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Review: 2003 Pontiac Grand Am

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SEE ALSO: Pontiac Buyer's Guide

By The Car Family, The Car Place

Good: value, gas mileage, transmission, chassis, stereo

Needs improvement: seats, headlights, rear seat legroom, gauges, lack of auxiliary safety airbags. .

The Big Picture Pontiac's Grand Am is the bread and butter of the Pontiac line, providing true value for those who want a car that does fine in daily driving. For about $20,000 or less, you can get a fairly well optioned V6-powered car that provides excellent gas mileage and a wide array of standard features.

There is no doubt that the best part of this Pontiac is the engine and transmission. We tested the 170 horsepower, V6 engine with the four-speed automatic transmission and found it very effective in most situations. It only lacked energy when the car was loaded.

With four people and luggage aboard the 3.4-liter engine was slow to reach its 4,000 rpm peak power band and felt out of breath quickly thereafter. The good side is that we averaged over 28 mpg on a 700-mile trip on regular fuel.

Mom's view The Pontiac Grand Am is a good value. For thousands less than comparable Hondas and Toyotas you can drive a car that has proven to be a top seller. The chassis is very solid and the brake feel is first rate.

On the other hand, I found the seats to be uncomfortable for long drives and the trunk opening and rear seat legroom too small.

Overall, this is a competent car with safety features that include traction control, anti-lock brakes, and de-powered front air bags. Unfortunately, missing from this list are side and head airbags. Thus, the crash test rating for the front passenger and driver were good while side impact ratings were only fair. Ratings for the offset crash test yielded poor results and the bumper bash resulted in a marginal performance.

It is not a bad looking car, and I didn't mind driving it, but Pontiac has a lot of competition in this price range, starting with the new Saturn L300 that was more eager to please. The Grand Am is a price-sensitive car and dealers are eager to offer some bargains, including reduced interest rates.

Dad's view With a four-wheel independent suspension, power rack-and-pinion steering, a firm chassis measured at 25 Hz, you would think that the Grand Am would be a driver's car, but it really isn't.

The Grand Am is a transportation car and the problem is in the limited output of the engine. Despite, the throaty exhaust, the 3.4 engine just does not live up to the image that the car is intended to portray, especially with the rear spoiler. The potential is there, but it probably won't be tapped as Pontiac is selling Grand Ams at a significant rate with the fuel-efficient 170 horsepower unit.

Driving was always pleasant, especially the smooth automatic transmission. Only poorly maintained roads upset the balance of the Grand Am as the ABS was overly sensitive when applied briskly over bumpy terrain.

I am waiting for the promised new V8 powered Pontiac "GTO." With more gusto and updated interior it is going to be difficult to ignore. Meanwhile, the Grand Am continues to be well priced and offer good utility.

Woman graduate student's view The 14.1 gallon tank enabled me to go 400 miles before refueling and that was great. Driving the car was easy, but the rear view mirrors were all too small for good visibility. The gauges are very deeply imbedded in the dash and are difficult to read. The steering is nicely weighted and the turning radius quite good for a large, front-wheel drive vehicle. I liked the sporty look of the Grand Am and found lots of room in the trunk. The headlights were not very good, although the interior lighting was excellent.

If I had my choice I would go with the much more useful Pontiac Vibe, which has more room, is just as comfortable, and is more trendy. The Grand Am is comfy and capable, but it doesn't carry the image General Motors' "excitement" division should have to reach the younger buyers.

Working college teen-age boy A great stereo. The optional Monsoon sound system, with its eight speakers, cassette and CD player, is sensational. But our SE2 also came with steering wheel-mounted audio controls and the $300 XM Satellite Radio. You need to get this system. Yes, it costs $10 a month, but the reception is awesome and you get 100 digital channels, including 71 music channels and 29 channels of sports, talk, and entertainment programming. The best listening idea for long distance travel are the stations that carry stories. We enjoyed hearing science fiction, mysteries, and comedies while on our trip. The unit runs around $300, but it is well worth the cost.

As for the Grand Am, it's okay, but I would rather have the Chevrolet Impala because I like that car's interior much better and you have room in the backseat.

Family conference You get a lot of car for the money with the Grand Am. Its attributes also include an efficient engine and reasonable insurance rates. The downside is seats that are too cushy for our backsides and the lack of side and head airbags. We suggest that you look for the SE 1 or 2 and do not forget the XM package.