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Extra muscle revs up new GTO

By Steven Cole Smith
The Orlando Sentinel​

Pontiac, which long has advertised itself as the "We build excitement!" division of General Motors, found itself a little short on excitement after the Firebird died.

The company turned to Australian automaker Holden, a GM subsidiary, for help.

Quickly -- very, very quickly -- the Holden Monaro was massaged and made legal for the United States market and introduced here as the 2004 Pontiac GTO.

After an initial flurry of sales, the GTO sort of just sat there.

What went wrong? Most industry observers suggested there were two central problems -- a moderately high sticker price and moderately dull styling -- plus some lesser issues, such as a small trunk, a single exhaust and no hood scoops.

For 2005, Pontiac addressed two of those concerns, plus a third one that wasn't mentioned: more power.

There wasn't a lot the company could do to significantly increase trunk space: It was reduced when, for safety reasons, the gasoline tank was relocated upward from where it is in the Monaro, thus trimming some trunk room.

But the 2005 Pontiac GTO gets hood scoops and dual exhaust pipes, and gets a whopping 50 more horsepower. The 6.0-liter V-8 now has 400 horses, compared with 350 last year.

The price was raised, but only a little, from $32,495 for the 2004 model, to $32,995 for the '05, shipping included.

This makes buyers of the 2005 GTO pretty happy, but 2004 customers are not amused at having missed out on that extra horsepower.

It's the same complaint buyers of the 2004 Chevrolet SSR have, as that vehicle gained 90 horses from 2004 to 2005.

Oh, well.

Even with 350 horsepower, the Pontiac GTO was a lot of fun to drive, and the extra muscle just makes it that much better.

The engine has so much torque -- that's the measure of pulling power -- that it makes the test car's four-speed automatic transmission, in an era when most manufacturers are offering five-, six- and even seven-speed automatics, acceptable.

You can get the GTO with a six-speed manual transmission, but the pricing is a little confusing. The automatic is standard, and the six-speed manual is a $695 option.

But the manual transmission gives the GTO an EPA-rated 17 mpg in the city, and 25 mpg on the highway.

The automatic-equipped GTO is rated at 16 mpg in the city, 21 mpg on the highway.

Here's the complicated part: The automatic GTO's mileage makes the car fall into the "gas guzzler" category, thus subject to a $1,300 federal gas-guzzler tax. (It was $1,000 last year.) The manual-transmission buyer doesn't have to pay that tax.

So while the six-speed manual costs $695 extra, it actually saves the GTO buyer $605. I like the six-speed GTO, but I love the automatic, so I'd have a decision to make.

Otherwise, not a lot has changed. The cockpit remains attractive but a bit dated and minimalist.

Front leather-covered bucket seats are comfortable, but a couple of passengers complained about a too-short bottom cushion.

The rear seat is passable for two adults if the trip is a short one.

Outside, while the hood scoops and twin exhausts may attract some new buyers, I sort of liked the stealth-mode styling of last year.

There's a definite traffic-ticket downside in advertising horsepower, but even with the scoops and exhausts, the GTO remains understated.

On the road, though, is where the GTO shines. The suspension, though conventional, works exceptionally well in blending nimble handling and a comfortable ride.

This is an excellent long-distance touring car, so long as somebody brings money for gasoline. I averaged just over 17 mpg in mostly city driving.

The test car started at $32,295, and with shipping and the guzzler tax, the bottom line was $34,295, with no options.

It would be nice to have side air bags, a sunroof and stability control, but they aren't offered. The manual transmission and 18-inch tires and wheels, instead of the standard 17-inchers, are the only options.

Styling and credentials are enough to sell a lot of cars, but the GTO is not one of them: You really have to drive it. Then, and only then, does it seem like a bargain.



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