The 21st century muscle car By Tom Wilson • Photos by Guy Spangenberg December 2003 Vee-eight lovers, rejoice. The anxiously anticipated Pontiac GTO has arrived to single-handedly reinvent the muscle car. And like two fresh black stripes in your driveway, one slap of the throttle and you'll know this car is for real. While GTO hardliners wanted a retro GTO, à la the next-generation Ford Mustang where modern mechanicals hide behind a near-copy of the old hard-creased sheet metal, what GM product-domo Bob Lutz saw in the Holden Monaro was what the GTO would have evolved into had it remained in production nearly four decades. The overwhelming power, burbling exhaust and obtainable price had to be there, but so did modern aerodynamics, handling, braking, emissions, safety and comforts. After an introductory drive, we're thrilled to report that V-8 snap is back — in a hammering package that fits modern realities. Central to the new GTO is GM of Australia's Holden Monaro. What's a Monaro? It's the GTO right down to the bodywork and 5.7-liter powertrain, but more luxuriously trimmed. GM worked around the clock, thanks to nine time zones between Michigan and Victoria, to reengineer the Monaro into the GTO in less than 18 months. It took 475 unique parts, or approximately 20 percent of the car, to execute the Monaro-to-GTO conversion. Getting the power right was easy; the Monaro already sports the 5.7-liter Chevrolet LS1 V-8, so fitting the base Corvette's higher-lift camshaft, a larger 100-mm intake opening and larger exhaust manifolds to duplicate the LS1's 350 bhp and 365 lb.-ft. of torque ratings was easy enough. Likewise, the standard 4-speed automatic and the internals of the optional 6-speed manual Tremec T-56 gearbox from the Z06 Corvette were employed, the latter complete with its fuel-saving skip-shift feature. Other than fitting numerically higher 3.46:1 gears, no changes to the Dana differential were required, either, as it already had a limited slip. The Monaro's strut front and semi-trailing-arm independent rear suspension was retuned with stiffer spring and shock rates for the GTO's sportier role. Interestingly, while the Monaro boasts 18-in. wheels, Pontiac, to match their chassis tuning, chose 17 x 8-in. wheels and 245/45ZR-17 BFGoodrich g-Force T/A KDWS tires. ABS and Bosch traction control — with a defeat switch — were also added, but stability control was not. What did ambush the engineers was making the mild-weather Holden body withstand North American winters. This led to unanticipated door glass sealing and heat/vent/air-conditioning performance improvements, but all challenges were met and Pontiac says the GTO is fully validated for the U.S. market. Approaching the GTO in the steel, you can see how the styling is wind-tunnel smoothed to a 0.31 coefficient of drag, but there's still a refined tension in the long fenders and extended rear quarters that catches the eye. Classically-derived GTO front fender and 5.7 trunklid badges confirm the identification, while small Pontiac "dart" logos were considered sufficient manufacturer identification, so there is no Pontiac script. The large coupe doors are reasonably light, with good access for front seats, and slower ingress to the rear due to reliance on electric adjusters for both front seats. A quick release to quickly slide the seats forward would help. Once nestled in either of the two large rear buckets, however, passengers will find meaningful leg and shoulder room; a direct benefit of the GTO's long-waisted design and generous (for a coupe) 109.8-in. wheelbase. Though the tips exit on the left side, the GTO has a true dual exhaust system. Cockpit layout is traditional — bucket seats, center console and analog instrumentation — but Pontiac was able to redesign the dash, console and headliner to freshen the presentation into one of the most inviting yet from Detroit. Color-keying the background instrument color proved a fun touch and a welcome relief from the white-faced stereotype. Not incidentally, besides the expected metallic blacks and solid reds, the chrome yellow and metallic purple options should help attract the Vin Diesel fan club, or Young Affluent Males as Pontiac's demographers call them. In addition to traditional rear-drive enthusiasts, YAMs are highly desired for their market-widening ability, so expect the occasional nod to the fast and furious crowd, such as perforated metal pedal pads. A trip computer including a digital speedometer to supplement the main analog display and color-keyed stitching are other highlights