From the July 2003 issue of Car and Driver.
Evolve or go extinct. That’s the harsh choice Mother Nature gives her animal kingdom. Fortunately for General Motors, things are a little more relaxed in the automotive world.
Seven years ago we wrote about the then-new Pontiac Grand Prix GTP. Since that time, governments have risen and fallen, Australia has drifted about 28 inches closer to China, and the Prix’s many mid-size competitors have received new engines, revamped suspensions, and revised styling. Now, the 2004 Grand Prix romps into showrooms with basically the same cast-iron 3800 V-6, basically the same strut suspension, and basically the same Pollyanna mission to serve as GM’s bargain BMW.
But hey, even Mother Nature lets a few off the evolutionary book. Consider the crocodile and the squid, for example. Like them, the Grand Prix is ascending to a higher form at its own leisurely pace. Like them, it’s getting away with it because the basic design is rugged and durable. Like them, the Grand Prix can be a tasty enough dish if prepared right.
Trouble is, the finest form of the new Grand Prix is pricey. Option the Grand Prix’s supercharger to bump output of the GT’s base 3800 V-6 by 60 horsepower to 260, and the base price flashes from $22,395 to $26,495. Okay, you get some other equipment in the deal, including power seats, bigger wheels and tires, and a better stereo. But the 240-hp Nissan Altima 3.5 SE offers the choice of a manual transmission with better performance and starts at $23,988, including optional anti-lock brakes.
HIGHS: Big-bore supercharged thrust, a good shape made more shapely, computerized stability control that is smarter than average.
You’ll have to peel off another $1395 for the Grand Prix’s Competition Group package with its digital head-up display, trip computer, steering-wheel shift paddles, and crafty StabiliTrak Sport stability-control software. Pile on satellite radio ($325), leather ($665), a premium audio pack with a six-CD changer ($695), and a sunroof ($795) if you crave a Grand Prix GTP identical to our $30,370 example pictured here.
Even with some discounting (and at GM there is always a discount) the Grand Prix can be larded up to play in a pretty tough sandbox. You’ll have to stroll past various base versions of the Acura TSX, Audi A4, BMW 325i, and Volvo S60 for this particular dose of “driving excitement.”
What does the Grand Prix GTP have to offer against those? How about more registered trademarks for the dollar? Competition Group, TAPshift, and WideTrack, they’re all nifty marketing logos scrawled only on this car (even though at 61.6 inches, the Grand Prix’s front track is but a half-inch wider than a Honda Accord’s). GM’s labeling samurai earned their overtime on this project.
More important, the Grand Prix offers higher horsepower and torque that is locomotive low. Push the gas pedal more than one-quarter of the way down from a stoplight, and the BFGoodrich Comp T/As will shriek loud enough to set off car alarms. Turn off the traction control and floor it, and the tires will sing the first 12 bars of La Traviata before they hook up.
Puffed up by the 9.5-psi sirocco from the twin-rotor Eaton supercharger, the big pushrod V-6 slings the Grand Prix to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, faster by a half-second or more than all the prestige machines mentioned earlier. The quarter-mile clicks by in a virile 15.0 seconds flat at 93 mph, but after that, progress slows as the lungs of a two-valve engine start to bum for lack of air.
LOWS: Chintzy plastic bits, uninhabitable back-seat area, high price.
Still, there’s enough power in the well to push the Grand Prix to 138 mph. It may go faster, but our test car went into a reduced-power limp mode at that point, complaining through its dashboard message center of “hot engine oil.” So autobahns are out.
Besides the tugboat torque, the 3800’s big selling point is its unflustered personality. It rasps and clatters when you turn the key, but once lit the engine settles down to a vibration-free burble from the tailpipes. The V-6 and the Hydra-Matic 4T65-E four-speed automatic communicate like the old friends they are. Shifts are nearly transparent, the torque holes between gears slurred even smoother by the engine’s new electronic throttle.
With Competition Group models, the transmission can be made to serve the TAPshift paddles on the three-spoke wheel, but only after the console gear selector has first been pulled back to “M.” The shifts don’t seem any quicker, nor do they make the car accelerate any faster. And with only four gears to play with, the entertainment value is fleeting. Worse, when the TAPshift won’t shift for some reason, such as mismatched speed and revs, it chimes loudly enough to be heard in the next car over. The transmission computer does a capable job on its own of keeping the engine boiling most of the time, but the TAPshift provides the extra control needed during back-road charging.
Otherwise, the Grand Prix’s interior is clean of undue trinkets. The sporty steering wheel, the classy woven headliner, the simple ball-in-socket vents, and the slick sliding levers and buttons are signs of detail sweating. One passenger noted that the driver-canted center console makes it harder for right-seat riders to read the clock and trip computer.
