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BEHIND THE WHEEL

Pontiac's Pleasant Surprise

July 19, 1996|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As anomalies go, you won't find the 1997 Pontiac Grand Prix GT listed alongside flying pigs and cool days in Hades.

But as a stylish, powerful, highly disciplined and hugely coordinated motor car from General Motors, the Grand Prix certainly falls somewhere between extraordinary surprise and all-hallowed exception to the rule.

Gone is Pontiac's armadillo approach to visuals; the pasting of corrugated plastic paneling and bits of external trim that Pontiac presumed added illusions of power and nuances of the new to horribly old and lumpy lines.

No longer does an unbridled engine and mismanaged horsepower cause primal steering and suspension systems to clank, flutter, wobble and splay.

No more interior hectares of Confederate vinyl and pink felt that suggest former edibles transitioning to penicillin.

And, happily, no need to get defensive, spill your Clamato Caesar or switch topics because someone questioned your decision--and indirectly your IQ--about buying a GM product.

Much of what makes the Grand Prix GT such a grand prize is a 3.8-liter, V-6 power plant--the 3800 Series II push rod already succeeding in several Buick and Oldsmobile guises--producing 195 horsepower and enough muscle for serious jousting. At the same time, it doesn't over-deliver shove that might shiver the tummies of better balanced souls riding with AAA decals on their bumpers.

Styling is clean, providing an unmistakable message concerning Pontiac's sporting heritage. Such honest expressions are most unlike the General.

The rear--with its deep valance, corners rounded to bowling balls and oval, aluminum-tipped exhaust ports--captures the mid-size muscle car aura that Ford exploits so well with the Mustang and Chevrolet with its Camaro. The windshield of the Grand Prix is raked to 63 degrees, the hood slopes just as dramatically and wheels scrunched deep into corners for the cab-forward look reemphasize its sporting ways.

And the silhouette is high rump, low front with magnificent five-spoke wheels that if offered as a bribe would have Ben Hur tanking chariot races.

Pontiac is managing its brand well with a Grand Prix, coupe or sedan, for everyone except those in search of convertibles.

Basic package is the SE with a 3.1-liter V-6 that offers 160 horsepower and is a somewhat unimpressive holdover from this year. Great for those subscribing to the walk, but not the talk of pugilistic wheels. Cost, including destination charges: $18,600.

Next comes the GT with its heftier engine for anyone interested in tangy performance with the option of four doors for quieter moments and large family gatherings. Cost: $20,300.

Then, for young lions and old fire horses, there's the GTP with a Roots-type supercharger bolted to the Series II engine (also found in the Pontiac Bonneville SSEi and Buick Park Avenue Ultra) that increases horsepower to 240. Cost: $21,700.

Realistically, adding options packages and such niceties as cowhide bucket seats, will inflate basic stickers by about $3,000. Still, when compared to the opposition--in this case Dodge Intrepid, Nissan Maxima, Ford Taurus and Thunderbird--few financial reasons exist for favoring one over the other.

But go juggle catalogs for the GTP and its closest counterpart, the super-quick, V-8-powered Taurus SHO from Ford. There are fractional differences in acceleration, top speed and road-holding--but the GTP, also a front-driver and a five-passenger buggy, sells for several thousand dollars less.

Dimensions of the Grand Prix have changed considerably, with the growth pattern aimed entirely at improving handling and rear seat room. Pontiac's wide track trickery is back, and width between tire treads has grown by 2 inches at the front, 3 inches at rear. Wheelbase has been stretched by 3 inches and the car lowered a smidge.

Combined with a new rear suspension, handling improvements are almost monumental.

The GT tracks straight and unyielding under the largest and most sudden of orders from any right foot. Sixteen-inch wheels and premium tires--plus balanced, speed-sensitive power steering--keep handling flat and adhesion intact.

The engine is a champ, breathing easily while delivering pace with instant response, smooth authority and comfortable surpluses of power. Plus a snarl from those twin pipes as a gentle reminder that this maybe is not a car to mess with.

Yet it's the four-speed automatic transmission that deserves an Oscar for best supporting system.

It has an up-market, imported quality to it; a transmission that's silky on up-shifts and never lagging driver input when exiting slow corners in a hurry. Downshifts are made with a crispness typically found in five-speed manuals, and without great screaming bursts of wasted energy.

The interior is sophisticated and modern without being Las Vegan. Seats are broad, friendly and again reminiscent of more expensive sports sedans from elsewhere.

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