New Car/Review

1999 Pontiac Grand Am SE2 Coupe

by Carey Russ

The Firebird may be Pontiac's performance image machine, but the Grand Am is the company's bread and butter. Forty per cent of Pontiac sales have been Grand Ams in recent years, with over 200,000 sold per year since 1992. With sales like that, there is a strong motivation for conservatism in design change. Don't mess with success, as the saying goes. And, the Grand Am has been largely unchanged since 1992. Six and a half model years is an eternity in today's fast-paced automotive world. A short run of 1998 Grand Ams, largely unchanged from 1997, have now been replaced by an early introduction of 1999 models.

The 1999 Pontiac Grand Am is a conservative car only for a Pontiac. Currently offered in two-door coupe and four-door sedan body styles in SE, SE1, and SE2 trim levels, the new Grand Am brings bold Pontiac character to the compact class. It's a car for the real world of commuting and shopping, but adds Pontiac excitement and style and plenty of convenience to those everyday tasks.

A new chassis platform with the longest wheelbase in its class gives increased interior space and helps stability on the road. A wider track gives the new Grand Am the Pontiac "Wide Track" look and also improves handling. Power is supplied by a 2.4-liter twincam 4-cylinder engine in SE and SE1 models, or a torquey 3.4-liter V6 in the SE1 and SE2 levels. As expected of a Pontiac, the Grand Am is one of the best performers in its class. Also as expected, a comprehensive list of standard equipment on all levels adds value to the equation.

A 1999 SE2 coupe sits in my driveway this week, and I had plenty of seat time in SE and SE1 coupes and sedans at the press introduction earlier in the year. In any form, Pontiac's newest offering packs plenty of power and useful features. The highlight, so to speak, is found in the rear bumper fascia: rear cornering lights. Backup lights that actually illuminate, they project plenty of light to the rear and side of the car so night-time maneuvers are easier, safer, and have less chance of expensive crunches into unseen objects.

APPEARANCE: According to Pontiac, Grand Am buyers like a sporty-looking car and want to be noticed. In the 1999 Grand Am, they'll be noticed. There is plenty of "expressive Pontiac styling" in the new Grand Am's looks. It's definitely a Pontiac, and about as subtle as a cruise missile. This is not another blandly-styled small car. A slightly longer wheelbase than the previous-generation Grand Am, but less overhang makes it marginally shorter in length. The 1999 edition combines traditional Grand Am styling cues with a more pronounced resemblance to the larger Pontiac Grand Prix, particularly in the cabin shape. As with the Grand Prix, Grand Am coupes and sedans are very similar in style. The roofline of both is nearly identical, and more coupe-like than sedan in style. The "twin port" grille is wider and lower than on the earlier Grand Ams, making it more like that of the Grand Prix. It is flanked by distinctive "cat's eye" headlamps. The large, wraparound taillights echo the shape of the headlights. The rear cornering lights echo the front foglamps.

COMFORT: Particularly in SE2 trim, the newest Grand Am is a comfortable and well-equipped car. The cloth-covered front bucket seats have plenty of padding. Power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, and theater-style automatically- dimming entry lighting are part of the package. The doors and, in the coupe, the rear side panels, are designed to increase elbow room. There is room for two people in the split folding rear bench seat, or three in a pinch. The ribbed motif of the side cladding is echoed in the instrument panel design, with separate pods for the tachometer, speedometer, and each of five vents. The ignition key goes into the instrument panel, away from knees. For everyday convenience, there are useful storage areas in the instrument panel, doors, and console. The trunk is large and has easy access.

SAFETY: Safety equipment on the 1999 Pontiac Grand Am includes safety cage chassis construction, antilock brakes, traction control, automatic door locks, automatic lighting control, and daytime running lights.

ROADABILITY: Increased chassis rigidity and a new fully- independent suspension similar to that of the Grand Prix give the 1999 Grand Am good ride and handling characteristics. As expected from the lower-profile tires, my SE2 test car was firmer than SE and SE1 cars driven at the press introduction. The SE2's variable-effort power steering is light at low speeds for around-town and parking maneuverability, and heavier at highway speeds for stability.

PERFORMANCE: The Grand Am SE2 coupe that is the subject of this test was equipped with the 3.4-liter V6 engine. It's one of the more powerful engines in its class, with a maximum of 170 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. It makes short work of city and highway traffic. Earlier in the year, at the press introduction, I had the opportunity to try a Grand Am with the standard 2.4-liter Twin Cam 4-cylinder engine. Its 150 horsepower and 155 lb-ft of torque were also well-suited to everyday driving conditions. Both engines are matched to smooth electronically-controlled 4-speed automatic transmissions.

CONCLUSIONS: Pontiac's high-volume Grand Am is all-new for 1999 and a fitting smaller sibling to the Grand Prix.

SPECIFICATIONS

Base Price               $ 18,770
Price As Tested          $ 19,700
Engine Type              pushrod overhead valve V6, 12 valves
Engine Size              3.4 liters / 207 cu. in.
Horsepower               170 @ 5200 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)           195 @ 4000 rpm
Transmission             4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length       107.0 in. / 186.3 in.
Curb Weight              3053 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower    18
Fuel Capacity            15.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement         unleaded regular, 87 octane
Tires                    P225/50 SR16 Goodyear Eagle LS
Brakes, front/rear       vented disc / drum, antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear   independent MacPherson strut /
                         independent tri-link
Drivetrain               front engine, front-wheel drive

PERFORMANCE
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      20 / 28 / 23
0 to 60 mph                   7.9 sec
1/4 mile (E.T.)               16  sec

OPTIONS AND CHARGES

Lighter element & ashtray               $   15
Rear-deck spoiler                       $  195
6-speaker stereo system with:
  AM/FM radio, CD player, cassette player,
  7-band graphic equalizer, clock       $  195
Destination Charge                      $  525

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