Pontiac Grand Prix GT Car Reviews

Review Notes: Pontiac Grand Prix GT
Personality Quick, technology-laden sedan - GTP, rocket-powered sedan
Above Average for Price: Gadgetry
Needs Work In: Cruise
Driveway Test Passed
Written by David Zatz

The Pontiac Grand Prix sits in that busy mid-$20K price range, filled with diverse sedans like the cavernous Dodge Intrepid and Chevy Impala - two vehicles of similar size and absolutely different character - not to mention the small but luxury-cued Hyundai XG350, sporty and stylish PT Cruiser, and a host of other vehicles from just about every major automaker. It maintains its own personality, through a different look and feel, surprisingly good gas mileage ratings, an optional supercharged engine, and a healthy dose of electronic gadgets.

The gadgets run the range of the usual GM tech: OnStar (a wonderful system that you should definitely get if you can afford it), oil life monitoring that can help pay for OnStar by, in many cases, doubling the length of time between oil changes, a basic trip computer which, if you get the $600 heads-up display in the info-tech package, turns into a fairly extensive trip computer, PassKey electronic theft deterrent, ABS with enhanced traction control, steering wheel radio controls, and remote keyless entry. We found the heads-up display (which projects important information, such as your speed, onto the windshield so it is easy to read) to be very well-designed, temporarily interrupting the display to bring transitional information (new radio station, cruise control locked, etc) without losing the speedometer display. The system is easy to adjust in both position and brightness, and is brighter than other heads-up displays we've seen.

The trip computer, with its displays of average time and speed, date, current auto conditions (e.g. transmission temperature and oil life remaining), is unusually easy to use and to read, with five well-marked control buttons. Some of these options are standard, particularly on the high end GTP model (we tested the middle-of-the-range GT). A number of preferences for things such as door locking, automatic headlight functions, and the like can be easily set through the trip computer, which is a good way to make the car conform to the owner's particular needs without having to visit a dealership.

Our usual gripe with GM vehicles, an absurd cruise control system and overloaded left stalk, seems to be getting addressed over time. The Grand Prix has a Japanese-style extra right-hand stalk for the cruise, with a button that stays depressed so that the system is active until you shut it off, not just until you start the car again. It is easy to use and a real improvement over the old style. The left and stalk is much more manageable without having the cruise on it. Most other controls are clear and easy to use; we prefer the controls on the standard Delco stereo to the optional Monsoon, and the extra sound is not worth the extra cost, unless you truly blast the volume and like extra-heavy bass. The base stereo provides good sound and strong bass, just not as strong.

The dashboard looks fairly cheap, with vast expanses of plastic and gauges rimmed with dull silver paint, sporting a computer-style typeface which makes the speeds hard to read (fortunately, our test car had the heads-up display). Gauges are large, which is good, and easily switch to metric scales, which is also good. Backlighting is a fashionable red which some may find annoying, and which makes red warning lights hard to find. The brake light, incidentally, can be hidden by the steering wheel. The speedometer and tachometer are both massive, which would help make them particularly easy to use if not for the peculiar typeface, and the temperature and gas gauges are large enough to be easily read. The shifter also has large indicators and is easy to use.

For a sporty look, the Grand Prix orients all controls toward the driver, which is nice when you're driving on your own - it is both convenient and a welcome change from the flatness of many other cars - but not so nice if you're the passenger and you're trying to work the radio or the trip computer. We also like the ignition key in the dashboard, which is easier to find and use than the column mount, and cheaper to replace if needed.

The Grand Prix's automatic headlights work well, especially considering our low expectations. Headlights went on immediately at night, but not every time we passed under a bridge or a cloud. We could override them manually on a trip by trip basis (shutting off, that is - you are always allowed to turn them on), and when we did, the trip computer would remind us "headlights suggested." The massive fog lights actually seemed to be designed to help visibility in fog, and must be turned on again each time the car is restarted - a feature we wish all automakers had.

