New Car/Review

Pontiac

The Wide Track Wonder, Pontiac Grand Prix GTP

by Larry Weitzman

The first wide track I drove was my uncle's 1959 389 cubic inch (6.6L) 300 hp Pontiac Bonneville. I thought it was fast and I was impressed. In 1962 Pontiac introduced the first Grand Prix. It was (and still is) a beautiful car powered by the same 389 ci engine in the smaller (huge by today standards) Catalina chassis. It was an instant success and the desire of everyone I knew including me.

This new Grand Prix is the worthiest successor to wear the name that adorns its classic predecessor. It's the best Grand Prix ever, and one of the best mid size cars produced today. This unit is actually is an almost an exact copy of the Pontiac 300GPX concept car.

It is an all new (1997) design built on the new GM W-car platform, which is also used for the Buick Regal and Olds Intrigue. Each division though, uses completely different bodies and suspension tuning to create three distinctive characters. In relation to the previous design, the wheelbase has grown three inches to 110.5 inches and the track width grew two inches in front and three inches in the rear. The term wide track isn't a meaningless advertising slogan, it's real. Overall length only grew 1.5 inches to 196.5 inches.

The soft yet aggressive shape of the car has none of that plastic body cladding. It's clean of chrome and stick-ons. It is a beautiful shape and Pontiac had the foresight to not put gingerbread on it. The only chrome is the optional gorgeous five spoke chrome 16 inch wheels (worth the $325).

It drives better than it looks. The full independent suspension is tuned for sporty driving. It's firm yet supple and very well controlled. No jarring or rattles, which should not be expected with a combination of body and frame stiffness of 22 hertz. That low of a frequency is usually reserved for granite. In my test drive on Ponderosa, it delivered a smooth, compliant ride that goes around corners like water in a hose. On smooth pavement such a Lotus, Green Valley and Bass Lake Road, driving is so easy that corners feel like straight aways. It's that good. Wide Track works, especially when it's connected to a tuned, well designed, fully independent suspension. Understeer is present near its limits, but it's so connected to the road, the understeer is totally benign. I'm not even to the good stuff yet.

This car has power. Smooth, long power. Fun power. Although three different engines are available, a 3.1L V-6 producing 160 hp and 185 ft-lbs of torque, a 3.8L V-6 producing 200 hp and 230 ft-lbs of torque and a supercharged 3.8L V-6 producing 240 hp and 280 ft-lbs of torque, the supercharged V-6 is the standard bill of fare for the GTP. This is the most powerful V-6 that I have ever driven.

It knocks off 0-60 in 7 seconds flat (I had one run at 6.68). Even with traction control you can spin the tires. Highway passing is like having a JATO (Jet Assisted takeoff rockets used by the military) bottle go off. It accelerated from 50-70 mph in only 4.7 seconds. Going up a steep hill didn't slow this thing down but a second, doing 50-70 in a remarkable 5.7 seconds. These are times normally reserved for cars like the Mercedes E430, Lexus LS 400 and BMW V-8's. The current Infiniti Q-45 would need a tow rope to keep up with this Pontiac. Not bad for a car costing one-half of the aforementioned company.

This 240 hp clydesdale motor is not turbocharged, but is supercharged. The end result is the same, but the method of obtaining the result is different. Supercharging is a method of increasing horsepower without increasing engine size. It has been used in aircraft for over 60 years. A supercharger basically shoves more air into the engine. It puts a super (larger) charge of air into the cylinders. This extra air when added with more fuel produces increased power. Turbo(super)chargers are driven by exhaust gases passing a turbine wheel that is connected to a compressor turbine in the air induction system. A mechanical supercharger, as in this engine, is driven by a one inch belt off the crankshaft pulley. The result is the same, the pushing of extra air into the induction system.

The one advantage of the mechanical system is that there is no compressor lag. The power is instantaneous on demand. As the performance times indicate, it is nearly instantaneous on the speedo.

