- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Pontiac's hottest-selling model, the Grand Am slugs it out with some serious imported iron such as Mazda's 626, Mitsubishi's Galant and the Volkswagen Passat. Redesigned several years ago, it's getting a bit long in the tooth. Despite that fact, it changed little for 2002.

Three trim levels of coupes and sedans are available: SE, SE1 and GT. The SE and SE1are separated by some standard features like dual power mirrors, power windows and remote keyless entry. The two SE versions use a four-cylinder power plant, while the GT has a 175-horsepower V-6 under the hood. An SE1 coupe was driven for this evaluation.

The only noticeable across-the-board enhancement for Grand Am this year is a new center console with integrated cup holder. Otherwise, things are basically unchanged. Pontiac has swapped out the previous 2.4-liter four-cylinder base engine for a new 2.2-liter one and lost 10 horsepower in the process. The new engine seems a little smoother and quieter than the four-banger it replaces. However, in an industry that thrives on ever-increasing power, it seems like an odd thing to do.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard in the SEs. My test SE1, though, had the optional four-speed automatic. Shifting smoothly, it worked well with the new engine.

Acceleration isn't anything to stand up and cheer about. It requires nearly 10 seconds to reach 60 mph from a standing stop. The fuel economy news is better with an Environmental Protection Agency mpg rating of 24 in the city and 32 on the highway.

Ride and handling are both middle of the road OK. The four-wheel independent suspension straddles the fence on handling capability and comfort. Its ride is neither soft nor harsh. Some body roll is evident in the turns, but not in serious amounts.

Steering is a little vague, particularly on center; however, it responds quickly to the helm when turning. Discs up front and drums in the rear provide Grand Am its stopping power. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard.

Although Pontiac has since rethought its somewhat heavy-handed styling cues, Grand Am comes from the company's body-cladding era. Thick air dams, high-definition body side molding and extraneous bric-a-brac were the order of the day for Pontiac, and Grand Am reflects that thinking. It was a bit much five years ago and the passing of time hasn't made it more fashionable.

Some of the company's aggressive styling was motivated by a desire to differentiate Pontiac from other General Motors brands particularly Oldsmobile. With Oldsmobile on its last legs, however, Pontiac has the opportunity to soften is approach and is doing so. It's new Vibe is an indication of the fresh attitude at GM's arrowhead division. No doubt, the next-generation Grand Am will be a gentler, kinder automobile.

Inside, Grand Am is configured for five, but is really more comfortable for four adults. Up front there is plenty of room. The seats are supportive and comfortable. In the rear, the legroom is about what we've come to expect in a compact car. Accessing the rear seat in Grand Am coupes is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

The exterior styling cues are also displayed inside. Lots of humps, bumps and curves. All of the knobs and dials are easily operated. No reaching for the owner's manual to run the ventilation or audio systems. Trunk space is adequate and visibility is good in all directions.

Base price of the Pontiac Grand Am SE1 coupe is $18,110. Standard features not already mentioned include dual front air bags, programmable power door locks, fog lamps, 15-inch aluminum wheels, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo/CD player, electric remote trunk release and tilt steering wheel.

The test Grand Am also had the optional power sunroof, automatic transmission and upgraded eight-speaker Monsoon audio system, which added another $2,455 to the bottom line. Tacking on the delivery charge brought the total to $21,150.

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