How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

Pontiacs of the 1980s

The 1982 Pontiac J2000 was Pontiac's version of a front-wheeldrive, J-body subcompact.

Vying with the 6000 for divisional sales leadership was Pontiac's version of the front-drive J-body subcompact, which succeeded the old rear-drive Sunbird for 1982. At first, the name seemed to change more than the car, which debuted as J2000, then evolved as the 2000 (1983), 2000 Sunbird (1984), and finally just Sunbird again.

Pontiac had gotten into "alphamumeric" designations under Hoglund's immediate predecessor, Robert C. Stempel (named GM president in 1987 and chairman in 1990), but eventually backed away from them after buyers found them confusing.


There was no confusion about the cars, which were much like Chevy's Cavaliers down to the same body styles -- including a convertible from 1983. Though Chevy's 2.0-liter over- head-valve four was available for a time, Pontiac emphasized an Opel-designed overhead-cam engine imported from GM of Brazil. That engine became standard for 1983, with throttle-body injection and 84 bhp from 1.8 liters (109 cid), followed by a 150-bhp turbocharged option with port injection. Both versions grew to 2.0 liters for 1987, good for respective horse­power of 96 and 165.

Three trims were offered through 1985: base, plush LE, and sporty SE. The LE was canceled for '86, when turbocharged GTs arrived with a new front end highlighted by hidden headlamps. The 1988 GTs were trimmed to just convertible and coupe, the latter a restyled slantback two-door also offered in SE form. A new dashboard was the big event for '89.

By 1990, Sunbird and Cavalier were the only two J-cars left from the original five, and neither showed signs of going away. Pontiac kept Sunbird going with a handsome restyle featuring a smoother hidden-headlamp nose and various lower-body addenda for SE and GT coupes; the 1990 convertible came only as a cheaper but less-sporting LE.

With so much variety, plus attractive prices only a bit above Cavalier's, the 2000/Sunbird garnered well over 100,000 sales in most years, including a record 170,000-plus for '84. Demand remained healthy right through 1990, when output totaled just under 145,000.

As at Buick and Olds, the J-car was the basis for a new compact Pontiac to replace the unloved X-body after 1984. Resurrecting the Grand Am name, this rendition of the 103.4-inch-wheelbase N-body design promptly outsold its divisional cousins by emphasizing handling options and sporty appointments in the European mold. Demand was strong: more than 82,500 of the debut 1985 coupes, a stunning 223,000 coupes and sedans for 1986.

This Grand Am was the lifeblood of Pontiac dealers, accounting for better than 235,000 orders each model year through 1989 despite a constant stream of new competition. Not until the market turned difficult in 1990 did Grand Am sales dip below 200,000 -- and then not by much.

Again seeking individuality, Pontiac proffered a more overtly sporting SE in addition to the expected plain and luxury Grand Ams. The division also varied engines, making Sunbird's turbo-four a 1987 option, then replacing the original 3.0-liter Buick V-6 option with GM's new 150-bhp "Quad-4," America's first postwar production engine with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.

Buyers seeking a smaller sports sedan had every reason to look closely at Grand Am SE. Its monochrome exterior with color-keyed wheels, front spoiler, and perimeter lower-body extensions was aggressive but not childish. A well-planned cockpit, assured handling, comfortable ride, and brisk performance completed the package. As with the STE, Pontiac again seemed able to do more with a shared platform than either Buick or Oldsmobile, at least as far as enthusiasts were concerned.

The same could be said for the first front-drive Bonneville, unveiled for 1987 on the 110.8-inch-wheelbase H-body platform of the previous year's new Buick LeSabre and Olds Delta 88. Pontiac designers strove mightily to make this one different, too, and succeeded handsomely. There wasn't much they could do about the boxy roofline, but much smoother front and rear ends set Bonneville cleanly apart from its corporate cousins.

Here, too, there was a sporty SE, an option group with uprated suspension, larger wheels and tires, mellow exhaust, less exterior chrome, console-mount shifter for the mandatory four-speed automatic transaxle, a shorter final drive for snappier step-off, and a full set of large, legible gauges, including tach­ometer. With all this, you might forget the SE used the same 150-bhp 3.8-liter (231-cid) V-6 as base and LE Bonnevilles.

An improved 165-bhp engine arrived for 1988, when Pontiac went a bit over the top with a new top-line Bonneville SSE. It was visually contrived, with body-color wheels, grille, decklid spoiler, and rocker skirting set off by a gaudy grille medallion. More-worthy standards ran to GM/Teves antilock brakes (optional on other Bonnevilles for 1989-90), an electronic variable-damping system, and a leather-lined interior with multi­adjustable power bucket seats.

Still, most critics felt the more modestly trimmed SE a better buy: less costly, smoother-riding, slightly quieter to both ears and eyes. The public generally agreed, but liked all the new Bonnies to the tune of some 120,000 sales in 1987 and 108,000 in 1988 -- not far behind LeSabre and Delta despite lacking their coupe body style.

Only detail changes occurred for 1990, but the market was sagging and Bonneville demand skidded to just under 86,000 for the model year, down from some 109,000.

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

For more on the amazing Pontiac, old and new, see:

  • Pontiac New Car Reviews and Prices
  • Pontiac Used Car Reviews and Prices