The Down-Under Express By Sam Smith Photography by Robert Kerian Fifteen months ago, General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner gave his engineers the green light to modify the Holden Commodore for the North American market. Fifteen minutes after I met Doug Houlihan, global vehicle chief engineer for the Pontiac G8, he told me that "the heart and soul of the G8 is its chassis." And fifteen seconds after I climbed behind the wheel of a G8, I pitched it sideways on the skid pad, stood on the throttle, and churned out enough tire smoke to blot out the sun. Predictable, right? Journalist gets the keys to a new rear-wheel-drive American muscle car. Journalist pronounces said muscle car "good hooligan fun" but nevertheless declares it ultimately flawed for random reasons X and Y. End of story. What came next, however, wasn't so predictable. After leaving the track, I ventured onto a few twisty mountain roads. Remarkably, the G8 did something few muscle cars do: It handled. And stopped. And it did these things in a surprisingly un-Pontiac-like manner, which is to say, well. Hold on. We're talking about a Pontiac? Let's back up. Like the 2004-06 Pontiac GTO, the G8 started life at GM's Australian Holden division. Its existence is the result of GM's recent globalization: over the past two and a half years, the General has shuffled an enormous amount of talent and resources worldwide, all in the name of building better cars. This reorganization has yielded a number of different "world car" projects - the forthcoming 2010 Chevrolet Camaro is the most well-known of these - built on a small number of shared platforms. By tailoring the fundamental dimensions of these platforms to each market and model and centralizing development based on historical success (small cars in Europe, rear-wheel-drive sedans in Australia, trucks in North America), GM hopes to play to each division's strengths. The Pontiac G8 is one of the first cars to emerge from this process and find its way into North American showrooms (the GTO was conceived prior to recent globalization efforts). Coming as it does from a brand that long specialized in unfulfilled ad hype and flabby body cladding, the Pontiac's spec sheet is shockingly appealing. The top-of-the-line G8 GT boasts a 361-hp, 6.0-liter pushrod V-8, 51.0/49.0 percent front-to-rear weight distribution, a standard limited-slip differential, a six-speed automatic transmission, independent front and rear suspensions, and rear-wheel drive. Not to mention styling that actually looks as if it was penned in this century. It's enough to wake even the sleepiest car freak. Heck, on paper, the Pontiac even garners that most coveted of all sport-sedan compliments: it seems a lot like a BMW. That comparison - along with a 2003 quote from GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, who said, "We want to make Pontiac an affordable, American BMW" - got our calculators going. At $30,690 in base V-8 form, the G8 falls into the same price bracket as BMW's 3-series. If you go by horsepower, engine configuration, weight, and sheer size, however, the G8 more closely resembles BMW's larger, more expensive 5-series. As such, we succumbed to the spec sheet and brought along a ringer: the 360-hp, V-8-powered BMW 550i, which starts at $59,275. Lutz - who was an executive vice president at BMW from 1971 to 1974 - knows cars, and he knows of what he speaks when he invokes the Bavarians. If the G8 fares well alongside its twice-the-price German competition, then you can be assured that GM's long-awaited turnaround is in full swing. Like the 2010 Camaro, the G8 is built on GM's Zeta rear-wheel-drive platform, which is the same platform that underpins Holden's Commodore and Ute, the Chinese-market Buick Park Avenue, and - don't laugh - the Korean-market Daewoo Veritas. In line with the newly "globalized" GM, all Zeta engineering and development occurs in Holden's Melbourne, Australia, facility. Holden has long been known for producing inexpensive, fun-to-drive, V-8-powered sedans and coupes - in other words, modern updates of the traditional American muscle car, albeit ones intended for Aussie soil. Like the GTO, the G8 is based around a current Holden, in this case, the Commodore. Little is changed for our market: front and rear bumpers are different, and subtle changes have been made to emissions configuration, air-bag layout, instrumentation, and badging. All told, the Commodore and the G8 share roughly 80 percent of their components. Chiefly, suspension tuning also carries over. All U.S.