Hittin' the road with the velvet covered hammer This pair of 2004 GTOs greeted the motor press in the Bacara Resort courtyard. The official colors are Quicksilver metallic and Impulse Blue. By Thomas DeMauro Photography: Action photos by Jim Fets, engine and interior photos by John Lamm and static photos by the author With the wheel at full lock to the left, I dumped the clutch at about 3 grand and the BFGs lit up like Roman candles as the GTO did a 180-degree pirouette, and with quick flick of the steering wheel to center, we were off in the opposite direction as intended, and gaining speed as my spine compressed into the seat. This Pontiac is exhilarating to drive. It has more power than the tires know what to do with, just like the original GTO yet it handles like a modern F-body, but better. What it gives up in ultimate stick to the recently-departed Firebird it makes up for in balance and finesse. And it has decent visibility, a real back seat and some semblance of a trunk--3 attributes that were lacking in the Firebirds that I have lusted after over the years. But wait, I'm getting ahead myself here. This story begins at the 2004 GTO Media Drive Program that I attended to get the lowdown on the production GTO and finally log some seat time. So read on to get the latest info and my impressions of the new Goat. THE PLEASENTRIES GTO Chief Engineer Bob Reuter discussed the engineering aspects of the GTO prior to the ride and drive. Arriving at the Bacara Resort in Santa Barbara, California, I was greeted by a pair of GTOs in the courtyard outside the main lobby. Impulse Blue officially became my favorite color for the GTO from that moment on. During the first day, I had the opportunity to drive the new Bonneville GXP, which will be discussed more in depth in a future issue. That night we all gathered at the restaurant and Bob Lutz spoke briefly on the GTO and then we dined with Pontiac officials and picked their brains for information. After breakfast the next morning and a presentation by GM Vice President, GM North American Engineering Jim Queen, where he revealed that there are multiple rear-wheel drive car "Architectures" in the works for new models, we headed out to the parking lot where 1 GTO was perched on a lift to show off the undercarriage and the others were lined up for the taking once we listened to the comments of the Vehicle Chief Engineer, International and Joint Venture Programs Bob Reuter. Here are a group of GTOs during the lunch break. Following the engineering discussion and the Q&A, I headed for the nearest stick car and was able to grab Reuter as a passenger for the first half of what would be a 269 mile one-day ride and drive through just about every type of road and condition imaginable, aside from rain and snow. As the group of 18 GTOs roared to life in the parking lot, the exhaust system, which has received so much press, played a tune that earned each and every superlative bestowed upon it. While the engine was quiet except for a slight lope thanks to its cam, the exhaust was authoritative and a constant reminder at any road speed that immediate power was available with the depression of the right foot. Pontiac was quite proud of the fact that the tones register just under the maximum allowable for drive-by noise standards. This gallery was transformed into the GTO Cafe by Pontiac to serve a catered lunch. It appeared so realistic that a few locals dropped by asking to try out the new cafe. ON THE ROAD We finally hit the open road and though the GTO is heavy at 3,761 pounds at the curb for the 6-speed model and 3,774 pounds for the automatic, the forward thrust is right there with the LS1 F-bodies of just a year ago that weighed a couple of hundred pounds less. This of course is thanks to a less restrictive air intake system, a cam change and a revised exhaust system helping to produce 350 hp at 5,200 rpm up from 300 in the Holden and 325 in the ram-air Birds. With your foot planted in the carpet the LS1 winds up like a pre-teen on a sugar high with controlled but brutal power delivery up to its 6,200 redline where a quick shift can be executed with flick of the wrist thanks to a light clutch effort and a positive engaging shifter. Our only complaint is that the throws seemed a bit long. Chirping the tires with each gear change is effortless given the power on hand and the somewhat small tire size. A freer flowing air intake system, a Corvette cam with duration at .050 of 196/207 degrees and .479/.467 lift with a 116-degree LSA, and an improved exhaust system result in 350 hp and 365 ft-lb of torque. In the automatic GTO, which I drove later in the day, I did not experience the downshift