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Oohs by way of Oz

Pontiac's new import from Down Under doesn't look like its namesake, but it's a positive step for GM.

November 19, 2003|DAN NEIL

Cynics may look at the new Pontiac GTO and say it is neither. Built in Australia by General Motors subsidiary Holden, the GTO is an American-spec version of the Monaro coupe, which itself is based on Holden's popular VT Commodore sedan. It's a Pontiac in roughly the same degree that it is a can of Foster's lager.

As for it being a GTO, well, anybody who thinks this car looks like a GTO has kangaroos loose in the top paddock, if you know what I mean. The Goats of LBJ's Great Society era were overpowered, under-tired fantasias of steel and chrome, garish and glorious. The late-1960s GTOs were particularly decadent, with a wicked, rearward sloping profile as if the car were perpetually in mid-wheelie.

The new GTO's styling has the same effect on one's limbic system as a handful of codeine and an Indian night raga.

Fortunately, I am not a cynic. I don't care that it's Australian, and its work-in-progress looks may in fact represent an opportunity for Pontiac to, at last, bond with Generation FnF (as in "The Fast and the Furious").

Indeed, the GTO -- priced around $33,000 -- is exactly the sort of project GM ought to be doing. The General, which has spent a decade extending its global reach, is only now beginning to translate its investments into improved product for the North American market. For example, the new hot-selling Saab 9-3 is based on the Opel Epsilon platform, the same as the new Chevrolet Malibu. The coming-soon Saab 9-2 is based on a Subaru all-wheel-drive platform.

We shouldn't take the name "GTO" too seriously. This is purely an exercise in the power of suggestion. GM product czar Robert Lutz chose to resurrect the nameplate because he reckoned -- I think correctly -- that the Excitement division was the one that could most use the excitement. It is curious, however, that the word "Pontiac" does not appear on the car -- shades of the orphaned Olds Aurora.

It's an open question whether the GTO name -- redolent with associations from the groovy 1960s, from the Monkeemobile to "Here comes da Judge!" -- will work for the car. Purists and Goatheads have scorned the Neo-GTO as not being, as they say in Oz, fair dinkum. But the name sure has generated a lot of ink, which is exactly what Lutz & Co. hoped.

And, oh yeah, it's a hot car.

Here then, in no particular order, are the things I like about it.

Deep throat: Boot the gas pedal and listen to that sonorous, dual-exhaust baritone. Vibrating those vocal cords is a 5.7-liter -- as in 350 cubic inches -- pushrod V-8 churning the rear wheels with 350 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. Old school? Sure, and low-tech compared with the computer-orchestrated overhead-cam engines of Honda or BMW. But those cars can't sing in the malevolent registers that the GTO can. This is muscle-car psychedelia straight from the '60s.

Strictly ballroom: You might be wondering why GM would go to the trouble of bringing an Australian rear-drive coupe to America when it only recently killed off the Pontiac Firebird-Chevrolet Camaro twins? Good question, and you can bet the United Auto Workers asked it too. But the fact is the F-body Firebird-Camaro, with its solid-axle rear end, could never have delivered the kind of balance and chassis sophistication of the GTO.

This thing drives beautifully. The car feels rock solid, with none of the cowl shake of the old Firebird. The ride is supple and well damped. The steering is crisp and communicative. Toss it from a tight corner to another, and it stays well composed -- none of that sideways momentum with compound interest that affected the F-body cars. In a high-speed curve the GTO gives up a few degrees of body roll as it acquires a grip, then stiffens up and shoulders through. The only thing it needs is more rubber on the road. Read on.

Department of the interior: Pontiac interiors -- in cars like the Bonneville -- are so ugly they are practically toxic. By comparison, the GTO interior is a work of art: clean, sober, mature, fuss free. Red dials with chrome bezels. Tasteful aluminized brightwork around the instrument panel and central console. Switches with a positive, intuitive feel. A nice, easy-to-operate Blaupunkt audio head with CD changer. Beautifully stitched seams on four of the best bucket seats ever assembled in a GM car. No LCD screens with flashing "Wide Track" icons. No gray plastic Chiclets.

Whatever the yobbos are swilling in Elizabeth, Australia, send a case to Detroit.

Tuner fish: This car comes to market essentially half-finished. Sure, it's quick -- zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds -- but a Ford Mustang Cobra SVT is quicker. Yes, it handles well, but a Mazda RX8 is in all likelihood faster around a road course. But as a stiffer-than-stiff, rear-drive, V-8-powered coupe with a six-speed transmission, the GTO has gobs of untapped potential. Wait until the aftermarket tuners get through with it.

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