Seems like everyone loves old muscle cars. But let’s face it, the foamy-mouthed endearment so many of us have for them is largely a case of selective memory. With their barely-adequate drum brakes, crude live-axle rear suspension, and slow-ratio recirculating-ball steering, those brash Summer-of-Love leviathans we pine for now actually raised our pulses back in the day not from their admittedly inspiring acceleration, but rather from the fact that they were so often trying to make a pilgrimage to the nearest ditch.
Our selective memory need not cover for this breed any more. With the
re-introduction of Pontiac’s GTO for 2004, "muscle car" takes on a whole new
meaning -- one that doesn’t involve prayers when it comes time to stop, or
good-luck charms when you want to take a turn quickly.
The progenitor of this new GTO was introduced for 1964, sporting a name audaciously lifted from the well-known Ferrari 250 GTO. It wasn’t the most original way to badge a car, but few seemed to care. The Pontiac GTO’s blend of good performance, reasonable price, and tough looks ignited a frenzy among the era’s young auto buyers and prompted other manufacturers to launch a host of similar models.
GTO sales stayed strong throughout the 1960s. But by the beginning of the 1970s, demand for muscle cars in general was being cooled by rising insurance rates, a softening economy, and stricter government regulations. Pontiac dropped the GTO after 1974. It then remained only a memory for some three decades.
Enter former Chrysler president Bob Lutz. Known throughout the industry as a diehard "car guy," he was coaxed out of retirement in 2001 to revitalize General Motors’ lackluster product line. To that end, he immediately called for performance versions of practically every GM car.
High on his list was the GTO. He wanted it back.
Conveniently, a nearly ideal foundation for such a car already existed within the corporation, the Monaro, built by GM’s Australian division, Holden. With some minor reworking, Lutz had his GTO, which made its debut in late 2003 as a 2004 model.
To speed the process of converting the Monaro design into the new GTO, Pontiac opted to build its version of the car in just one trim and performance level. That said, the GTO comes well equipped, with standard leather upholstery, power-adjustable seats, manual tilt/telescoping steering column, and integrated six-disc CD changer.
The Monaro already uses General Motors' basic 5.7-liter V8 design, so it was easy enough to bring it to 350-hp Corvette LS1 output. Also shared with Corvette are GTO's six-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions. The Monaro’s final drive was changed to a peppier 3:46:1 ratio for the GTO, but the rest of the drivetrain, including its limited-slip differential, was left as it came from Australia. Pontiac engineers did however, tune the Monaro’s macpherson-strut front and semi-trailing-arm rear suspension to suit GTO’s more sporting role.
As can be expected for something propelled by 365 lb-ft of good old American-V8 torque, GTO’s acceleration is certain to produce grins. Speed builds with dramatic quickness from launch right on up into triple-digit speeds. Unlike muscle cars of yore, this one has the benefit of traction control, GM’s throttle-feedback setup that slaps the gas pedal against your right foot whenever it’s active. This action can be interpreted as letting you know the system is at work or as a barb designed to annoy you to the point of switching traction control off altogether, depending on what degree of hooliganism you bring to the experience. Real muscle car gods will of course shut it off before even rolling a foot; on all but glossy-wet pavement, the rear end stays securely planted unless you deliberately bury your foot in the throttle.
But hammering your sole way down onto GTO’s loud pedal is a temptation hard to resist in any weather. Besides the hearty acceleration, the car further encourages such leadfootedness with its perfect muscle-car exhaust tone. A deep, rich rumble at idle, it announces from the minute you turn the key that this is no V6-motivated pretender. Let the tach climb to about four-thou in a series of twisties and that sweet sonority transports your mind to yesteryear Trans-Am shootouts at Mid-Ohio, or NASCAR stockers slugging it out Riverside.
On the highway, GTO’s engine settles down to a satisfying, effortless-sounding lope; there’s gobs of power still left untapped in 70-mph cruising. Punch it at those sorts of speeds and you’re greeted with a reasonably prompt downshift of the automatic transmission and the sight of any roadborne pests instantly shrinking in your rearview mirror. Minimal wind and road noise further the sense of relaxing calm at long-distance velocities.
Although such straight-line cruising provides plenty of satisfaction, the real fun comes when you pull off to work the back roads. There’s plenty of grip for tight, fast maneuvering and quick transitions, despite the somewhat narrow 245-profile tires. (Similar V8 hotties such as Mustang Cobra and base-model C5 Corvettes put their power down through 275s.) GTO’s general handling bias is understeer, but not annoyingly so; in 360-degree skidpad-type maneuvers, the car stays impressively balanced. As speed builds, grip gradually gives way front tires first, with plenty of warning. Letting off the gas mid-corner at the limits allows this understeer to scrub off predictably, although doing so brings little or no lift-throttle oversteer.
