reviewers test the livelier 5.3-liter V8 or supercharged 3.8-liter editions of this car, “my” Grand Prix lumbered along with Ye Olde “3800” V6. It’s the naturally-aspirated, transverse-mounted 200hp pushrod found in most Grand Prix that trudge along US highways. It’s a powerplant in name only: mechanical motivation perfectly designed to discourage any accelerative aspirations.
Fire it up, and the 3800’s familiar whirr settles into an engine note that oozes all the sonic sensuality (and none of the precision) of a Cuisinart. Mated to a drive-by-wire throttle and four-speed automatic, the not-so-mighty mill pushes the Pontiac to 60mph in a bit over eight seconds. For those aspiring to gaze deeply into the taillights of Toyota Avalons, it’s the stuff of which dreams are made.
The Grand Prix' anemic engine renders it as far from autobahn material as a dirt bike. But at a more languid pace, the Grand Prix proceeds without trial or tribulation. The Pontiac stalwarts’ 110” wheelbase and independent suspension deliver a gentle ride without the excessive floaty boatiness typical of most old-school GM automobiles. Toss some good old fashioned American expansion joints and potholes its way, and neither driver nor passengers will be any worse for wear.
In keeping with tradition, the Grand Prix’ over-boosted steering is as vague and disconnected as a stoned surfer, offering that Novocain numbness that makes Detroit front-drivers the last choice for anyone who enjoys driving. Just as long as you don’t harbor any pistonhead passion whatsoever, you and Grand Prix may get along just fine.
The Grand Prix may share the name and most of the length of its throaty four-barreled ancestor, but it fails miserably to deliver on its promise of sports sedanitude. This Pontiac is ultimately a charm-free appliance– one that inspires little confidence. With barely 500 miles on the clock, my tester was already beginning to creak and groan. Owners should not be surprised if their enjoyment of the Lunesta-like driving dynamics is interrupted by an untimely visit or two with Mr. Goodwrench.
This party will be ending soon. Next year, Pontiac will put the Grand Prix out to the pasture that’s been waiting for it for a very long time. All hail “world cars” and automotive alphanumerics! Pontiac dealers will soon begin peddling the G8, a rear-driver based upon the world-famous-in-Australia Holden Commodore that will sport (one hopes) a 3.6-liter 261hp DOHC V6 and a five-speed autobox.
Meanwhile, on the cusp of this glorious transition, you can pick up a brand new, fully-loaded Pontiac Grand Prix for a song. Don’t.