-bound G8s share their FE2 suspension calibration with the top-of-the-line Commodore SS V. A strut-type front setup accompanies a four-link independent rear layout. Inside, the G8's expatriate heritage is immediately obvious, if only because it looks and feels like no other stateside GM offering. Soft-touch plastics and attractive (if somewhat dated-looking) layouts abound. A few lingering Aussie and right-hand-drive touches remain (open the trunk, and you'll spot the battery on the left to offset the weight of a right-side driver), and certain choices give us pause (a Blaupunkt radio - does that brand even mean anything here?), but the overall effect is one of budget-oriented Euro confidence, not down-to-a-price, cop-out cheapness. Most people don't buy a $30,000, V-8-powered sedan for the interior, though - they buy it for what's under the hood. After all, if you want frugal, boring transportation, Toyota will happily sell you a Camry. To that end, the Pontiac succeeds. The G8's 6.0-liter spits out 361 hp at 5300 rpm, and while it's no high-rpm screamer - fuel cutoff comes at an ordinary 6000 rpm - the V-8 is tractable, full of midrange grunt, and possessed of enough top-end pull that you end up winding it out just for kicks. It doesn't sound like much from inside the cabin (mostly muffled, uncharacteristically weedy exhaust rasp), but it's a damn fine engine. Surprisingly, though, it doesn't become your main focus. That distinction is reserved for the suspension. Toss the G8 down a curvy road, and you'll probably be a little surprised. The overboosted steering doesn't deliver a lot of feedback - it's a little too woolly and self-centering and tends to err on the side of fighting you, not working with you - but that's one of the chassis' few flaws. Excess wheel and body motion is easily (albeit softly) kept in check, and the dampers become overwhelmed only over the harshest of midcorner bumps. The G8 understeers a little, bounding from corner to corner easily, always doing what you expect. Switch off the standard stability control, stab the throttle, and you can drift across tight switchbacks, cackling endlessly. So: the Aussie transplant is good, but is it good enough? Can the gold standard of sport sedans - especially in brawny V-8 guise - be upset by a half-price, Oz-hailing Detroiter? The answer is yes. And no. And . . . it depends. Park the G8 next to the 550i, and take a good long look at them both. The Pontiac looks for all the world like the BMW's twin, from its perfectly copycatted C-pillar and rear flanks to its twin-port grille, fender marker lights, and squared-off wheel-arch lips. Exterior dimensions differ little, and the proportions and stance all match up. Imitation as flattery, or imitation as complete and total creative forfeit? To be honest, we're not quite sure. Stepping into the 550i from the G8, the differences are immediately apparent - sure, the big, bad, $70,000 car beats up on the $30,000 one in terms of interior quality and finish, but that's to be expected. What isn't expected is the striking difference in involvement. The G8 seems pretty good until you get into the BMW and almost have the wheel wrenched from your hands. There's that much steering feel. The 550i's 4.8-liter V-8 doesn't feel like it lacks grunt (its peak torque actually arrives 1000 rpm lower than the G8's does), and yet, unlike the G8's pushrod 6.0-liter, it also thrives on revs, emitting an intoxicating, glassy snarl at its 6500-rpm redline. The BMW's transmission, whether you choose the standard six-speed manual or the optional automatic, also far outpaces the Pontiac's automatic for both smoothness and entertainment, although the G8 does offer blip-throttle downshifts and gear-holding in manual mode. And the 550i's braking performance, brake feel, and cornering grip are each a few ticks better than those of the G8. All in all, the difference is simple: if the Pontiac begs to be driven, then the BMW begs to be flogged. Of course, doing an apples-to-apples comparison between a tire-shredding, big-engine Pontiac and a doubly expensive BMW isn't really fair. Given the cost difference and the pedigrees of the two manufacturers, it only makes sense that one car would be more satisfying to drive than the other. Yet by the numbers - and on American roads - the 5-series and the G8 are equals. Nine out of ten drag races between them end in a dead heat. Weight distribution, speed through the gears, and quarter-mile performance all check in relatively close to each other. Even given the contrasts in braking and grip, on a twisty road, helmed by similarly talented drivers, neither car will pull ahead. On that note, the point isn't how well the Pontiac stacks up to the BMW. It's that it stacks up at all. Should a $30,000 sport sedan - much less a Pontiac - even be comparable to a $60,000 one (let alone the $70,000 5-series we tested)? Not on your life. And yet, in more than a few ways, the Pontiac holds its own. Thirty grand for the speed, interior space, and much of the capability of a BMW 5-series? A modern Detroit sedan with . . . dare we say it . . . personality? Pontiac as a relevant carmaker again? How's that for predictable?