GTO’s steering is impressive, with the only quibbles being that the ratio is perhaps a tad slow for what the rest of the solid-performing chassis is capable of, and that there’s a smidgeon of on-center vagueness at speed. Those complaints, however, are more than offset by pleasing weightiness and confidence-inspiring road feel.
In hard cornering, one might expect a big midsize like GTO to heel over quite a bit. But instead, there’s only modest body lean, enhancing the car’s overall feeling of controlled competence. GTO’s impressively rigid structure undoubtedly has a lot to do with this. What’s more, the brakes are well up to the task of reigning in the considerable energy that can be generated by this car’s potent engine and chassis. Hard braking at speed slows the car quickly with little drama, aided by a firm pedal feel that allows easy modulation.
Although obviously aimed at street duty, GTO isn’t averse to working a road course either. It turned out that the good handling this car displays on public roads carries over well to the more intense track environment, as we found out at Road America. Unlike the automatic-transmission car we drove on the street, our track tester had the six-speed manual transmission.
But while underscoring its competent handling, our track test also brought out a disappointing paradox built into the GTO. Despite having a chassis, body structure, and engine that make it well-suited to fast, winding high-performance work, certain interior details vehemently strive against such activity: There’s no left-foot dead pedal to help drivers support themselves in rapid cornering; the throttle and brake pedals are too far apart for easy heel-and-toe work; the tall, sloppy shifter has long throws; and the hard, angular steering-wheel spokes make it very uncomfortable to pivot the wheel with thumbs properly nestled in the nine and three positions.
While not enough to ruin the experience, these gaffes add up to force an almost
comical thrashing about the cockpit while proceeding around the track -- left
leg struggling to find support, right leg jerking and stabbing to catch the
throttle while braking, right hand swinging in big, wild sweeps while searching
for the intended gear.
Nonetheless, these complaints simply point to the fact that all-out-limits handling wasn’t a big part of the GTO’s design brief. The upside to this is evidenced in how comfortably the car cushions the punishment of typical broken Midwest streets. GTO’s ride is never harsh or pounding, despite the firm spring rates you’d expect in a performance car. Big bumps register prominently in the cabin, but normal road imperfections are met with the sort of stable, heavy feeling usually associated more with good near-luxury sedans than with brawny muscle cars.
Complementing that impression of solid heft is our test car’s generally good build quality; there’s nary a squeak or rattle, even over rough pavement. The only shortcomings inside are minor ones, most obviously the climate controls that betray their nice, tactile rubber grips by having a weak, plasticky action when you rotate them. Materials used throughout the cabin are pleasing, with good-quality leather, attractive suede panels, and decent-looking plastic finishes set off by stylish simulated metal trim.
Storage space is limited, with a trunk that’s startlingly small considering the car’s generous exterior dimensions. It also lacks an interior pass-through or fold down seats. Fortunately, the trunk is the only tight space in the cabin. Driver and front passenger enjoy comfortable, supportive seats with plenty of head and leg room for six footers. The back seats are similarly comfortable with a shape that mimics the big-bolstered-bucket design of the fronts. Anyone taller than about six-feet will probably have to duck their head a bit while riding in the aft compartment, but not unusually so for a sporty coupe. And, unlike most such cars, GTO offers plenty of knee room for long-legged backseaters -- a happy result of the car’s longish 109.8-inch wheelbase.
Add all these things up and you have a hot performance car that’s easy to live with. True, this new GTO doesn’t have quite the wild hairiness of its storied forebears. But in letting go of some of that animal rawness, this latest incarnation of Pontiac’s performance flagship gains enough comfort, quietness, and safety for effortless everyday use. And yet it still retains plenty of burly V8 thrills for when you’re in the mood. Factor in a sticker price of just under $32,000 and you’ve got a sound performance-car value.
Given that, however, it may seem a bit surprising that GTO sales have been much lower than Pontiac’s already modest initial projections. Industry experts blame the car’s understated style, particularly in its exterior design. And that’s a point worth noting, with how little was done to the car’s soft, 1990s styling in the rush to build a “GTO.”
Still, it’s hard to come away from a test drive not thinking that all those folks holding out for hood scoops and big bright graphics don’t know what they’re missing.