This car is restrained by equally powerful four-wheel disk brakes (the fronts are ventilated) with full ABS. The pedal gives good feedback and control.

The normally aspirated V-6 (200 hp) motor is no slouch, either. It should produce power in similar fashion and would more than satisfy 99% of drivers. I would estimate 0-60 times in the sub 8 second range and passing times maybe a half a second to a second slower.

All this fun comes at very little fuel penalty. The fuel computer indicated an average of 19 mpg. I spent much of my time enjoying the application of the supercharger and would expect at least 20-23 mpg in normal El Dorado County driving and 27-30 mpg on the highway. With its 18-gallon fuel tank, that's nearly 500 miles without refueling with reserves. A motorman's friend would be a definite necessity.

This engine is mated to GM's 4T65E four speed electronically controlled transaxle. Its shifts are smooth enough to be imperceptible, yet it responds to driver's commands are crisp, decisive and satisfyingly quick. Because of the engines wide power band, first gear can take you to over 50 mph, second gear is good to over 90 and there are still two gears to go. This makes for easy, effortless and relaxed high speed cruising and passing.

The interior is as good as the exterior. Leather is everywhere, including the steering wheel and center console shifter. At first, the standard power front driver seat feels firm but supportive. But after spending a couple of hours it was even more comfortable. It has a power lumbar support that works. The rear seats are remarkably comfortable. The extra length provides excellent thigh support and the seat back is well shaped. Behind the wide rear center armrest is a lockable truck pass through for skis or whatever. Trunk space is generous.

All the controls are well-placed, logical and simple to use. The main instrument cluster contains a large tach and speedo, flanked by a fuel and temp gauge. To the right is a driver information center which can tell you among other things, when it's time to change oil, low fuel or your average mpg. The sound system contains a single play C/D and produces great sounds. I was surprised that there was no cassette, although a standard cassette is available with a 12 play truck mounted C/D ($460). Controls for the radio have a second location on the steering wheel. The air conditioner provides separate controls for the driver and passenger.

There are three power ports, including one in the overhead console and plenty of cupholders. There is one other item worth mentioning and that's the heads up display of the speed and radio frequency. It's a neat gimmick, but the projection devise on top of the dash I could do without.

This car has only a few options: chrome wheels (well worth the money), a power glass moon roof ($570), two option groups (1SB for $555 and 1SC for $1,650 which includes the moon roof) and an engine block heater ($20), everything else is standard at a list price of $24,470 (including destination) plus a $170 for California emissions. The car I drove listed for $25,350. A nicely equipped nonsupercharged GT model (3.8L) which will do about everything the GTP will (except for being competitive at Laguna Seca raceway) lists for about $22,000.

The designers of the original 1962 Grand Prix would be proud to see 1999 Grand Prix carry on the tradition of not just a name but of an even more beautiful, very high performance automobile. Pontiac and General Motors are serious about remaining the world's leading producer of automobiles.

SPECIFICATIONS

Price                                     $19,345 to about $26,000
Engine Type
   3.1L V-6                               160 hp @ 5,200 rpm
                                          185 lb-ft torque @ 4,000 rpm
   3.8L V-6                               200 hp @ 5,200 rpm
                                          230 lb-ft torque @ 3,600 rpm
   3.8L supercharged V-6                  240 hp @ 5,200 rpm
                                          280 lb-ft torque @ 3,200 rpm
Transmission
                                          4T65E 4-speed automatic
                                          electronically controlled

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase                                 110.5 inches
Length                                    196.5 inches
Width                                     72.7 inches
Height                                    54.7 inches
Curb Weight                               3480 pounds  (GTP)
Fuel Capacity                             18 gallons

PERFORMANCE

0-60mph                                   7.0 seconds
50-70 mph                                 4.7 seconds
50-70 mph (uphill)                        5.7 seconds
Top Speed                                 Not in my lifetime (acutally it's
                                          governor limited to 127 mph)
Fuel Economy                              18/27 city/hwy, my estimate expect
                                          about 20-23 local and 27-30 highway

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