Passengers are also shorted of separate climate controls, and there is no automatic function. The multifunction turn-signal/cruise-control stalk that has been on GM cars seemingly forever is gone. The cruise function is now on a small, easier to diddle stalk at the 5 o’clock position that resembles those found in Toyotas.
The dash dials are large, readable pancakes floating in a syrup of lead-colored plastic panels. The center console is scored by an excessively deep, industrial grain. This is the car’s biggest fit-and-finish gaffe. Somebody with a say in GM’s design studios thinks hard, grainy plastic befits a $30,000 vehicle. We think it befits transistor radios and disposable cameras. One of us is wrong.
The restyling of the Grand Prix cleaned off most of Pontiac’s trademark exterior plastic. It also pinched the rear door glass into an even tighter ellipse to accentuate the coupe-with-four-doors look. The result is that pedestrians see nothing below your nose as you sit in the split-folding back seat. The rear bench is firm, about the next best thing to sitting on a Formula 1 tire. The lower cushion rises just inches off the carpet, so riders of average height will be interviewing their kneecaps. They will also be brushing their heads on the ceiling of the downward-tapering roof. Claustrophobic hitchhikers should beware the Grand Prix, but people toting skis and other long, slim items will appreciate both the folding rear seats and the folding front-passenger seat.
The 2004 Grand Prix features firmer shocks across the line, and the Competition Group’s only suspension upgrade is a bigger anti-roll bar in back. A somewhat choppy ride is the inevitable result. The Grand Prix’s struts read rough roads and report their findings directly to the cabin in the form of shivers and shakes through the seat. Likewise, the tires read out the road texture in places where it’s particularly abrasive, although on more freshly deposited asphalt the cabin is peacefully insulated from road and wind noise.
Bent into a corner, the Grand Prix carves a clean line with firm dampers screwed to a stiff body. With the Competition Group package comes Magnasteer II, which is a variable-boost power-steering system that factors both speed and lateral force. It matches the wheel’s weight to the mood, but the sensation has nothing to do with suspension loading or tire adhesion. That information is edited out by the rack’s numbing components.
No, the computer simply tells the steering to be heavy, so it is. And during back-road workouts the steering becomes too heavy, an electric resistance machine for toning the forearms. A driver adjustment would be welcome.
Understeer rules the Grand Prix’s high-speed life. The respectable handling of a moderate pace dissolves in a sea of front-end scrub when the speeds are pushed. At least the car’s electronic safety net is an excellent one.
Barman, a round of drinks for the engineers who have so artfully tuned StabiliTrak Sport. The system quietly and unobtrusively works individual calipers to keep the car on course with minimal power-killing throttle intervention. Without the twinkle of the dashboard indicator light, you might never know it’s saving your hide. In that respect, StabiliTrak Sport deftly outsmarts the jumpy, heavy-handed stability computers fitted to more pricey rides from Mercedes, BMW, and Lexus.
THE VERDICT: Progress toward a higher order on a scale in some respects too small to measure.
See, the Grand Prix is indeed evolving. Perhaps less like a squid and more like a snail: You have to lean in close to see it happening.
Grown-up isn’t necessarily a trait we aspire to here at chez C/D. Overdo it, and you’re just one step away from old-fart territory. But a little maturation, judiciously applied, can produce helpful improvements. So it is with this Grand Prix makeover. More refinements, less Space Patrol in the dashboard design, and a manumatic shift that actually works quite well. “Works quite well” also applies to the chassis. Better all-around responses and improved ride quality, even in this performance-oriented Comp G. More power too. With no torque steer. Pontiac has done a good job here. Now, just move the power delivery to the correct end of the car… —Tony Swan
This car’s immense grunt and sharp handling response won me over in Arizona. Back here in North Craterville, my enthusiasm has dampened just a skosh. The Competition Group suspension rides like the extra-harsh setting on most adjustable-shock cars of the early ‘90s—the one you’d select to show your pals your closet club racer. But now there’s no comfort setting to revert to. More compliance is badly needed in the middle inch or two of shock travel. Th e-throttle also needs to be tamed. Who really wants to peel out at every intersection? Inside and out, the appearance has matured. The mechanicals still have some growing up to do. —Frank Markus
As the current owner of a ’97 Grand Prix SE, I mistook this silver GTP Competition Group tester for a base Brand Prix. It was only the bright-red brake calipers that gave me a clue. The car’s exterior styling may put you so sleep, but the GTP’s performance is far from boring. The supercharged 3.8-liter Series III helps the Grand Prix become a true hot-rod sedan. The car’s improved ride quality and handling made my old SE feel like a Pontiac 6000. Inside, the Grand Prix is overloaded with plastic textures. The Nintendo-inspired TAPshift and the driver controls all function well but look low rent. —Daniel V. Winter
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