of the contemporary cabin. All but the tallest GTO drivers will avoid coupe hair, as the headliner is just high enough; and the tilt and telescoping steering wheel help accommodate the long-legged. A dead pedal would help even the left-to-right foot straddle situation; maybe next year, says Pontiac. Also expect ram air — at least as an option — in '05. Whether it's a purple-faced tachometer or pushrod power that attracts, all demographics meet with the first twist of the key, for then exquisite V-8 tones bathe the ears. Pontiac labored long to endow the GTO with the full repertoire of classic V-8 oratory, and succeeded wonderfully. From a deep glugging idle, the guttural run through the gears, just detectable steady-state growl at cruise or full-throated roar when working, the exhaust note is elemental V-8 — not even a crossover pipe dilutes its primal nature — and the enthusiast's first confirmation they got this car right. The GTO's interior, along with the rest of the car, is among the most inviting we've seen. Seats are ultra-comfortable and generously bolstered (even the rears). Another winner is the combination of smoothness and mechanical business. Ugly vibrations are banished, yet enough of the small-block's rumble and snort works through to give the GTO its soul. Controlling the ample power is easy too. The clutch pedal is light, no longer than medium travel, and delivers a precise take-up. Pontiac shortened throttle pedal travel, the better to convey the eagerness underneath, and the brake pedal is just firm enough through its vacuum booster. Only the rubbery manual transmission shifter stands out as vague. There's nothing imprecise about the power delivery, though. Squeeze it, hammer it, roll it on, the 5.7 is ready with either a flood of torque or an exciting charge of horsepower. For responsiveness, it's impossible to beat a high-powered, naturally aspirated engine with enough displacement to do the job, and that's the 5.7 in a bearing shell. It doesn't even really matter which transmission is used coupled with its tight torque-converter tune; the completely conventional 4-speed automatic moves the GTO to 60 mph just a couple of tenths later than the manual in a series of firm shifts, and is obediently responsive between corners. Manual fans will revel in the T-56's flexibility. Shift it for acceleration, just for fun, speed maintenance or stick it in 6th for quiet economy, it does all well. And with 365 lb.-ft. of torque, simply not shifting is always an option too. So how fast is the manual version? The 0-60-mph sprint is a two-gear 5.3-second exercise, while the quarter mile is dispatched in a mere 13.8 sec. at 103.8 mph and top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph. Quick stuff, this, just a couple of ticks behind the supercharged Mustang Cobra and 2-seat Corvette. The Corvette's 350-bhp LS1 5.7-liter V-8 is a tidy fit in the GTO's engine bay. One car that doesn't compare is the original '64 GTO. It was lucky to break into the 14s at the drag strip, not to mention fuel economy, emissions, braking, safety and all the rest we take for granted 40 years later. One performance variable to note is wheel hop. Our first acceleration trials produced considerable hop, limiting standing-start acceleration to tame idle-rpm launches as anything more hammered the rear tires. Yet, at our normal test venue, wheel hop never materialized, so results will vary. It's also worth noting the BFG tires carry a 400 tread wear rating, so their compound is banker's-heart hard. A softer tire would likely grip more and spin less, thus reducing hop. Grippier tires would also raise the GTO's already impressive 63.4-mph slalom posting. This excellent pace through the cones comes naturally because the Monaro has been Holden's top performing road-racing platform Down Under for years. The rear suspension is just soft enough to notice, but this also helps plant the rear tires on corner exit as well as muting ride harshness, so it's a plus in the GTO handling column. Ultimately, there isn't anything quite like the GTO; its V-8 performance, large coupe body and $33,000 price tag make it unique. The Mustang Cobra comes closest, but trades so much passenger room and plushness that it isn't a direct comparison. Everything else is either much more expensive, front-drive, two seats, or not a V-8. The only bad news is Pontiac will offer only 18,000 GTOs a year. They'll go quickly. Color-keyed gauges sizzle, the trip computer has digital speedo mode; and shifter has well-defined gates but a rubbery feel.