Overshadowing Grand Prix's renewal for 2004 was the surprising return of the fabled GTO. Aside from rear-wheel drive and thumping V-8 power, it shared nothing with the legendary "Goats" of yore, being an Americanized version of the four-seat Holden Monaro coupe at GM's Australian branch.
Bob Lutz had taken a close look at the Monaro and decided it was just the thing to liven up Pontiac's image and sales. And with Firebird recently deceased, what better name for a new performance Poncho in the classic mold? About the only changes needed were a twin-port Pontiac face, plus a better-protected fuel tank and other adjustments to satisfy U.S. regulations.
The new GTO wasn't that new. Though Holden had devised the two-door Monaro as an Aussie-market exclusive, it started with the GM V-car platform originated with the German Opel Omega sedan, which had come to the U.S. as the 1997-2001 Cadillac Catera. But Americans were generally unaware of this lineage, and it didn't matter anyway.
In all respects but two, the Australian-built GTO lived up to its hallowed name. It was rather large for a new-century intermediate, standing 189.8 inches long, 72.5 inches wide, and 54.9 inches tall on a 109.8-inch wheelbase. Curb weight was a burly 3770 pounds, but that was no strain for the mandatory 5.7-liter LS1 V-8 packing 350 bhp and 365 pound-feet of torque on 10.1:1 compression. A four-speed automatic transmission was standard; $695 bought a sturdy Tremec T56 six-speed manual, the sole option for debut '04.
The automatic GTO was saddled with a $1000 Gas-Guzzler Tax, but Lutz waved it through, figuring muscle car die-hards wouldn't be denied. Suspension was coil-spring independent with front struts, rear semitrailing arms and stout antiroll bars, all specially tuned. Handsome 18-inch five-spoke alloy wheels wearing 245/45ZR performance rubber enclosed big disc brakes with antilock control. Traction control was also standard, but no antiskid system was offered, nor were side airbags.
But the $32,000 list price included most everything else: leather upholstery, power seats, remote keyless locking, trip computer, premium Blaupunkt audio with CD changer, rear-deck spoiler and more. In all, the reborn GTO was, a high-performance bargain.
Acceleration was predictably vivid. Road & Track's manual-equipped '04 clocked 0-60 mph in 5.3 seconds, 0-100 in 12.9, and a standing quarter-mile of 13.8 seconds at 103.8 mph, stats worthy of the fastest showroom Goats of the muscle car era.
Yet this was no cart-sprung, limp-wristed rocket that went to pieces on twisty roads. On the contrary, the new GTO provided assured Euro-style handling with little cornering lean, fine grip -- 0.81g on the R&T skidpad -- and clear, properly weighted steering, plus braking power and mechanical refinement the old "Great Ones" never knew. In fact, this car felt like a posh big BMW coupe that played a '60s-style Detroit soundtrack.
With all this, the new GTO couldn't miss, yet it did. For those old enough to remember the originals and even for some critics, this reincarnation was just too quiet, too comfortable, too cultured to be a bona fide American performance car. And most everyone thought the styling was nowhere -- "Lusty performance disguised in a phone-company fleet car," as Car and Driver huffed.
Even Jim Wangers, who'd helped father the first GTO and generally liked the new one, had reservations. As he told AutoWeek: "It isn't what I call an 'Oh, my God.' The fact that they don't have a hood scoop is critical. According to GM, would have interrupted the airflow, which would mean certification on its own [with the EPA]. Somebody said, 'We were thinking of putting a decal hood scoop on it,' which would be flat. That would be asking for criticism."
The criticism was abundant enough, and Pontiac strained to move fewer than 14,000 GTOs from the autumn '03 launch through calendar '04, a bummer given an 18,000 per-annum target. Hefty rebates were applied mere weeks after introduction, but they didn't work. For all his global industry experience and undoubted taste, Lutz had misread the market.
Not so Pontiac's old friend SLP Engineering, which in late 2003 announced a trio of "tuner" kits with 370, 389, or 421 bhp, plus a twin-scoop hood and other visual testosterone added. SLP wanted to market these under the Judge name, recalling the like-named 1969 GTO option, but GM fought the idea.
Answering the chorus of complaints, Pontiac gave the 2005 GTO not one hood scoop but two. They didn't connect to a power-boosting Ram Air setup, but they did help cool a more potent V-8: the 6.0-liter/364-cid LS2 from the brand-new C6 Corvette. Outputs rose to 400 bhp and 395 pound-feet, numbers that also applied with the scoopless engine lid available as a no-cost option.
The bigger engine trimmed a few tenths from acceleration times but did nothing for sales, which dropped below 11,600 for the calendar year.
The 2006 edition was unchanged save a few cosmetic details and newly optional 18-inch wheels. Demand remained sluggish and higher gas prices didn't help. With saving cash now imperative for GM, the GTO was dropped at the end of the model year. By that point, planners were eyeing a new Holden-developed platform intended for a variety of future rear-drive cars, giving hope that GTO will rise again, perhaps sharing underpinnings with a new Camaro.
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