The first time GM attempted to create a BMW 3-Series fighter, we got the Cadillac Cimarron. After 27 years of trying again (and again and again) to take on the rear-wheel drive driver's car, we've got a rebadged Australian import that goes by the name Pontiac G8. No question: the G8 is a far better automobile than the Cimarron (what modern car isn't?). But it's still no 3-Series. Frankly, it's not clear what it is.
The G8's bodysides couldn't be more purely E46 if they'd been penned in China. Sure, some hood fauxpenings were added at the eleventh hour to provide Pontiac "character." But look at this car a thousand times, and it still won't look like a Pontiac. The sides are too clean, the proportions too slender for Detroit iron. (Or post-Bangle BMW, for that matter.) And as with Chinese knock-offs, such a close copy can't hope to have its own identity.
Many enthusiasts pine for the days when BMW interiors were designed for driving, with solid if unflashy materials, minimalist lines and no gadgetry. Welcome to the cabin of the G8. Someone Down Under appears to have made it their personal mission to squeeze all of the power window, power lock and power mirror controls into a single compact module located on the center console. (As seen previously in the GTO, there's ergonomics, and then there's Aussie ergonomics.) As a result, the front door panels are button-free; you can't get cleaner than that.
One thing GM didn't copy: the dimensions of an E46. People who've seen the G8 only in photos often think it's the size of a 3-Series, or perhaps a 5-Series. In fact, the G8 falls closest to the regular wheelbase 7. For GM, bigger has always equaled better. What better way to improve on the 3-Series than to add 20 inches of length and a half-foot of width?
Of course, for buyers seeking a roomy sedan the space will be welcome. The comfortably high rear seat cushion can easily transport three adults, and the trunk can swallow everyone's luggage. The entire rear seat does not fold, but the center pass-through provides a larger opening than some folding seats.
When behind the wheel, a relatively high seating position and a driver-oriented design helps the largest Pontiac feel smaller than it is. It doesn't feel like a 3, but it doesn't feel like a Dodge Charger, either. A 5 perhaps. Even some of the world's thickest A-pillars (no room in the budget for high-strength steel?) don't ruin the pistonhead party.
The G8 GT's rear-drive chassis feels nearly as balanced as a BMW's. The rear end can be smoothly throttle-steered through turns–without the standard stability control killing the joy. There's more kickback through the steering than desirable road feel, but at least there's road feel– something that can be said of fewer and fewer cars in the post-Lexus age. Body control is tight and precise, with very little in the way of ungainly slop.
With such a firm standard suspension, ride comfort isn't a G8 strength, even with the 18-inch tires (even less compliant nineteens are optional). Think 3, with the Sport Package. Hardcore enthusiasts won't mind feeling every bump. But the rest of the driving population? Sell this one to Avis, and renters will complain. Apparently GM has (finally) bought its own hype, and created a Pontiac suitable only for enthusiasts.
If there's anything American about the G8, it's the GT's 361-horsepower 6.0-liter V8. Except this one is more refined than the typical American pushrod V8. This refinement cuts both ways. You won't mistake the L76 for a high-winding DOHC unit, but it doesn't seem out of place in such an otherwise European car. The downside? While the G8 GT is undeniably quick when you plant your right foot, you have to rely on the rapidly rotating needle for this info. It would feel quicker with a more visceral powerplant.
If only the six-speed automatic was a willing partner; it often resists downshifting. The best slushboxes smoothly select the optimal ratio before the driver is aware that he's called for a new gear. This isn't one of those cog swappers.
Aside from making a car larger, GM can also be counted on to make it cheaper. In this case, you get a 7-sized 5-handling 3-looking 361-horsepower sedan for the price of a 1, and a 128i at that.
While not clearly a Pontiac, the G8 is clearly a bargain for anyone who's been seeking a super-sized, pushrod-powered, two-ton 3-Series. Unless the 15/24 on the window sticker scares even this crowd, GM will sell all it cares to lose money on. (The Australian dollar near parity with the greenback? Gotta hurt.) With a clearer identity, less spartan interior and more compliant suspension, there'd be less need to rely– in traditional GM fashion–on a low price.