- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Even with 80 percent new parts, the redesigned-for-2004 Pontiac Grand Prix doesn’t stray far from the previous generation.

The styling on the new model is unmistakably Pontiac, though substantially cleaned up because Pontiac removed body cladding.

The interior has a driver cockpit feel, like the previous Grand Prix. But the effect now is less busy, and some materials, especially the ceiling liner, look and feel richer.

Horsepower in the uplevel supercharged V-6 is improved, too, and a new optional feature on the Grand Prix adds shift paddles to the steering wheel as in Formula One cars.

Pontiac General Manager Lynn Myers said the new model, which has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,395, adds a contemporary feel to one of the great American nameplates.

Today’s Grand Prix, a front-wheel-drive sedan, can seat five. Pontiac didn’t change the Grand Prix platform in this most recent redesign.

The basic suspension geometry remains with front MacPherson struts and rear independent tri-link.

But adjustments in anti-roll bars and larger diameter tires — 16- and 17-inchers now — do wonders for the chassis, making the car feel impressively sturdy and stiff.

While the ride in the test Grand Prix GTP model with optional competition package that added performance-tuned suspension and those 17-inch wheels and tires was a bit harsh at times on rough urban pavement, I never hesitated to make emergency maneuvers.

Why? Because the Grand Prix, a substantial-sized car at 16.5 feet, could swerve around objects and get back in line with a predictability that inspired confidence.

The competition package adds a stability control system called StabiliTrak Sport that’s tailored to allow a bit of sporty driving during cornering.

The package also upgrades the rack-and-pinion steering in the Grand Prix to General Motors’ Magnasteer II, which varies steering effort needed with lateral acceleration changes as well as with vehicle speed.

Next to the chassis and body’s buttoned-down, modern feel, the new Grand Prix impresses with its considerable power at the ready.

There are only two engines now, both V-6s.

The base is a 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated Series III version V-6 capable of the same 200 horsepower and 225 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm that came from the Series II version of this engine last year.

But the uplevel supercharged, 3.8-liter Series III V-6 has 20 more horsepower, going from 240 to 260.

Torque remains at 280 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm and provides ready grunt to get this 3,500-pound four-door moving quickly.

Gosh, I can’t recall the number of times I squealed the tires without trying.

Highlighted in television ads for the new Grand Prix is an optional TAPshift — for Touch Activated Power — feature that adds a bit of fun to the usual manumatic, shift-it-yourself automatic transmission.

TAPshift puts round paddles at the steering wheel so a quick push of a finger moves the transmission from gear to gear, and there’s no clutch pedal to depress.

Problem is, though, the Grand Prix retains just a four-speed transmission, so the fun isn’t as great as it could be with more gears, and the mechanism seems a bit gimmicky because it doesn’t seem to make the shifts any quicker or smoother.

Pontiac also includes an annoying chime to alert a driver when he tries to shift when the engine might be compromised or damaged. It isn’t exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in this type of sporty car.

Note that premium gasoline is the recommended fuel for the supercharged V-6 in the Grand Prix, and fuel economy isn’t great.

I managed 18.2 miles a gallon in combined city and highway travel, which isn’t much better than some sport utilities get.

I liked the front seat much better than the back seat in the Grand Prix GTP.

The leather-trimmed separate seats in front provided some support and had power adjustments so I could position myself for a decent view out over the hood.

In back, though, I sat low on a bench seat cushion that just seemed to sag under my weight.

I did appreciate that the Grand Prix’s rear doors open wide — a full 82 degrees.

Pontiac added extra sound insulation and thicker window glass in the new Grand Prix for a quieter ride.

But the sporty tires still conveyed a lot of road noise on certain road surfaces.

And I couldn’t help but feel the strange sheet metal ripples at the back of the car, by the taillamps, hadn’t been finished well in its design.

I liked that all the knobs and controls were within easy reach.

And the premium audio with Monsoon stereo put out strong, clear sounds.

Even better, the test car had the optional XM satellite radio with 100 special stations offering everything from children’s fare to NASCAR programming.

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