- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

Oh, what a difference an engine makes.

I’m often not an advocate of choosing the “upgrade” engine: You know, turning your back on a perfectly good four-cylinder and paying more for a larger and thirstier V-6 or V-8. I can name several models in which the base engine is more satisfying than the upgrade powerplant, which costs thousands more.

But Pontiac’s G8 sport sedan is an exception: A car that seems designed for its upgrade engine - and comes up somewhat lacking without it. The G8 is one of the newer breed of comparatively inexpensive sedans built to offer buyers the primary virtue of luxury-sport brands - rear-wheel drive - at a more attainable price.

You see, most everyday cars are front-wheel drive, and that’s sensible. Front-drive cars typically have great traction and predictable responses. But rear-drive vehicles handle more fluidly because the front wheels just steer - without being corrupted by the additional duty of propelling. That’s why rear-wheel drive prospers as the preferred layout for sporting and luxury vehicles.

Since its launch last year, it’s been fairly universally established that Pontiac’s G8 does indeed present the reflexes expected from rear-wheel drive. The basic structure of the G8 was borrowed from General Motors’ Australian operations (the car is built in Australia as well), and those blokes do know a bit about large sedans with rear drive. That’s what Australian drivers have favored forever.

Here’s where the engine part comes in: The best G8 model is the GT, which comes standard with GM’s famous and grunty 6.0-liter “small-block” V-8. However, our test car carried the wholly modern and award-winning 3.6-liter V-6 that GM uses on vehicles such as Cadillacs. But after experiencing the arrogant propulsion of the 361-horsepower G8 GT, the 256-horsepower V-6 makes the fact the G8’s rear wheels are doing the shoving seem a lot less interesting.

For one thing, the 3.6-liter V-6 makes as much as 304 horses when fitted with a higher-tech fuel-injection system, but for the G8, its 256 horsepower is overmatched by the G8’s 3,885 pounds.

It doesn’t save as much gas as you’d think, either: The V-6 G8 rings in at 17 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. The G8 GT and its V-8 manages 15 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway.

Some of the parity in fuel economy is attributable to the standard five-speed automatic transmission for the G8, which is less efficient and less reactive than the more-sophisticated six-speed automatic that’s coupled with the V-8. Regardless, for a couple of mpg, we’d go with the effortless and considerably more aurally pleasing V-8.

Here’s the rub: The G8 GT base price is about $3,300 more than the G8 V-6 we tested. But the GT package does include extra equipment, so the price difference between G8 and G8 GT is not all wrapped up in the GT’s bigger engine and better transmission - although I’d pay even if it were.

Even more tantalizing, late last year Pontiac introduced the G8 GXP. It’s got a stupid-powerful, 415-horsepower V-8 of 6.2 liters. We wouldn’t recommend it as your 16-year-old’s first car.

OK, now that we’re clear on engines, the G8 is a bargain whatever model you choose. The interior space is vast, owing to the almost 115-inch wheelbase, with rear-seat room that blows away anything on offer from pricier imports.

Some of the G8’s interior trim pieces look and feel a little cheap; for example, when pressing buttons on the dash-center touch screen, the entire assembly moved in its foundation. And some of the graphics and markings for controls and switches defy quick understanding.

But there’s no mistaking the G8’s basic qualities as a roomy, responsive and affordable rear-drive sport sedan, with emphasis on “sport.” Go ahead and pop for that V-8, though.

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