From the December 2003 issue of Car and Driver.
It doesn't look like the old goat. That's the harshest indictment we can make against this new Pontiac GTO. Yes, there are other, eminently fixable flaws with the Australian-built GTO, and we'll get to those shortly. But we're really struggling to invent reasons not to put both hands together for this supremely comfortable, rear-drive, all independently sprung, Corvette-powered, husky-sounding, highway-inhaling coupe.
Okay, the new GTO's styling is a snooze. But let's put the body lines into context. The car on which this new GTO is based, GM's Holden Monaro built near Adelaide, Australia, was a styling concept for the 1998 Sydney motor show. Holden staffers penciled it in their off-hours without any approval by the management for production, much less any inkling that it would ever be sold in America.
Wish all you want, but GM won't spend hundreds of millions right now to bring us an all-new replacement for the Firebird. We've seen GTO concepts, some based on the front-drive Pontiac Grand Am and most recently a vile orange non-running concept car at the 1999 Detroit show that was too ugly even for Hot Wheels to build. We respectfully yawned in GM's face. So instead, we get a decade-old platform derived from the European Opel Omega and Cadillac Catera sedans. But wait. The Monaro fits the template of what a GTO should be better than any other vehicle in GM's current global lineup. It's rear-drive, it's relatively inexpensive, and it's already designed to accept a 350-hp Chevy small-block LS1 V-8. Plus, it's a perfect blank canvas for the aftermarket, which will scramble to develop bigger wheels and tires, body tack-ons, exhaust kits, and the inevitable 405-hp LS6 conversion. GTO Judge, anyone?
Because the Monaro-to-GTO transformation was hasty—about 17 months, says GM—there wasn't much time or budget to thoroughly alter the car. The biggest change involved moving the fuel tank from below the trunk floor to inside the trunk—to help keep the GTO from becoming a fireball in rear-end collisions. The 18.5-gallon plastic-encased tank offers a range of about 350 miles while chopping the trunk almost in half, cutting cargo space down to about two golf bags' worth.
The other downside to the truncated development schedule: The options list contains just one item, a $695 six-speed Tremec manual transmission that replaces the standard Hydra-Matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic. There's no sunroof, no seat heaters, and no OnStar offered. Navigation is by the old-fashioned paper map and driver-supplied compass.
As sparse as it is of optional luxuries, the GTO's cockpit welcomes patrons with leather seating for four adults, detailed with elegant French seams and embroidered GTO logos. "The best seats in any GM product ever" were compliments regularly heard about the deeply bolstered, lumbar adjustable power front buckets. Put to the endurance test during a nonstop, 29-hour beeline to Las Vegas (see "Fear and Losing Near Las Vegas," page 60), the GTO's seats left backs feeling free of fatigue, tailbones coddled, and spinal nerves unruffled.
Other GM cars that fit that description? Um, we're thinking...
The individual rear seats are ergonomically sculpted and scalloped like the fronts. Heads and elbows in the rear get plenty of stretch space. The front seats sprout a manual-release handle that flips the seatback forward, but only just past vertical. Then a separate button must be held while the front seat motors forward and back with the alacrity of a garden slug. More than a few passengers preferred to wriggle into and out of the rear like escape artists rather than wait for the seats to release them.
That the GTO is a foreigner to GM's North American lineup is evident from the driver's seat. The center-console window switches, the thick rubber knobs of the manual climate control, and the European Blaupunkt CD-changing stereo will seem alien to GM regulars. So will the manual tilting and telescoping steering wheel. Every two hours the cluster's LCD flashes a "rest reminder" with a pixilated image of a tree (perhaps Australian eucalyptus?) and a picnic table. How exotic.
The elegant detailing—including the red-face GTO dials with silver bezels and chrome pointer hubs, the red stitching on the leather-wrapped wheel and shifter boot, the polished metal door handles, and the aluminum-colored ring around the center dashboard stack—is also a welcome departure from GM's typical Tupperware interiors. We only wish Holden would find some space for a dead pedal left of the clutch.
The corn-stalk shifter provides the leverage to easily shove the heavy forks around the Tremec T-56 six-speed. The detents are mushy and the gates somewhat sloppy, and the Corvette's hated one-to-four skip shift is there for fuel economy, but the stick knows its way and rarely hangs up. For a muscle car, the GTO's clutch is soft, slipping enough during shifts to cushion and flatten out small rpm differentials.
If you want necks snapped, row hard and keep the gas pedal flat. The all-season 245/45 BFGoodrich g-Force T/As are mere shrimps on the barbie of the LS1 V-8. The GTO charges headlights ablaze out of a toxic cloud of tire smoke to turn 5.3 seconds at 60 mph and 14 seconds flat in the quarter-mile at 102 mph, clobbering with big-bore snort new import coupes such as the Infiniti G35 and Mazda RX-8.
