The Grandest Prix yet By Jim Hall The marketing philosphies that General Motors has used in developing its automobiles in recent years appear to finally be giving way to the engineering side. Good thing, as highbrow engineering is seeping down to even the humdrum "affordable" sedan segment, as witnessed in our recent "Mainstream Sedans" comparison test (February 2003). The overall refinement — especially ride composure, chassis and interior quality — of the cars featured in that story was outstanding. And it is in this category that the 2004 Grand Prix takes a big step forward. The new Grand Prix looks sleeker and more modern. The taillights have a more contemporary look as they are taller and thinner and have been pushed farther out to the corners. The rear doors look a little bulkier now as the sheet metal cuts farther up and into the C-pillar, but these doors now open at almost a 90-degree angle, making for very easy ingress and egress. A slight reduction in the front overhang would enhance the profile and make it more in proportion to the sportier-looking European sedans. But overall, this new Grand Prix has a cleaner, simpler flow to its lines — a marked improvement over the cladded bodies of late. The ride is not at all like we've come to expect in the Grand Prix of old either. The GTP with the optional all-new Competition Group suspension package (Comp G) is damped with just the right amount of firmness, making for a ride that feels more akin to that found in today's European 4-doors. In the winding back roads we drove, the GTP with the Comp G package always felt firmly planted to the road, with very little body roll. Also included in this package are StabiliTrak Sport 4-wheel stability control and an electronic throttle control system. The GTP is powered by a 260-bhp supercharged V-6 that's good for 280 lb.-ft. of peak torque. In normal driving, this engine operates in a quiet and smooth manner. Gun it and this 3.8-liter provides a surge of power. But more important, as this is a front-wheel-drive car, it delivers this power to the driven wheels with remarkably little torque steer — less so than the well-behaved and identically powered Acura TL Type-S. The new Grand Prix's interior is vastly improved. Inside, a longtime GM bugaboo is finally addressed: plastic quality, or lack thereof. It still has some way to go to reach that of the all-new Honda Accord, but it is certainly an improvement. Styling, like the exterior, is clean but on the conservative side. Operation of controls is a snap — everything is pretty much right where you'd expect it to be, works intuitively and does not feel cheap. Oversized speedometer and tachometer are welcome, as are climate controls. Seats are very comfortable yet supportive. One thing that stands out is what Pontiac calls TAPshift (Touch Activated Power), yet another component of the Comp G package. Inspired by the design of Shimano bicycle gearshift levers, this may just be the best steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifter yet, allowing the palm and fingers to remain on to the steering wheel in their normal position while the thumbs do all of the gear changes with a quick little click of each rubber-surfaced pad (left for upshift, right for down). With both this new Grand Prix and the Cadillac SRX I drove recently, GM engineers seem to be placing special attention on steering, brake and gas pedal operation. There's a linear, performance-oriented function in the way they work that gives the driver immediate confidence. As the sub-$30,000 midsize sedan market is perhaps the most competitive in the business, the new Grand Prix adds a unique feature to rise above the crowd: an optional fold-flat front passenger seat. This, in combination with a much lower trunk opening and 60/40 split folding rear seats, allows the car to swallow a 9-ft. ladder or an average-size single-person kayak. The Grand Prix GTP is priced at a reasonable $25,860 with the Competition Group option available for $1395. In horsepower, handling, comfort and convenience as it relates to price in this category, the 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix GTP holds its own — and then some — in a very competitive group.