04/06/04 — The new GTO is the real deal

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The new GTO is the real deal

Back in the muscle car era, the Pontiac GTO was king of the mean streets.

Pontiac engineer John DeLorean was instrumental in kicking off the horsepower wars in 1964 when he led an effort to have a big Bonneville V-8 dropped into a compact Tempest as a $295 option.

Pontiac GTO, 20004

It transformed the meek family mid-sized car into a Goliath of the highway, and for the next 10 years the GTO, which became known as the Goat to its fanatical owners, led a parade of high-horsepower compact and mid-sized cars with the ability to melt the rear tires and go fast in a straight line.

Two years later, nearly 100,000 GTO-outfitted Pontiacs were sold.

It was an unqualified success measured not only by sales but by the hit song “Little GTO” by Ronnie and the Daytonas.

The muscle car era ended in 1974, the victim of emission controls and gas shortages. The big engines were put on the shelf.

Now the big news is that the GTO has returned for the 2004 model year, 30 years after the last GTO-equipped Pontiac left the factory.

And it’s a real GTO, not the watered-down 6-cylinder front-wheel drive version that General Motors has a habit of foisting off on the public when it revives a storied name.

This new, sleek mid-sized coupe has a fire-breathing 5.7-liter 350-horsepower Corvette V-8 engine under its hood on a rear-wheel drive platform. This GTO is not a poser. It’s the real thing, so real that it would surely smoke most of the GTOs of old and it would absolutely eat them for lunch on the twisty back roads of rural America.

The GTO is alive and well and Pontiac, which lost its last visage of muscle a couple of years ago when the Firebird was retired, is back in the performance-car business.

The new GTO is based on the Holden Monaro coupe built by the Holden Division of General Motors in Australia. Holden has a reputation for building powerful rear-drive cars, so General Motors had a head start when it decided to develop a new GTO.

And Pontiac got it right, from the muscle-car performance to the outstanding handling dynamics to the well-executed interior.

Styling has been tweaked to fit the Pontiac image, but it’s the styling that has got some automobile reviewers’ hackles up. It can accurately be described as plain, nearly anonymous. And we found that generally the GTO did not attract the attention we thought it would.

But then there was the 17-something grocery clerk collecting carts on our last day of our test week who walked over and said very emphatically, “NICE CAR!”

The styling is smooth and inoffensive. It certainly isn’t disappointing, it just doesn’t make the heart skip a beat.

But the driving experience will melt away any shortcomings you might feel over the GTO’s looks.

Sink into the driver’s seat, perhaps the best seat in the General Motors stable. You will feel instantly welcome. The satin-nickel-trimmed gauges look classy, the four-spoke leather-wrapped fat steering wheel feels great.

The six-speed shifter fits neatly to hand. A four-speed automatic is also available.

Turn the key and a throaty rumble greets you with the sounds of performance.

And the performance is there in great gobs of smoking rubber. Figure 0 to 60 in just a tick or two over 5 seconds and if you can find a safe place, you will accomplish a quarter mile in just a fraction over 13 seconds hitting about 104 miles per hour.

It’s not the silky smooth quiet performance of a modern European hotrod like, say, the Audi S4. But it’s the muscular, brash in-your-face growling, angry performance that is truly all-American.

What really sets this GTO apart from the Pontiacs of old is its handling prowess. It can eat up a twisty road as fast as you can go through a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut with your first cup of morning coffee.

While the handling is there, the ride is not stiff. Fear not the teeth-jarring ride that accompanies some suspension-tweaked performance cars. General Motors has reached an acceptable compromise.

The seats not only feel good, they look good. Leather is standard, elegantly stitched and color-keyed to the exterior.

The GTO is for all practical purposes a two-person coupe, but the rear bucket seats will accommodate two adults without squeezing them into a ball. Getting in and out can be a task, but once ensconced, the experience in back is not unpleasant.

Gas mileage with the GM small block V-8s is about as good as it gets for the horsepower — 17 miles per gallon city driving and 29 highway.

The only problem is the 6-speed manual has that nagging Corvette first-to-fourth shifter. It’s there to increase gas mileage, but it’s an aggravation. It works like this — under low rpms such as cruising the city streets, the transmission will force you to go from first to fourth. It can be defeated by running up the rpms before shifting.

The Pontiac coupe may be considered a bit pricey with a base of $32,495.

But that price includes virtually everything you would want including a great-sounding 200-watt 10-speaker Blaupunkt audio system with 6-CD in-dash changer.

It also includes 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, limited slip differential, keyless entry, power windows and locks, air conditioning , leather seats and cruise control.

The only option on our test car was the 6-speed manual transmission at $695.

That brought the purchase price to $33,190.

Pontiac has done a remarkable job bringing the GTO back to life. It’s everything it needs to be to carry on the muscle-car tradition.

General Motors plans to sell the GTO for just three years averaging about 18,000 copies per year. If it’s the hit we think it will be, you might soon head down to your nearest Pontiac dealer and put your order in.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on April 6, 2004 3:05 PM