Best of all, the GTO vents USDA Prime V-8 grumble out of a genuine dual exhaust (the Monaro's interconnecting H-pipe is there, but blocked off for meatier noise). The pops and thuds of backfires on the overrun sound positively illegal, like you'd pulled the cans and were heading for Paradise Road.
Unchanged from Australia are the PBR calipers with Akebono front pads and Bendix Mintex rears. They scrub off 70 mph in a longish 185 feet, some 20 feet more than the lighter-weight Asians. The brake pedal also feels squishy at bottom, as if it were swinging against seat foam.
With a little more rubber on the spindles (base Corvettes get 275/40 rear run-flats to handle the same horsepower abuse) the GTO would likely be even faster down the drag strip and shorter in the stops. Aftermarket tire retailers are standing by.
The GTO glides above the pavement on struts in the front and semi-trailing arms in the rear with an adjustable toe-in link. Australia is a land of rough roads, so the control arms are stout welded steel and forged iron, and the crossmembers to which they attach are beefy stampings and tubes. It all contributes to the GTO's 3821-pound curb weight, a 550-plus-pound hike above a base Corvette coupe. Elevating the fuel tank into the trunk pushed the GTO's center of gravity in the wrong direction, too.
Subsequently, don't expect the GTO to two-step like a Corvette. There's more sponge in the steering, more roll in the tires, more lean and bob in the body. Yet the GTO pulled 0.88 g on the skidpad, a testament to its fundamental balance and stability. The GTO's handling is really more Deutschland than Detroit. In corners the front end bites hard and the rear tracks dutifully, the understeer staying mostly in the shadows. Hanging the tail out is a challenge, even with all the power on tap; the Pontiac prefers to scrub its excess speed through the front tires. This is a car for getting where you're going, not putting on a stunt show.
Along the way, expect a supple ride over expansion joints and cold-patch cracks, until the tires hit something big. The bump stops are rigid, a compromise to permit the tires and 17-inch alloy wheels to fit into the small wheelhouses without constant rubbing. At least the GTO's stiff, rattle-free body soaks up shakes that would've had the old Camaro and Firebird shedding parts.
Speaking of which, the GTO did shed one or two of its own, including its battery tie-down and the wing-mounted center stop lamp, which fell off when one of its plastic screws sheared.
Additionally, the A/C repeatedly switched itself on and off, the button controlling the passenger-seat motor broke, and the suspension alignment was off enough to occupy a Las Vegas frame shop for two hours.
GM will say that our GTO was an early pilot car. True enough, but the Monaro has been in production for two years, and these are Monaro parts. For the GTO to prosper, GM is going to have to ride its Australian subsidiary hard to keep the quality up.
The GTO is God-bless-America performance wrapped in a sleek and refined package at a price the rest of us can afford. And if you still don't like the GTO, it'll be gone soon. Chief engineer Bob Reuter says the company plans to sell the $33,000 GTO for just three model years at the rate of 18,000 per year. After that, who knows?
Likely, as the song goes, you won't know what you've got till it's gone.
Having visited Holden's operations in Australia, where I drove the Holden Monaro on which this Pontiac is based, I was looking forward with great anticipation to driving a GTO in the States. A sporty rear-drive coupe with a Corvette motor, a manual six-speed, and a sport-tuned suspension sounds like our kind of car. But among the hordes of 10Best vehicles at our disposal that week, the GTO seemed anonymous-looking, with a somewhat sober interior despite the best GM seats anywhere. There's power aplenty, and the exhaust note is great, but real GTO heritage doesn't really extend beyond the V-8's warble. —Barry Winfield
The Pontiac styling department—presuming such an entity exists—has yo-yoed from the sublime to the ridiculous. After decades of festooning their vehicles with grotesque fiberglass stick-ons, they have created a GTO cunningly disguised as a phone-company fleet car. When I first spotted our dishwater-dull, battleship-gray GTO, I thought perhaps a Navy recruiter had stopped by in an attempt to snare a couple of our office interns. Did the dolts at Pontiac even take a peek at the 1964-65 Goats, the first truly vivid and now classic muscle cars? The GTO is a solid-performing Cinderella who lost her shoe before leaving for the party. —Brock Yates
Full marks to GM for conjuring up a thoroughly modern Pontiac GTO. A sophisticated chassis with disc brakes, an independent suspension at both ends, and rear-wheel drive is exactly what the 21st century demands. And the LS1 V-8 provides gutsy thrust in the GTO tradition. With the exception of a heavy shifter, all this hardware works well, and the car's $33,000 base price is right. However, the new goat's lines are simple and clean to the point of boredom. Other than beefy wheels and tires, the visuals do nothing to suggest performance and speed. A proper GTO should look butch. This one doesn't. —Csaba Csere
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