The All-American Wonder — From Down Under By Alex Law Date posted: 11-18-2003 In the 18 months since GM announced it was going to turn its Holden Monaro coupe into the Pontiac GTO, there has been considerable chest-beating about the transformation and the heretical treatment of an American muscle car icon. As a public service, we will not repeat any of that discussion here. Suffice it to say that, as far as we're concerned, you can stick a feather in its hat and call it macaroni, because it's just a dandy car by any name. In fact, the Goat from myth and memory should be grateful for the comparison, since the new one is vastly better than the car from the Ronnie and the Daytonas song in every conceivable way, though there will be people who wish the new model looked more striking and had exhaust pipes on both rear corners. But that's pretty much as far as you can go in berating the new GTO without sounding petty. Working with GM's Holden division in Australia and some interior artists and craftspeople hitherto hidden in the bowels of GM's design department, Pontiac has come up with one of the best high-performance, luxury sport coupes of this or any other day, and it will be arriving in dealerships in December. The 2004 GTO has little in common with the GTO of old besides its launch speed since the new model speaks directly to modern sensibilities. That is to say, it has exceptional build quality, fabulous overall performance abilities and modern comfort and convenience attitudes. But before we get into that, it seems only right that we consider the new GTO in terms of its predecessor's most famous ability — off-the-line speed. There's no comparison, since the modern GTO would dust any version of its ancestor from zero to 60 mph or in the quarter-mile. With a six-speed manual attached to the 5.7-liter V8, the new GTO will go from zero to 60 mph in 5.3 seconds, which is a tenth of a second faster than the same car with the four-speed automatic and one or two seconds faster than any of the old Goats with any of their powertrains. But the modern GTO is more than just quick. It is in fact an all-around performance car with high-speed handling abilities on any kind of real-world road. Without going into details, you should know that several attendees of the media launch event in Southern California were able to push the new GTO to speeds two or more times greater than the posted limits on very challenging (but largely unoccupied) roads and came back impressed. The folks at GM's Holden division actually have a lot of experience building overpowered rear-drive cars for twisty roads, thanks to their decades-long history of hair-raising road races. So the Monaro gave GM a pretty good head start on a GTO for the U.S., and a quick conversion of that model probably would have worked here. But Pontiac pushed a lot harder and came up with a much better car than most people were expecting, even better than the car on which it's based. The parts that are unique to the GTO show exceptional polish. This would apply in particular to the interior, the ride and handling dynamics and the exhaust note. GM has regularly and rightly been lashed for its interiors ordered right out of the Maison de Fromage catalog, and has been promising that change was coming. Well, it's here, and it's highlighted by some fine looking two-tone fabric and leather treatments as well as a striking gauge cluster. The Blaupunkt name on the 200-watt, 10-speaker, six-CD stereo is printed proof that GM's clearly willing to break with tradition in an effort to reinvent itself. Overall, it's a pleasure to sit in a GTO no matter how fast it's going, but going fast is still the car's best feature. The basis for the GTO's on-road abilities is a fully independent suspension with stabilizer bars and a limited-slip rear differential. The suspension has been tuned to deliver excellent high-speed adhesion with almost no roll or pitch under duress. What's especially nice is that the variable-ratio steering makes the high-speed stuff fun as well as precise. This is just as true at low speeds, where the car is both comfortable and well behaved. Because of its excellent road manners, and the three-channel traction control system, the new GTO will be a great everyday car in all but the severest winter weather conditions. While it's nice to know that the GTO will dice with the best of them in the hills above town, it's even better to have the car's primary performance ability right there at the end of your foot at all times. This ability is primarily the result of a torque profile for the V8 that has most of its 365 pound-feet available right across the band, not bunched up around the 4,000-rpm peak power point. There is grunt to spare any time you want it, and you don't often have to downshift from fourth or even fifth to tap into it, but you will because it's fun. If the notion of shifting seems archaic or tiring or whatever, you don't need to worry about the performance features of the four-speed automatic since it allows the GTO to be just about as capable as the manually operated one. In fact, the automatic is much less likely to make a shift-point mistake than the human driver operating a manual transmission, so for the average person, it might be even faster. In a very smart move, Pontiac reinforced the GTO's performance abilities by designing an exhaust system that delivers a throaty, understated rumble into the occupant cabin a surprising amount of the time. It's like background music that constantly sets the right tone for the situation at hand. Some people will feel that it's unfortunate that the tone of the car is not more evident in the GTO's shape, as it's pretty much generic-looking on the outside. But there are advantages to that if you don't want to draw attention to yourself, and the car is not offensive in any way. For everyday enjoyment of the GTO, prospective buyers will also be glad to know that it comes with a long list of standard equipment, including air conditioning, power leather seats, one-touch power windows, a six disc, in-dash CD changer, a driver information center and aluminum interior trim. This brings us quite nicely to the matter of the sticker price, which is $32,495 and includes a destination charge of $700. The only available option is a six-speed Tremec manual transmission for $695. For that kind of money, it's very difficult to come up with another car that matches the GTO in the way it balances performance, style, sophistication and value. As a result, the GTO is one of the most exciting GM offerings to come along in some time.