Inside the passenger compartment, the Grand Prix is barely larger than a Dodge Neon, and considerably smaller than the Chevrolet Impala based on the same platform. There is enough space for four to fit comfortably, while five will fit on moderately long trips. The front has one nice, deep cupholder and one moderately deep one, as well as map pockets, a sunglass bin in the roof, and a covered center console. The rear is not so lucky, though a tray table device is attached to the back of the passenger seat - other than that, there are no cupholders, an odd choice in a family-sized and family-priced car. On the lighter side, the trunk is fairly large, and the rear doors open nice and wide for easy access. The power outlet is by the center console, a more convenient place than the dashboard for nonsmokers, and there is a shelf underneath the climate control for sunglasses, highway passes, and such. The climate control section includes all relevant buttons - a/c, seat warmers, rear defroster, etc.

Interior lighting is bright and useful, with a separate light for each seat, making the interior easy to see despite the dark grey leather of the seats (in our test car) - once you find the rheostat. The all the lights can be activated simply by hitting them. Visibility outside the car is surprisingly good, too, especially given the large rear pillars. The front seats' headrests have holes for better reverse visibility. Rear passengers, though, do not get adjustable headrests at all, which could be a safety issue for taller passengers.

The only transmission is a four-speed automatic, controlled by a console shifter. The automatic shifts smoothly and seems to always be in the right gear. There are three engines, matched to the trim levels: the SE gets the 3.1, the GT gets the 200 horse 3.8, and the GTP gets a supercharged 3.8. Each of these engines has been around long enough to have any sharp engines worn down, which is another way of saying they should be reliable. The 3.1 is adequate, while the 3.8 provides good acceleration (around 8 seconds 0-60) and the GTP provides that driving excitement you hear about in Pontiac commercials. All get relatively good mileage, according to the EPA (we weren't as successful), though the supercharged version requires premium gas. The middle of the pack, the 3.8, provides a balance between power and economy - defining economy as the purchase price as well as being able to use regular gas; the ability to get both acceleration and gas mileage is a result of intelligent gearing and lots of low-end torque. The GTP is the status pick and the most fun of the three models, and includes a lot of the options we'd normally recommend (such as OnStar).

The parking brake is foot-operated, so anyone can easily set the brake firmly in place, but it has the annoying push-to-release system which can make it hard to set at times, and doesn't go down very far before it grips. Other than that, brake feel is good and stops are sure.

The GT starts at $24,255 (including destination), though at the time of writing rebates were running around $4,000. The SE model is several thousand dollars less, making it a much better deal if you can live with the smaller, but still adequate, 3.1 liter engine. Standard features on our GT included theft protection, remote unlocking, power doors, windows, and front seat, rear defogger, air, steering wheel radio controls, cruise, tilt wheel, a three-button driver information center, fog lights, a spoiler, and aluminum wheels. Optional features on our car were leather trim (with heated seats) at $800, the Monsoon 245 watt 9-speaker system at $700, the five-button trip computer and heads-up display ($600), and XM satellite-radio ready stereo at $325. Fully loaded, the cost was $26,710 list, though we suspect a dealer would let one go for just over $20,000 after rebates and haggling. That puts it square into Camry and Accord territory, and yes, we do prefer driving the Grand Prix to an Accord.

Handling is surprisingly good, with zippy turns that would frustrate an Impala and many other competitors, despite the generally soft, forgiving ride which makes it seem as though there are no bad roads. The Grand Prix is not a sports car, but it is surprisingly competent especially given its size and comfort level. The responsive 3.8 liter engine does make the tires squeal if you hit the pedal too hard from a start, though it's hard to say whether that's a matter of gearing, tires, or simply a nicely torque-heavy engine.

Overall, the Pontiac Grand Prix is a nice choice in a crowded field. The GTP is set apart from its rivals by the supercharged V6 option, while the GT and SE are civilized yet sporty looking. Those looking for something large might want to consider a Dodge Intrepid, which also handles well and has a similar engine range to the SE and GT, or the Chrysler 300M, which looks much more luxurious inside, also packs good handling, and goes up against the GTP. The Chevrolet Impala is also a sound choice, endorsed by many police departments for its durability and overall combination of performance, economy, and space. On the other side of the street, the Toyota Camry is similarly sized and while not especially exciting, does have a strong record of reliability and resale value.

The Grand Prix is certainly worth a look, especially now that its plastic panels have fallen by the wayside and its suspension has markedly improved. However, if you really need more space, or aren't fond of that bright red backlighting, you do have a lot of options.