Pontiac G6

Pontiac G6 Pontiac G6
First Drive Review

Ostensibly a Grand Am replacement, the new G6 is more accurately the spiritual successor to Pontiac's 6000STE. Introduced in 1983, the 6000STE was a sports sedan that chased Audis and BMWs of the day while receiving nearly universal praise from the automotive press. The 6000STE was an important car to Pontiac because it gave credibility to its import-fighter pretense.

So here we are 22 years later, and Pontiac seemingly has let itself slide from being a genuine import alternative to a brand that put showy style ahead of mechanical substance. Despite our gripes about the ribbed-cladding division, Pontiac still managed to sell more than a million Grand Ams over the past five-and-a-half years. With the G6, Pontiac hopes to return to being a darling of the enthusiast press.

Built on GM's Epsilon architecture that also underpins the Saab 9-3 and Chevy Malibu, the G6's platform has the same basic suspension layout-struts up front and a four-link independent arrangement in back. The G6 is firmer than the Malibu but more forgiving than the 9-3. On the GT model, which comes standard with 17-inch aluminum wheels, the ride is compliant enough to soak up bad roads but stiff enough to stop any unnecessary bobbing.

On the street, the G6 corners flat and stays planted. Driven a bit more aggressively at GM's proving ground in Milford, Michigan, the G6 proved to be a resolute understeerer. No amount of throttle or even brake provocation could get the rear tires to come out and play. In our opinion, Pontiac made the unwitting mistake of bringing along a Mazda 6 s, a Honda Accord V-6, and a Nissan Altima 3.5SL. The move showed confidence in the G6, but the competition has lively, balanced handling that could be goaded into oversteer. Granted, the G6 will likely post better skidpad numbers than the Japanese cars, and most G6 drivers won't possess our driving habits, but the Pontiac lacks the chassis fluidity that makes the other cars involving. Steering feel is similarly dull. Pontiac claims it has resolved the vagaries of the electronic system, but the steering still gives no clue as to what the front tires are doing.

Although the Japanese competition packs powerful 24-valve V-6s, the G6 gets a pushrod 3.5-liter V-6. The 200-hp 3.5-liter has an excellent highway-fuel-economy rating-29 mpg-but it never feels strong. Part of the problem is the four-speed automatic; the gaps between the gears are inappropriately large. Engine revs drop precipitously at every shift, leaving you a desert away from the torque peak, which means you have to wait before you're back in the power band. There is a six-speed automatic on the horizon, part of the Ford/GM joint transmission venture, which should help matters significantly, but why do we always have to wait for the good stuff?

If you are patient and would like something a bit faster, Pontiac will offer the '06 GTP version of this car in the spring. It will differ from the GT by having 18-inch wheels shod with sticky summer tires (all-season tires will be a no-cost option), hydraulic power steering (our prototypes had electric power steering), stability control, an optional close-ratio six-speed manual, and a bored-out 240-hp version of the 3.5-liter engine, displacing 3.9 liters. Pontiac was kind enough to allow us to sample some early versions of the GTP, which felt like grippier GTs. The manual tranny works well, and the pedals are set perfectly for heel-and-toe downshifts. Still, the 3.9-liter does not feel much more powerful than the 3.5. Hopefully, production versions will feel like the full 240 horses are there.

Inside, the G6 tries hard to make up for the plasticky excesses of the Bonneville and Grand Prix. The overall design is restrained and closely mimics that of the Pontiac Vibe. As in the Vibe, chrome rings surround the backlit gauges and round air vents. Dash-top plastic is handsomely grained, and the material is rich and gloss-free. The radio, the HVAC controls, and the tilting and telescoping steering wheel are Malibu-spec and look underwhelming in an otherwise pleasant interior. The G6 has one of GM's best interiors, but it doesn't break any ground. Imitating the Vibe, which has been on the market since 2002, puts a three-year-old design into the G6. Clearly, this is a step up compared with the Grand Am, but it probably won't help the G6 when customers cross-shop the more contemporary Japanese competition.

Buyers will appreciate the full-size back seat. The 112.3-inch-long wheelbase provides a spacious rear bench with plenty of legroom. Even with the front seat occupied by a six-foot-five staffer affectionately called Tall Dave, there is enough room for a nearly six-foot-tall editor behind him. However, anyone in the back seat over six feet will hit his or her head against the rear glass, a product of the rakish roofline.

The roofline isn't the only rakish part of the exterior. The G6's wheels are pushed out to the corners and line up with the fenders as God intended. There is an aggressive, tense sweep to the stance that gives the impression the car is ready to pounce. The G6 has distinctive styling that, along with tight panel gaps, gives off a sophisticated, expensive aura.

Pricing will start just below $20,000 for the base four-cylinder G6, which goes on sale this spring (none was available for our drive), and will stretch just beyond $30,000 for a loaded '06 GTP with a giant multipaned sunroof, a $1500 option. Our well-equipped leather-lined GTs were nearly $26,000. The G6 is not any cheaper than its Japanese competition, and that may keep shoppers from becoming Pontiac conquests. However, with incentives, the G6 would suddenly become a compelling alternative, much like the 6000STE was back in 1983.