The Pontiac Grand Am

Review Notes: Pontiac Grand Am
Personality Comfortable, sporty family sedan or midsized coupe
Unusual features Oil life indicator
Above Average In: Acceleration, sporty feel
Needs Work In: Interior space for price, rear seat access (coupe)

The Pontiac Grand Am is a sport-flavored mid-sized car, offering good value and a balance of features which people have found very attractive, if sales figures are any indication. The appearance is moderately aggressive and sporty, inside and out. The cockpit has flair, but is very livable and not too kitschy, avoiding the excesses of, say, the Audi TT. All instruments and gauges are large and easy to use, including a good stereo. The huge vent openings help to heat or cool the car quickly and quietly.

The powertrain also has a sporty flavor while remaining practical. Our four-cylinder model had plenty of pep, yet managed 24 miles per gallon city, 32 highway (EPA), with an automatic transmission. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, and we can recommend it for the extra zoom and gas mileage. But the automatic is both smooth and responsive, not hiding shifts like a minivan or luxury car, but not allowing them to be jarring, either. Rapid, responsive downshifting on demand helps to keep the engine in its peak horsepower range, so that the car feels quick no matter what speed you are going - acceleration is always ready and waiting. The only drawback of the 2.2 liter, dual-cam powerplant is its sewing-machine noise, and some owners will make adjustments to the exhaust. (If you've heard about the 2.2 liter engine in prior Grand Ams, fear not - this one is a more powerful design.)

We also had a Grand Am with GM's venerable 3.4 liter V6 engine, which adds considerably to the power and cuts gas mileage down to a reasonable 20 city, 29 highway - roughly 3 mpg less. Again, the automatic transmission was smooth and quiet. The V6 moves the Grand Am quickly, lending substance to the sporty look, making quiet but throaty noises more reminiscient of the Firebird than a Camry. The 3.4 warms up very quickly and has a smooth idle and response.

GM's usual host of advanced technology features, such as an oil life monitor which can save the owner from doing far too many (or, more rarely, too few) oil changes, is subtle and well implemented. Automatic headlights cannot be shut off entirely, but the headlights can be put on manually, or shut off manually by using the parking lights instead. Antitheft systems, like the oil life monitor, are standard and subtle. Traction control can be shut off with the press of a button (oddly labelled "ETS.")

The stereo is feature-laden but still easy to use. We were happy with the XM satellite radio option, which is an additional $325 plus a monthly subscription fee. In return, you get over a hundred channels with a variety of music and, in many cases, no ads. Given that nearly all radio stations play a very short group of songs from a centrally programmed list, XM Radio will be a very satisfying addition for people who spend a lot of time in their car - or who like music. The XM system is well integrated into the radio, treated as just another band. You can use presets, and you can also see the artist and song by pressing a button. You can also move from channel to channel using the steering wheel controls.

Despite the affordable price, the Grand Am is available with an advanced telematics system, OnStar, which brings the driver into immediate touch with emergency services or an optional concierge who knows where you are and can help you to get where you're going.

We also liked the standard instrument panel-mounted ignition, which is more convenient and easier to find than the standard steering wheel position. We suspect it's also more secure, and cheaper to replace since the airbag isn't so close.

While the Grand Am SE1 coupe we tested retails for a reasonable $18,110, that's before options, and our test vehicle had $3,000 worth of options - power windows, remote entry, Monsoon stereo, automatic transmission, and power sunroof (it doesn't slide open, though - just slides up a little to vent if desired). That's competitive with offerings from other makers, including Toyota, Honda, and Chrysler. Our SE2 sedan started at $21,000, including the V6, automatic, antilock brakes, power locks and windows, wheel-mounted stereo control, air, power driver's seat, tach, and other goodies, for a competitive package overall. The XM radio was only $325, but there's also a subscription fee. Our model had the "solid value" package, costing $1,345 after discount, with good looking chrome-covered aluminum wheels, a Monsoon eight-speaker stereo (not that much better than GM's standard), moonroof, and leather seats. That package doesn't seem as worthwhile as the standard SE2.

Handling is better than we expected, especially given the smooth ride. While the tires tend to squeal during hard turns and starts, there is always a feeling of stability which is pleasant. Visibility is very good in all directions, making it easier to change lanes. The suspension easily deals with bumps and rough roads, giving a cushy ride which seems incompatible with the sporty handling. Torque steer shows up with the V6.

The cruise control is mounted on the steering wheel, an unusual if welcome move for General Motors. There are three cup holders, one of which be filled with an ashtray, two of which should not be trusted with liquids around a sharp turn. All surfaces that you could keep coins on are lined with soft rubber, which reduces noise in real-world conditions. There are map pockets on the doors, but these are clearly not meant to be used for much, since they are very shallow.

The coupe doors are quite large, and access to the rear is blocked by the seat belt (seat belts can be removed from their on-seat loops for better access, but that makes it much harder for the driver to grab them and put them on). The seats do easily slide forward, so rear access is not difficult despite the belts. The seats generally return to their correct positions, though the passenger seat returns to a default angle. As far as coupes go, we found the Grand Am to be very livable. The sedan is even more livable, for those who can deal with having four doors. It's nice to have a choice.

The trunk is capacious and, thanks to a large opening, easy to use. Rear seats fold forward for even more cargo space. It's easy to attach child seat tether straps in the rear seats.

The Grand Am is not the most exciting car on the road, but it is also not dull. It can be driven hard or soft, and is responsive either way. Despite its sporty look, the Grand Am's versatility and ease of use make it a good deal, particularly in these days of heavy incentives. If you were about to plunk down a deposit on an Accord Coupe (or an Accord) or Mustang, we recommend trying out the Grand Am first. (Some other, less sporty, options include the Mitsubishi Galant, Hyundai Sonata, and Toyota Camry and Solara.)