Performance, personality, and practicality By Jeff Bartlett Motor Trend, April 2003 WHAT'S HOT · Power and handling · Interior versatility · GP marks the dawn of an exciting Pontiac future WHAT'S NOT · Isolated steering · Rear seat comfort · No coupe version Taking pole position for a Pontiac rebirth, the 2004 Grand Prix is cleaner, meaner, and more refined than Ponchos past. Gone are the tacked-on cladding, overwrought interior styling, and benign road manners, all supplanted by an ambitious effort to challenge the midsize sedan segment wielding performance and packaging as weapons. While the primary Japanese players have rolled out new models over the past two years, each boasting V-6 models with well over 200 horsepower, the Grand Prix still lays claim to being the power player. The base Pontiac is motivated by the significantly revised Gen III 3800 V6 with 200HP matched with a four-speed automatic transmission good for 20/30 city/hwy fuel economy rating. The Grand Prix GTP fits the 3.8-liter engine with an Eaton supercharger for 260 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque, besting even the quick 240-hp Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. Acceleration numbers put the GTP at 15 seconds flat in the quarter mile, or a full second quicker than its 16 key competitors. The 0-60 mph time is 6.5 seconds, just a hair quicker than an automatic Altima. Beyond pure numbers, it is the character that distinguishes the Grand Prix. The development team sought a decidedly American personality wrapped with an international-flavored packaging. The result is a clean, streamlined exterior, relatively restrained interior, and patriotic bravado in the right places. For example, all models feature machined quad exhaust pipes, with the GTP emitting a particularly satisfying rumble. With such twisting force available, we expected the front-driver to torque steer on hard launch like the Altima, but such sideways motion is almost entirely stifled. Naturally, the tires can still erupt in a neighborhood-terrorizing squeal with the traction control off. Very telling of the enthusiast mindset behind the GP, a little wheel spin is permitted with traction control on, still rewarding with a hearty chirp. Such nanny systems usually send a car into a fit of engine pacification and brake application to counter stoplight shenanigans, but Pontiac saw fit to reward the driver with a satisfying audio cue that ultimately does improve acceleration times. Adding to the driving excitement are the TAPshift steering-wheel mounted toggle controls to offer F1-style shifting. In the "manual" mode, gear selection is indicated in the driver information center. Just a light tap commands the automatic transmission to do the driver's bidding, increasing the man-machine interaction. A welcomed distinguishing feature, such controls were previously the province of premium autos, such as the Aston Martin, BMW, or Ferrari. While Americans are known for their straightline passions, Pontiac regarded handling as a primary objective, intent on pushing the sedan's corner-carving abilities to the segment's limits. The MacPherson strut front and multilink rear suspension has been tuned to balance road-holding and ride comfort, with decent ride isolation. The Competition Group (aka Comp G) suspension package features unique tuning, larger-diameter anti-roll bars, lighter-weight 17-inch aluminum wheels, and more aggressive tire fitment to achieve a reported 0.83 lateral g. So fitted, the Grand Prix feels solid with limited body roll and controlled manners, though not firm. Tipping the scales at 3583 pounds, the GTP is a hefty car that feels solid and unperturbed by aggressive driving, encouraging a heavy foot. To assist wayward drivers during moments of dynamic indiscretion, a Stabilitrak Sport system provides four-wheel stability assistance. Tuned for the enthusiast, the system is less intrusive than the related Stabilitrak offered on Cadillac models, enabling spirited driving with gentle corrections. Like the Grand Prix's dynamics, the interior makes a similar evolutionary advance. The GP draws influence from European sedans for a cleaner, more modern appearance than the car it replaces. Controls remain a touch oversized, ensuring good ergonomics, and displays are easily read. The steering wheel feels a tad large, but its diameter enables a clear view of the instrument panel. Borrowing a concept from Saab, the GP dash can be darkened, leaving just the improved heads-up display illuminated at night. Panel gaps have been reduced, though still more pronounced than the Audi A4 engineers benchmarked. Front riders are treated to wide bucket seats, with gentle bolsters. The back seat passengers may wish they were up front, as the 60/40-split bench shape is compromised by its ability to fold flat. Some passengers will find issue with the seat back and bottom angles. However, there are no dissenting opinions for the cargo-toting versatility. Like a Chrysler PT Cruiser, the front passenger bucket tips horizontal. Fold down the optional bench to create a 9.5-foot space, easily large enough to bring home 2x4s or a ladder from the hardware store. (This interior flexibility was first exhibited on the Rageous concept that graced Motor Trend's cover a few years ago, proving there is always something to be gleaned from concept cars.) Access for entering or loading the rear is enhanced by a wide 82-degree rear door swing. The trunk itself is cavernous with 16 cubic feet of space, maximized through the use of scissor hinges and struts, rather than cheaper, intrusive goose-neck hinges. Priced similarly to the previous generation Grand Prix, the range starts at $21,760 and reaches $27,255 for a GTP with the Comp G package. Pontiac forecasts 75 percent of sales will be for the GT model, meaning a relatively high one in four buyers will experience the quick, confident, and capable GTP. We hope they select the optional suspension to savor the car's impressive abilities. Dedicated Poncho enthusiasts may hold out a year for the GM Performance Division-enhanced Grand Prix, possibly offering a V-8 like the imminent Bonneville GXP and an even tauter suspension.