Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pontiac G8

I have been excited about the Pontiac G8 since the official word came that GM would be importing a left-hand drive version of its Australian subsidary's Holden Commodore to the United States as a Pontiac. This isn't the first time GM has played the Holden-as-Pontiac card: the 2004-06 Pontiac GTO was a thinly disguised Holden Monaro, a coupe version of the previous-generation Commodore. I lusted mightily after the Australian Goat; can the new Pontiac sports sedan with an Aussie accent inspire the same desire?

FIrst things first: the exterior. Pontiac has long billed itself the Excitement division of General Motors, and the slightly revised sheetmetal of the G8 - only the nose is different, everything else is pure Holden - is meant to reflect that. Unfortunately, twin fake hood scoops don't say "Excitement" to me. They say, "well, the styling department had to justify its existence somehow, and anyway it worked on the GTO, right? Right?" (Wrong.) Pontiac's trademark two-nostril grille is inoffensive enough, but on the whole, this is one Holden that could have done without a nose job. The rest of the body is muscular without being butch; it's aggressive but not menacing. Think of an Audi that's shed the curves by hitting the gym, or a BMW without Bangle and with biceps.

Pontiac certainly wants you to think Audi or BMW 5-series, at least to hear the salesman's pitch, and it's not far off: this is a big car, inside and out. It's five inches longer and two inches wider than a 5-series, and that translates into extra interior space - two more inches of shoulder room front and rear, plus one more inch of legroom front and 3.4 inches rear. That may not sound like much, but it means that four adults should be able to cover long distances in the G8 in comfort.

And covering long distances is what this car is all about. Although billed as a sports sedan, the G8 feels more like a grand tourer. While driving it, one phrase came to mind: effortless speed. GM offers buyers their choice of a 3.6-liter V-6 making 256 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque or a 6.0-liter V-8 making 361 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 model has a five-speed automatic transmission with a manumatic function; the V-8 gets six speeds, also with manumatic, although why you'd want a manumatic is anybody's guess. The sporting pretensions of the manumatic are just that, pretensions. If you want to be more involved with driving your car, get a manual transmission. Except you can't in the G8, at least not yet. My advice? Leave it in automatic mode, or wait for next year's GXP version, which will feature the Corvette's 402-hp LS3 engine and a six-speed manual.

As for the engine, I drove a V-6 model and can't imagine needing anything more: on the highway, the car rocketed to 88 mph without any serious encouragement, and would have kept going had I not a) realized how fast I was going, and b) decided discretion was the better part of valor. (As the salesman warned me, any tickets are your own.) On a winding back road, the car maintained speeds close to 70mph, again without any serious prodding. While I didn't get a chance to wring it out on a mountain road, the big rear-drive Pontiac felt poised and in control at all times over the curves I did take. As I said: effortless speed.

Almost too effortless. The Pontiac G8 is big, comfortable, and fast, a fine highway cruiser that handles well on the interstate, in the city, and over winding roads. It eats up the miles quickly and quietly, never breathing hard even at extra-legal speeds. It's not a car in which you can really explore the limits, at least not on public roads - it's just too easy to drive it fast.

And therein lies the problem, one the G8 shares with many modern cars: while the V-8 offers an extra hundred horses for less than three grand more, even the V-6 model has more power than you'll ever really use without becoming the star of "World's Scariest Police Chases." Sure, the G8 is a nice car, and at around $30,000 nicely equipped - $15,000 less than the BMW 5-series it's targeting - the Pontiac is a steal. But as a wise man once said, it's more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. The G8 is a fast car, a good car, and in its segment it's a bargain - but if Driving Excitement is what you're after, the G8 may not be your car. If, on the other hand, you're after a capable highway cruiser that can haul the passengers and the mail, if you want something a little out of the ordinary, if you want something with an accent that isn't German, Pontiac has your Holden.


Blogger Anon_e_mouse said...

Sounds like, in a few years, I'll have a reasonable choice of replacements for my Crown Vic... assuming GM can sell enough of them to senior citizens so that there's a nice, low mileage one available when I need one.

6:17 PM  

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