- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

Age is a funny thing memory changes, perspectives change, tastes change and preconceived notions are sometimes are so out of whack that one has to wonder what one was thinking. And sometimes you continue to learn whether you want to or not.

Last fall a writer colleague did a story on the Bonneville that I found difficult to believe. She heaped tons of praise on the car and while there were a few negatives the piece was fairly glowing.

I called the good folks at General Motors and asked to drive the Bonneville SSEi because I wanted to experience the car myself before editing the story and to find out what kind of strange stuff the writer was smoking that caused this love affair with a Pontiac.

Well it did take some time to get the Bonneville, but I finally had an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to test the car for myself. And after driving it for a week and putting 500 miles on the car I decided to write the story myself.

First things first — I couldn't remember the last time I drove a Bonneville but needless to say it had been a long, long time. I did remember I had liked the Bonneville from my then more youthful point of view. And today the Bonneville is still aimed at a more youthful audience — maybe 32- to 44-year-olds who are more affluent than the target audience the last time I drove the car.

I remember the car being big and muscular, not like the muscle cars of the 1960s but in comparison to the then contemporary definition of muscle. It was the beginning of "Pontiac Excitement," a marketing concept and mantra that has survived in one form or another since. Thankfully the excitement theme has moved from what I remember as a loud, hard rock, forceful beat to a more sophisticated, softer, yet still upbeat sound and message. I also remember the SSEi being a lot less costly. This one touched on nearly $35,000.

Bonneville is still big and muscular, especially the SSEi — 240 supercharged horses out of a very traditional 3.8-liter V-6 pushrod engine and 280 foot-pounds torque. The engine technology isn't the newest or the most powerful for cars in its class, but it is sound and dependable and more than enough to produce excellent performance and an exhilarating ride.

The one thing that sticks out in my mind about the earlier Pontiac was the interior design. Tactile — the feel — the touch of the buttons and switches was hugely important at Pontiac and the Bonneville had a button for everything. I think the count was 200. It was amazing. I thought before picking up the new SSEi — what if it still has all those buttons — it will drive me crazy — another function of aging.

Thankfully the button count had been reduced significantly, but true to form the buttons that remained were made to touch. They were big and easy to read and reach. Probably more perfect for my generation than planned.

The interior of the Bonneville is definitely aimed at the target audience. The instrument panel is extremely wide with a plethora of information and instrumentation and still backlit in glowing red. The rest of the dash had lots of well-functioning vents for the heating and air conditioning system, although the design overall was visually noisy.

The interior designers also seemed to be faced with the challenge of thinking of everything, and it seems that they succeeded. My favorite detail is the door-mounted grab handle, down to the finger indentations. The Pontiac brain trust also did an outstanding job on the seat design and engineering. They are comfortable, firm, supportive and infinitely adjustable for both driver and passenger. The shoulder and lap belts are integrated into the seats for comfort and safety as well. The seats are a real plus for any generation.

To say that the Bonneville SSEi is loaded would be an understatement. It had everything one could consider important and there are only a handful of options. Among them: polished bright chrome 17-inch wheels instead of cast aluminum; a 12-CD compact disc player mounted in the trunk is extra although the standard is a single in-dash CD both with Bose speakers; heated seats; a power glass sunroof and remote garage door opener; and the ubiquitous OnStar communications system.

The exterior is typically bold — something you would expect from a Pontiac, still with lots of ripples and cut lines though this version had evolved nicely over the last decade and gone were a lot of unnecessary style cues.

So I guess I've learned a lesson. My age sometimes shows and clouds my thinking and while my perspective and tastes have changed those should not lead me to conclusion jumping. Every car we test needs to stand on its own and current merits.

LOS ANGELES NEWSPAPER GROUP


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