lag that Chris White did in his test drive but I did note that the downshift from 70 mph rose rpm only to 3,250 before winding up to the 6,000 rpm full throttle upshift. Possibly, if the trans were set up to downshift to a lower gear so rpm wouldn't rise higher it would make for quicker response. Especially since the 365 ft-lb torque peak is at 4,000 rpm. Overall, the 6-speed car felt quicker but then again I just like manual trans performance cars. Smooth and balanced aptly relays the handling traits of the GTO as it coddles instead of clobbers its driver. The ride is certainly supple given the Goat's crisp cornering intentions. But when the road gets bent, the GTO is up to the challenge. Its steering is nicely weighted and turn-in was precise. The tires did not follow ruts in the road nor were they unduly noisy. Generally, the GTO from my perspective exhibited light understeer, however the accelerator pedal will oblige with power oversteer as desired but will also invoke terminal oversteer if the throttle is prodded excessively. If you get a little too deep into the throttle in a turn, just roll off the gas and the rear will tuck right back in again. The GTO maintains perfect stability even at very high speeds. On bumpy roads I noticed that the structure is stiffer than most vehicles I have experienced, flex is barely perceptible and there or no shudders or rattles over uneven surfaces. Also welcomed was the lack of the rear skittering out sideways on bumpy curves because the live axle has a mind of its own. Though a live axle is more desirable for both drag racing and, I've been told, road racing (when the course is billiard table smooth), the independent rear is more enjoyable in day to day driving on real roads. Braking felt positive when hauling the near 2-ton Pontiac down from any speed but I did not perform successive braking tests to determine fade characteristics because I didn't want to be responsible for pealing an engineer off the windshield. Up front is a 1.1-inch diameter direct-acting stabilizer bar, MacPherson struts, progressive rate coil springs, 11.7-inch disc brakes with Bosch 4-channel antilock and variable rate rack & pinion steering. I did however, ask Bob about the GTO's suspension system and how it differed from the Holden. He explained that the suspension and its settings are identical to the Monaro and readily admitted that his first inclination when getting the car was to rip through the suspension and make changes to improve it, especially since his background is in chassis development. But after driving the vehicle, he realized that it would be better to put egos aside and stick with the Australian tune. "Actually, the toughest part was the tires!" he related. "Normally you choose the tire and then design the suspension around it. In this case, the process was backwards." Pontiac had to change the tires from the Australian spec. because all-season tires were needed for the climate in the States. Then came size considerations. Driveline and suspension systems are highlighted in this cutaway. Reuter said that the reasons for choosing 17-inch wheels and tires instead of 18s (the Holden is available with both) are two-fold. The taller sidewall of the 45 series 17-inch tires provided the ride quality that Pontiac felt was a good blend of comfort and performance. Then there was the possibility of warrantee issues with the short sidewall of the 18-inch tires due to the potholes on many American roads that love to ding rims. Hence the GTO was fitted with 17x8-inch aluminum wheels shod with BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDWS 245/45ZR17 tires. FIT AND FURNITURE Leather decorates the seats, door panels steering wheel and shifter, and satin nickel-look trim adorns the steering wheel, shifter, and door handles. Sill plates are stainless steel and the pedal design is drilled metal. Though these were pilot cars the fit and finish was very good. The million-way (actually 8-way) adjustable seats were excellent for the long haul and had ample lateral support so as to keep my posterior off of the console and/or armrest in the turns. The rear seats are individual buckets that mimic the fronts. They will support average-sized humans pretty comfortably but ingress and egress require some mild gymnastics unless you wait for the slow power seat to move. The switchgear actually feels substantial and most is covered with a satin nickel-look metal. The leather actually feels like leather and all surfaces from the door panels to the dash are covered with soft materials instead of the hard plastic that is so prevalent in today's cars. Its dash layout is first rate for the most part with easy to