Even with 80 percent new parts, the redesigned-for-2004 Pontiac Grand Prix doesn't stray far from the previous generation.
The styling on the new model is unmistakably Pontiac, though substantially cleaned up because Pontiac removed bodyside cladding.
The interior has a driver cockpit feel, like the previous Grand Prix. But the effect now is less busy and some materials, especially the ceiling liner, look and feel richer.
Horsepower in the uplevel supercharged V6 is improved, too, and a new optional feature on the Grand Prix adds shift paddles to the steering wheel a la Formula One cars.
Pontiac general manager Lynn Myers said the new model, which has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge of $22,395, adds a contemporary feel to one of the great American nameplates. Pontiac's Grand Prix dates to the 1960s and America's youthful muscle car era.
Today's Grand Prix, a front-drive sedan, can seat five and is most likely to be purchased by a married man or woman in his or her mid-40s.
Pontiac didn't change the Grand Prix platform in this most recent redesign. And the basic suspension geometry remains with front MacPherson struts and rear independent tri-link.
But adjustments in anti-roll bars and larger diameter tires -- 16- and 17-inchers now -- do wonders for the chassis, making the car feel impressively sturdy and stiff.
And while the ride in the test Grand Prix GTP model with optional competition package that added performance-tuned suspension and those 17-inch wheels and tires was a bit harsh at times on rough urban pavement, I never hesitated to make emergency maneuvers.
Why? Because the Grand Prix, a substantial-sized car at 16.5 feet long, could swerve around objects and get back in line with a predictability that inspired confidence.
The competition package adds a stability control system called StabiliTrak Sport that's tailored to allow a bit of sporty driving during cornering.
The package also upgrades the rack-and-pinion steering in the Grand Prix to General Motors' Magnasteer II, which varies steering effort needed with lateral acceleration changes as well as with vehicle speed.
Next to the chassis and body's buttoned-down, modern feel, the new Grand Prix impresses with its considerable power at the ready.
There are only two engines now, both V6s.
The base is a 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated Series III version V6 capable of the same 200 horses and 225 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm that came from the Series II version of this engine last year.
But the uplevel supercharged, 3.8-liter Series III V6 has 20 more horsepower, going from 240 to 260.
Torque remains at 280 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm and provides ready grunt to get this 3,500-pound four-door moving quickly. Gosh, I can't recall the number of times I squealed the tires without trying.
In comparison, the competing Nissan Altima with naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 puts out 245 horsepower and 246 foot-pounds of torque at 4,400 rpm.
Highlighted in television ads for the new Grand Prix is an optional TAPshift -- for Touch Activated Power -- feature that adds a bit of fun to the usual manumatic, shift-it-yourself automatic transmission.
TAPshift puts round paddles at the steering wheel so a quick push of a finger moves the transmission from gear to gear, and there's no clutch pedal to depress.
Problem is, though, the Grand Prix retains just a four-speed transmission, so the fun isn't as great as it could be with more gears, and the mechanism seems a bit gimmicky because it doesn't seem to make the shifts any quicker or smoother.
Pontiac also includes an annoying chime to alert a driver when he tries to shift when the engine might be compromised or damaged. It isn't exactly the kind of thing you'd expect in this type of sporty car.
Meanwhile, the Altima with V6 is offered with a five-speed manual for authentic shift-it-yourself driving.
Note that premium gasoline is the recommended fuel for the supercharged V6 in the Grand Prix, and fuel economy isn't great.
I managed 18.2 miles a gallon in combined city and highway travel, which isn't much better than some sport utilities get.
I liked the front seat much better than the back seat in the Grand Prix.
The leather-trimmed separate seats in front provided some support and had power adjustments so I could position myself for a decent view out over the hood.
In back, though, I sat low on a bench seat cushion that just seemed to sag under my weight.
Legroom back there was an acceptable 36.2 inches -- just 0.2 inch less than in the Altima but nearly 2 inches less than the 38.1 inches in the back seat of the Chrysler Sebring sedan.
But I sat so low, the Grand Prix's sheet metal swooped past my face at cheek level, making the rear door window seem small.
I did appreciate that the Grand Prix's rear doors open wide -- a full 82 degrees.
Pontiac added extra sound insulation and thicker window glass in the new Grand Prix for a quieter ride than before.
But the sporty tires still conveyed a lot of road noise on certain road surfaces.
And I couldn't help but feel the strange sheet metal ripples at the back of the car, by the tail lamps, hadn't been finished well in its design.
I liked that all the knobs and controls were within easy reach for me. And the premium audio with Monsoon stereo put out strong, clear sounds.
Even better, the test car had the optional XM satellite radio with 100 special stations offering everything from children's fare to NASCAR programming.
Pontiac reports that half the targeted buyers of the new Grand Prix are women, whose average age is the mid-40s, with annual household income in the $65,000 range. Most will be married.
This is not too different from buyers of the previous generation, 2003 Grand Prix.
The 2003 Nissan Altima with V6 has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $23,189. This is for a manual transmission model.
The 2004 Sebring sedan starts at $19,265.
There are no reported crash test results from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for the 2004 Grand Prix.
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