- The Washington Times - Friday, August 13, 2004

For those of us who have been around long enough to remember the GTOs of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s nearly impossible to think GTO without hearing the Beach Boys songs echoing in our head. Somehow the two memories are bound together in the world of “remember when?” But we all have to move on. So, forget the nostalgia and think: now.

What Pontiac calls the contemporary interpretation of the classic GTO has finally landed. (“Landed” because GM’s Holden Division in Australia builds it.) It’s V-8-powered and is pushed along by its rear wheels just like the original. The 2004 variant, though, bears no physical resemblance to earlier GTOs. While its looks may disappoint a few of the nameplate’s purists, the Beach Boys aren’t exactly what they used to be either. Times change and expectations must be adjusted. Sure the styling is a bit homogenized, but no one who drives this car is likely to care. Looks aside, the new GTO is a rip-roaring good time.

General Motors has discovered that a sure way to make a model a hit is to stuff a version of the 5.7-liter Corvette V-8 2r the hood. It provides instant legitimacy and 350 horsepower. The standard method for delivering go to the rear wheels is through a four-speed automatic transmission. Anyone unimpressed with driver-shiftable automatics will be pleased to note this GTO tranny possesses no such frills. It’s a straightforward four-speed. On the other hand for those who love rowing the stick, a six-speed manual transmission can be had for an additional $695.

Equipped with the automatic, the GTO is still plenty of fun to drive.

With the six-speed, it’s a knockout.

Reaching 60 mph from a standstill takes less than six seconds.

Unfortunately, the GTO’s acceleration prowess comes with a price tag. Initially buyers will pay an extra $1,000 gas-guzzler tax for an engine that requires premium fuel — prodigious amounts of which will be required to keep the GTO rolling.

The Environmental Protection Agency has rated the four-speed GTO at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway.

The well-tuned, fully independent suspension and performance tires mounted on 17-inch alloy wheels conspire to keep the GTO firmly planted in the corners.

Response from the speed-variable rack-and-pinion steering is quick with just the right amount of give and take. Disc brakes fore and aft are monitored by an antilock system. Traction control is standard.

Available only as a 2+2 coupe in one trim level, the GTO keeps things simple.

Usually when a coupe is described as a 2+2, it means that the rear seat is basically unusable.

That’s not quite the case here, but it is cramped. All that experience playing Twister as a kid won’t have been wasted because accessing the back seat requires some creative maneuvering.

Up front, however, there is plenty of leg, hip and shoulder room. Pack light because cargo space in the trunk is a little skimpy.

On the plus side: There is certainly more rear passenger space and trunk room than the Firebird offered and the GTO is, for all intents and purposes, its replacement as the sportiest car in Pontiac’s lineup.

What sets the GTO apart from the Firebird, or the Corvette for that matter, is its interior.

Beyond a back seat that will actually accommodate people, the front seats are user-friendly. Driver and passenger don’t have to struggle in to and out of them. They have eight-way power adjustments and offer scads of support, yet are quite comfortable.

Leather covers all seating surfaces and the GTO logo is stitched onto the front seatbacks.

The gauge pod has a sort of retro look with a large round tachometer and speedometer flanked by smaller secondary gauges.

The four-spoke steering wheel has a substantial feel. Drilled-metal pedals add to the sporty DNA.

Three large round knobs are placed high on the center stack and control the ventilation system. Air conditioning is standard.

Below those controls is the driver information system. This is also home to the audio system. There are lots of buttons to decipher when on the run. The audio system, however, is a 200-watt, 10-speaker powerhouse with a six-disc CD changer at no extra charge. Redundant audio controls are steering-wheel-mounted.

Pontiac has included plenty of other thoughtful features in the base price — such as auto-programmable headlamps, power windows and door locks with keyless entry and cruise control.

The GTO has only the minimum number of air bags required: one each for the driver and front-seat passenger. However if those bags deploy, the GTO automatically shuts off the engine, turns off the fuel pump, unlocks the doors and turns on the dome light.

All interior components seem screwed together with care. The fit and finish was top notch with nary a rattle to be heard. Of course, one would be hard-pressed to hear squeaks and rattles over the booming base of the wonderfully tuned exhaust, or, for some of us, the Beach Boys blaring over the stereo.

The GTO is a terrific experience. It does everything well and comes as well-stocked as some luxury coupes. In light of its powertrain and inclusive standard features list, the GTO’s price is well within reason.

Even adding on the gas-guzzler tax and $700 destination fee, the price for the four-speed-equipped GTO is $33,495.

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