read bright gauges that are color-keyed to the exterior choices. The speedo is switchable between mph and km/h so yes, despite the fact that the GTO is speed limited to 155 mph, the speedo has the capability to happily twist to 200 mph. Though a pilot's license, a JATO rocket and a complete lack of common sense will be required to get you there. A major failing of the gauge package in my opinion is the lack of an oil pressure gauge. This is unforgivable in a modern performer. A volt gauge would be a nice addition as well. Another plus, however, is that the tilt/telescoping steering wheel does not block parts of the gauges in normal driving. Power window switches reside on the console just like the old F-bodies. Also standard is a Blaupunkt 200-watt stereo with a 6-CD changer and 10 speakers. How does it sound? I didn't really care because it would drown out the exhaust. Independent rear suspension features semi-trailing arms and control links with gas-charged shocks and a direct-acting .63 stabilizer bar. Limited-slip with 3.46 gears and traction control are standard. Rear brake rotors are 11.3 inches diameter. Here you can see the remainder of the true dual exhaust system, which employs different left and right mufflers to tune the sound. ON THE OUTSIDE Here is the Yellow Jacket 6-speed model on the road. Note the low stance. Here is where I feel the 2004 GTO is lacking. Possibly 5 years ago the body design would have been embraced as thoroughly modern but at this point I feel that it's just too subtle and it shares too many design characteristics with too many other GM models to make it stand out. The comparably skinny tires don't help the situation. I asked Bob why the tires weren't wider than 245s when the F-bodies were running 275s all around and he explained that there just was not enough room in the wheelwells for fatter tires. "Yes you can install wider tires but they're going to rub." he said. Then there is the rear view, the spoiler hints that something is going on performancewise but the twin pipes that exit on the driver's side give the impression that the GTO doesn't even have dual exhaust when in reality it has a great system. CONCLUSION The 2004 GTO does achieve velvet covered hammer status sporting an exterior look that belies its performance potential with subtlety that borders on boring. But from the inside it's a top-shelf driving machine that invigorates instead of denigrates your senses. Whether or not you agree with its name, its origin or its rank in history, you should reserve final judgement until you drive one. A rip-your-head-off powertrain coupled with a silky smooth suspension can evoke forgiveness for a multitude of sins and with those attributes to boast, the 2004 GTO need not apologize to anyone. OTHER 2004 GTO TIDBITS o The GTO will cost $32,495 including a $700 destination and freight charge. One option will be available: the 6-speed transmission for $695. For comparison sake, the Collector Edition 2002 Trans Am HPP tested in the September 2002 issue stickered at $35,700. o The automatic trans GTO's EPA estimate is 16 mpg city and 21 mpg highway, which makes it subject to a $1,000 gas guzzler tax. o No gas guzzler tax is levied upon the 6-speed GTO because its EPA estimates are 17 mpg city and 29 mpg highway. o As it is, the current body will be produced through 2006 with some, but probably minimal changes. GM will build and ship up to 18,000 GTOs to the US per year for 3 years because that's as much as the Holden plant can handle. Pontiac officials explained that all Holden models are produced at a single plant and it only builds about 2,000 Monaro coupes each year, so 18,000 more GTOs is a tall order and a third shift was added to fill it. o Holden is slated for a brand new rear-wheel drive platform in 2007 and rumor has it, should the GTO continue, it will be on that same "Global Architecture" in GM-speak. o Listen up aftermarket wheel manufacturers! The 2004 GTO lug spacing is not a traditional American size so existing aftermarket wheels for GM cars won't fit. o The word "Pontiac" does not appear on the GTO anywhere. This has lead some scribes to speculate that Pontiac is not proud of its GTO. Pontiac/GMC General Manager Lynn Myers begs to differ as she pointed out during a scheduled stop on our ride and drive that the GTO has no less than 7 "Darts" (arrowheads) on and in it, not to mention the GTO emblems, and Pontiac thought that was enough ID. o Aside from a tire change to account for US weather, additional corrosion protection had to be added to over 140 components. o As most of you know, the gas tank, headlights and bumpers had to be revised to meet federal standards in the US.