New Car/Review

Pontiac

The New 1999 Pontiac Grand Am SE, The Excitement Continues

by Larry Weitzman

It has been over 40 years since Pontiac set the automotive world on its ear with the 1957 Pontiac. It had a 347 (about 5.7L) cubic inch V-8 that pumped out 270 gross hp. It had a four-speed hydramatic and would do 0-60 in about 8 seconds, the best 0-60 time in that now vintage year. Pontiac hasn't stop being a leader and innovator in the industry since that milestone year.

This year proves Pontiac is still the avant-garde, performance marquee of General Motors. The third generation 1999 Grand Am is an all new design from the ground up. The prior Grand Am was a solid performer with identifiable Pontiac looks. A big seller since its introduction in model year 1992. A great follow on to its bigger brother, the fabulous Grand Prix.

The new design incorporates new state of the art build techniques such as hydroforming part of the chassis as done in the new Corvette. It creates a super strong structure and reduces the amount of parts needed for manufacturing. This method has given the Grand Am a chassis frequency rating of only 25 hertz, a number usually reserved for things like boulders and monoliths. This car is solid.

Also new is the fully independent suspension. Mcpherson struts in the front and a new tri-link design in the rear. The new design is actually a 1/2 inch shorter than the previous Grand Am, but wheelbase is up about 3.5 inches. The width is up by about two inches, but the track has been widened three inches in front and 2.5 in back. Although still designated a compact by the EPA, interior space is up by over two cubic feet and the truck has grown by about 10%.

The exterior is all new. You know it's a Pontiac by the trademark twin nostril front end, but that's where the similarity ends from the previous model. The design is a wedge shape starting with the cat eye headlights right to the strong rear end with the large aggressive taillights.

I especially like certain touches in the body that soften the overall effect. The hoodline has two smooth ridges that flow into the grill. The wheel wells are heavily flared giving the car an assertive stance. The lower ridged body cladding carries itself through the front and rear bumpers.

Another nice touch is the standard front fog lamps in the bumper and the dual rear backup lights that put light to the side as well as the rear. They are built right into the rear bumper and add to the aggressive appearance of the car.

In the energy department the Grand Am gets a new (new to the Grand Am) 3.4L OHV V-6 engine and a very refined 2.4L DOHC 16 valve inline 4. The V-6 puts out 170 hp @ 5,200 rpm and a stout 195 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. The four puts out a strong 150 hp at 5,600 rpm and 155 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm.

My test vehicle had the smooth 2.4L twin-cam motor. It has internal balance shafts and will pull smoothly and strongly right up to its 6,200 rpm redline. The only transmission is a electronically controlled 4-speed automatic. 0-60 mph times averaged about 10.1 seconds with one run at 9.63 seconds. I wouldn't be surprised if the V-6 wouldn't knock off nearly two seconds.

50-70 mph acceleration on the level took 6.5 seconds all in second gear. Going uphill will lengthen that time to about 10.5 seconds. The V-6 would shave at least a second or more off those times. That's sprightly performance from a 3,100 pound, four-cylinder, compact commuter car. In the important 20-70 mph performance range, this Pontiac will not disappoint.

The pedal is connected to front discs with standard ABS. The feel and modulation are excellent and they provide powerful deceleration when required. Although the rear binders are drums, the front brakes do most of your stopping (unless you go backwards a lot, and I've been accused of that) and ABS is a far more significant standard feature than rear disc brakes.

In the ride and handling department, the Pontiac offers security and confidence. Wide Track does work. The Grand Am goes around corners like its on rails. The upgraded model with bigger wheels and more rubber would give sport cars a run for it. The steering transitions from what feels like a slight oversteer to predictable understeer. In the V-6 model, the power steering is variable assist, which would probably eliminate the slight oversteer.

Notwithstanding, the Grand Am handled Green Valley Road as if it was a straight away. In the bumps and tar strip department, the ride was supple and compliant. No float or wallow, just absorption. Ponderosa was very smooth and quiet with little or no harshness caused by its washboard surface. The body is tight and no rattles or vibration are apparent. The freeway was smooth and quiet as even the 2.4L four turns only 2200 rpm at 70 mph. Impressive for what is essentially a compact commuter car.

Commuter cars need good fuel mileage. The Pontiac delivers 21/29 in the EPA city/highway cycle. On the freeway, I would estimate an easy 30 plus and at least 22-25 in El Dorado County. With its 15.l gallon fuel tank, fill ups would be infrequent and inexpensive.

The interior offers comfortable buckets seats up front and a reasonable three place rear seat. Leg room and head room are adequate. The dash comes with a standard large tach and speedo in separate pods with a temp and fuel gauge to the lower left and right. To the right in a center pod are the standard am/fm radio and A/C controls. All are easy to use and worked very well in the 100 plus degree temperatures.

I called this a commuter car. The car I tested had only one option, a smoker's package for $15. The base price is $16,070 (a two door model is $200 less) plus $170 for the mandatory California Emissions and $525 for destination. The total sticker was $16,780. That's it. And it's loaded with standard equipment. Some standard items worth noting are ABS, power steering, A/C, enhanced traction system (switchable and a nice feature in inclement weather), programmable power locks, tilt and great looks.

The Grand Am also comes with a V-6. It changes the character of the car slightly from a snazzy, upscale commuter to a real performer. It comes with even more standard equipment including 16 inch alloys with 225/50 rubber, variable assist power steering (these two items greatly enhance handling), power windows, C/D player with higher performance speakers and other nice tidbits. The SE V-6 (four door) will set you back about $18,970 plus $525 destination and $170 for the gurus in Sacramento (Cal Emissions). The only option I would add would be leather interior, which lists for the bargain price of $475. That's about $20,000 for a leather, high performance compact sedan with looks that should satisfy even luxury, power freaks.

This is a car should be on anyone's list who is looking for big value in the $15,000 to $20,000.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price                                    $15,870 to about $21,000
Engine
   2.4L DOHC 16 valve                    inline 4150 hp @ 5,600 rpm
                                         155 lb-ft torque @ 4,400 rpm
   3.4L OHV V-6                          170 hp @ 5,200 rpm
                                         195 lb-ft torque @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission
                                         4 speed electronically 
                                         controlled automatic
                                         with traction control

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase                               106.7  inches
Length                                  186.3  inches
Width                                   70.4   inches
Height                                  55.1   inches
Curb Weight                             3116   pounds
Fuel Capacity                           15.1   gallons

PERFORMANCE

0-60                                    10.1   seconds
50-70  leve                             l6.5    seconds
50-70  uphill                           10.5   seconds
Top Speed                               Not with me in the Car
Fuel Econ                               EPA 21/29 (2.4L) 19/28 (3.4L)
                                        my estimate would be about 22-25 in
                                        El Dorado County with 30 plus at
                                        a steady 65-70 mph for both engines 

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