How Pontiac Works

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

1990s Pontiac Grand Am

The 1992 Pontiac Grand Ams were based on a new N-body platform.

The vintage-1985 Grand Am said goodbye after 1991, when it added base-trim price-leaders, plus standard antilock brakes for top-line SEs. The latter were touted as America's most affordable cars with ABS, even though stickers swelled more than $1300 to $16,000-plus.

Engines, carried over from 1990, started with the old 2.5-liter Iron Duke four providing 110 standard bhp in base and LE models. Available for LEs and ­included on SEs was the gruff but game Quad-4 with 160 bhp when tied to the optional three-speed automatic, 180 if mated to the linewide-standard five-speed manual. LEs, now midline Grand Ams, offered a Sport Performance option with SE-like styling and Quad-4 power.


A somewhat overdue redesign put 1992 Grand Ams on a fresh N-body platform along with Chevrolet's Corsica/Beretta, redone Buick Skylarks, and Oldsmobile's new Achievas. Wheelbase was untouched, but length grew by more than half a foot. Only SE and GT coupes and sedans returned.

Despite the general industry move to airbags, Grand Am persisted with door-mounted "automatic safety belts" and promoted linewide-standard ABS instead. Styling was sleeker but rather exaggerated, with heavy lower-body plastic cladding on GTs -- which Skylark and Achieva designers had to work around -- and a sleeker profile for coupes.

The redesign also shook things up under Grand Am hoods. The base Iron Duke stepped aside for a single-cam version of the Quad-4 dubbed Quad OHC, tuned for 120 bhp. The Quad-4 itself returned unchanged, but a V-6 was made available for the first time since 1987. This Buick-sourced pushrod 3.3-liter unit had the same 160 bhp as the automatic-transmission Quad-4, but also boasted greater low-speed torque that made a better match with the three-speed slushbox, the only choice offered.

The makeover spurred Grand Am to some 208,500 sales for '92. Second-year changes were predictably minor: an optional remote keyless-entry system, a standard battery-rundown protection feature, and four-cylinder engines made slightly quieter. The fours were still rather unrefined lumps and they managed to lose five bhp.

Sales approached 255,000 for 1994, when updates were relatively monumental: a standard driver-side airbag at last -- just as most rivals were getting dual airbags -- an available four-speed automatic transmission, and a 155-bhp 3.1-liter V-6 to replace the 160-horse 3.3. Leather upholstery was a new extra, and the sometimes-hated automatic door locks could now be set for automatic unlocking, sparing occupants the trouble of flicking a switch.

After a short three-year run, the Quad OHC was canceled for 1995 Grand Ams and a 150-bhp Quad-4 became the new base engine, adding "balance shafts" for smoother running but losing its High-Output variant. Despite being a virtual carryover other­wise, Grand Am continued on a rising sales track, nudging past 291,000 for the model year.

Modest cosmetic tweaks and standard dual airbags in a reworked dash marked the '96 models. As with the Sunfire and other cars that used it, the Quad-4 became a 2.4-liter Twin Cam, gaining internal refinements but no more horsepower. The old three-speed automatic was dropped, and traction control was a new bonus when the four-speed automatic was ordered. Grand Am then stood pat for two full years, awaiting another redesign.

The redesigned 1999 Grand Ams started sale in early '98. Coupes and sedans continued, but the lineup was more confusing, with each body style offered in base SE, SE1, and SE2 versions, plus sportier GT and GT1 trim.

Wheelbase lengthened 3.6 inches to 107, rangy for a compact. Overall length was little-changed, but width swelled almost three inches (to 70.4). Powertrains, alas, weren't much changed. SE2s and all GTs came with the hoary 3.4-liter pushrod V-6; ­others used the 2.4-liter Twin Cam until 2002, when they followed Sunbird to the newer 2.2-liter "L850" corporate four-cylinder, eventually known by the "Ecotec" name used in Europe, where it originated. Four-speed automatic remained the only transmission until 2000, after which four-cylinder models got a standard five-speed manual supplied by German gearbox specialist Getrag.

Grand Am styling was now much like Grand Prix's, but on a smaller scale and with lots of geegaws larded on. Car and Driver judged appearance "overwrought and exaggerated," especially on GTs. "Only the roof panel is devoid of scoops, spoilers, strakes, and other 'character' lines…Even the GT's five-spoke alloys are cluttered with little cartoonish speedline indentations on each spoke. One or two of these cues might be acceptable, but together they're too much."

The rest of the car wasn't enough. Despite a performance-sapping automatic, C/D's test GT sedan ran 0-60 in a brisk 7.7 seconds and scored well for handling, but lacked the poise and polish of most import rivals. Ride was generally judged good on any model, but noise levels were only average and workmanship needed, well, work.

Value was an asset, but that didn't offset all the debits for Consumer Guide®. Said CG's Auto 2000 issue: "Unless sporty looks are your top priority in a family compact, you'd be well advised to scout the competition." Many people did, and Grand Am sales fell steadily thereafter.

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

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