Fuel for the Soul By John DiPietro Date posted: 03-13-2003 After years of taking it on the chin spoiler for having an excess of body cladding and general busy-ness in its cars' styling, Pontiac has slowly been smoothing things out. Having to walk the tightrope between having a recognizable design theme and being boring isn't easy, but it seems that the company has a handle on it. Witness the 2004 Grand Prix, which will be available in base GT 1, midlevel GT 2 and two supercharged GTP models. With a semifastback roofline, the four-door Grand Prix resembles more a sporty coupe (almost like a supersized Acura RSX in profile) than a four-door sedan. With the Grand Prix coupe being discontinued, this sporty countenance is probably no mere coincidence. A smooth nose with the trademark Pontiac dual-port grille and a clean profile with just enough sculpting to lend a sporty character highlight the elegant envelope. Only the rear end has a bit of awkwardness with a fussy rear spoiler that fills a depression in the deck lid. Overall, however, we have to say this is one handsome car. Moving to the interior, there is a definite cockpit theme, as the center stack curves to meet the driver. The assorted plastic trim is substantially upgraded compared to past GPs — a good thing as Pontiac has taken more than a few hits for its interior material. And we're glad to see the dowdy old steering wheel (that looked like a vinyl-covered throw pillow) gone and replaced by a much sportier three-spoke job with metallic accents and (on some models) controls for the stereo. Gauges and displays are done in red, and all controls, even the trip computer, are intuitive. The cruise control is worked via a small stalk located at 4 o'clock on the wheel (like a Toyota), as the old 1980s-style turn signal stalk-mounted control finally retires. Those with a copy of Top Gun in their DVD collection will be pleased to know that the fighter jet-inspired heads-up display now has a "stealth" function that kills the instrument cluster lights so the GP's pilot isn't distracted. Also helping during aggressive maneuvers are the firmly bolstered seats on the GTP that held us in place while running through the countryside. One of Pontiac's goals was to maximize this sedan's versatility in terms of being able to carry large objects. To that end, the new Grand Prix boasts a wide and low-cut trunk opening, a 60/40-split rear seat that allows a large pass-through, a fold-flat front passenger seat and rear doors that swing open nearly 90 degrees. To demonstrate the GP's almost wagonlike hauling capacity, a Pontiac rep tossed (OK, maybe not tossed) a nine-foot-long roll of carpeting into the car. Kudos to the interior team for designing a very functional yet sporty cabin; we would only suggest adding (or making optional) metallic trim (matching that on the steering wheel) to accent the dash on the left and right side of the instrument cluster and to cover the out-of-place dimpled portion of the door pull handles. As before, a pair of 3.8-liter V6s (newly refined and dubbed Series III) serves duty in the Grand Prix. In the GT models, the standard 3800 Series III makes 200 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque. In addition to furnishing brisk performance, this engine is great on gas, scoring mileage estimates of 20 mpg city and a highway figure of 30 mpg highway — numbers associated more with four-cylinder econoboxes than a roomy, fast V6 sedan. The GTP once again has a supercharged version of the 3800, tweaked this year to make 20 more horsepower (for a total of 260 ponies) and the same 280 pound-feet of twist as last year. Both engines now feature electronic throttle control (often called "drive by wire") whose action is speed-sensitive, meaning that, when parking, the response is slower to allow smoother, jerk-free maneuvering, while at higher speeds it reacts more quickly, so as to allow swift passing and merging. This year, the supercharged engine can run on regular fuel, though premium is recommended for the best performance. We sampled both engines, which are teamed with a four-speed automatic. Of course we enjoyed the rush of the force-fed V6, whose transmission can be shifted manually via steering wheel-mounted buttons if the Competition Group Package is ordered. Pontiac calls this manual-shift feature "TAPshift," and we like that it has full manual operation during upshifts, meaning it won't baby-sit the driver like some other systems and thus will allow him to run into the rev limiter if he's not paying attention. We're all for anything that encourages more involvement and concentration from the driver. TAPshift is also pleasingly quick on the draw, shifting up or down virtually as quickly as the button is thumbed — a nice change from many other automanuals we've driven that have an annoying lag in this mode. Left to shift for itself, the tranny ran through the gears seamlessly, even under full throttle. Pontiac had a 2004 Grand Prix GTP tested against its competition (all 2003 models) under the supervision of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) at Firebird Raceway in Arizona and got a 15.0-second quarter-mile out of it, besting such cars as the Nissan Maxima and Dodge Intrepid SXT. Pontiac claims the GTP will cover the 0-to-60 race in 6.5 seconds. Even without the supercharger, the 3800 V6 furnishes plenty of thrust and continues to be a favorite engine of this writer for its great combination of performance and economy, as well as its outstanding reliability history. Hauling it all down are larger antilock (on all except the GT 1, where it's optional) four-wheel disc brakes that feature Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD). These binders were easily modulated and felt strong while we subjected our GP to many elevation changes (and hence heavy brake usage), certainly an improvement over the previous brakes which didn't feel as hefty or have as much pedal feel. An independent suspension is found under the sleek bodywork, and in keeping with its performance-minded image, even the base cars feature antiroll bars fore and aft, 16-inch tires (225/60 Goodyear Eagles) and a quick (only 2.4 turns lock to lock) steering ratio. Step up to the GTP and the rubber is upgraded to Michelin Energy 225/55R17s. The Competition Group goes all the way with firmer suspension tuning, BF Goodrich Comp T/As (same size as the Michelins), 10-spoke alloys, enthusiast-oriented stability control (dubbed StabiliTrak Sport), a higher final drive ratio (3.29-to-1 versus the GTP's 2.93-to-1) for quicker acceleration and red brake calipers (just like a Porsche Turbo!). We drove a base car and then jumped into a GTP Comp G and immediately noticed that, while the standard GP handles fine and has more than enough potential to be enjoyable, the GTP Comp G is definitely the car for the enthusiast. Cornering is flat and composed; even through rapid transitions, the car never wavered and responded to driver input without hesitation. StabiliTrak never intruded needlessly, allowing us to push the car smoothly but rapidly through some seriously serpentine two-lanes that made up part of our evaluation loop. Yes, the ride is also quite a bit firmer than the GT or GTP, but it's not jarring and the type of person who wants the Comp G package certainly won't complain. During more sedate driving, the Grand Prix's cabin was impressively quiet, save for minor wind ruffle around the A-pillars. So now that we've given the new Grand Prix a solid thumbs-up all 'round, the question that looms large is "How much?" It's actually less than last year's model, with the GT1 (which essentially replaces the SE as the entry-level model though it now has the 3800 V6 standard) at $22,395, the GT2 at $24,295 and the GTP at $26,495 (all prices include destination). It's actually less than last year's model, with the GT1 (which essentially replaces the SE as the entry-level model though it now has the 3800 V6 standard) at $22,395, the GT2 at $24,295 and the GTP at $26,495 (all prices include destination). Enthusiasts will be overjoyed to hear that the Competition Group is just $1,395.