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G6 aims to restore Pontiac's sporty image

BY DAN JEDLICKA AUTO WRITER

The new Pontiac G6 sedan made a big publicity splash when the Pontiac-donated cars were given to the 276 audience members at Oprah Winfrey's September 13 show. But it's an open question if the car will score well in the increasingly competitive sporty car market, which Pontiac once ruled.

The G6 is designed to help revive the sporty image of Pontiac, which has been slipping since its glory days in the 1960s. That's when it produced fast, sexy cars, including the original, legendary GTO muscle car. (The new GTO has fallen short of expectations because of bland styling.)

"The Oprah show put the 'Pontiac' name right up front, which is what Pontiac wanted. But I'm not satisfied Pontiac was addressing the right audience for the G6 with the giveaway because it's supposed to be a sporty, performance-oriented car and I hear Oprah's specially selected audience was composed of women who need base, economical transportation such as the new, less costly Chevrolet Cobalt,'' said auto analyst Jim Wangers -- marketing whiz behind the original GTO and other sexy Pontiacs in the 1960s.

Wangers said most of Oprah's television audience is women, and that "many of them may be more interested in Cobalt than a G6. The giveaway would have been perfect for Chevy.'' He said Pontiac got its money's worth with the giveaway because he puts the value of the cars at $4 to $5 million. That's roughly half the $7 to $8 million figure used in media reports because Pontiac used its manufacturing costs for the G6 -- not retail price figures used by Pontiac dealers.

The 2005 G6 is being phased in as a replacement for the aged Grand Am, which strongly appealed to younger males and long was Pontiac's top seller. However, a replacement was overdue because the Grand Am sorely lacks the refinement, quality and roominess of rivals.

The G6 sedan is larger, roomier, better-looking and more refined than the Grand Am, which only is offered as a coupe for the 2005 retail (non-fleet) market. The G6 currently only comes as a sedan, but coupe and retractable hardtop convertible models arrive next year, along with a hot GTP version.

The base front-drive G6 sedan lists at $20,675, with the top-line GT at $23,300. My test GT had options that caused its price to total $26,965. They included a $1,365 leather package and $1,500 cleverly designed power "panoramic'' roof with four sliding glass panels and a power shade. A regular sunroof is offered for $700.

Predicted to be a big hit is the $150 remote start system, which remotely starts the G6 up to a 200-foot range but doesn't allow it to be shifted out of the "park'' position until the key is inserted in the ignition. The engine runs for 16 minutes after the remote start is activated, and doesn't allow a second restart until a fair amount of time passes.

Safety items include available side- and head-curtain air bags.

Even the standard G6 is pretty well equipped. Standard are air conditioning, cruise control, rear defroster, AM/FM/CD sound system, tilt-telescoping wheel, split-folding rear seatbacks and power windows, mirrors and door locks, with remote keyless entry.

The GT adds a sport suspension, anti-lock brakes, traction control, power adjustable pedals, premium sound system, rear spoiler, 17-inch (vs. 16-inch) cast aluminum painted wheels with wider 50-series (vs. 60-series) tires and a performance axle ratio for slightly quicker acceleration.

Powering the G6 is a rather so-so 3.5-liter pushrod V-6 with 200 horsepower. It lacks the sophistication of overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, but provides lively acceleration in town and decent highway performance.

The GTP will have a new 3.9-liter V-6 with 240 horsepower for 2006, and a 2.4-liter four-cylinder overhead-camshaft, 16-valve engine with 170 horsepower also will be offered next year.

The current V-6 works with a four-speed automatic transmission instead of a more modern five-speed unit. However, the automatic is responsive and comes with an easily used manual shift feature in the GT.

Fuel economy is an estimated 21 mpg in the city and 29 on the highway.

The Grand Am is a compact car, but the G6's long 112.3-inch wheelbase (distance between axles) gives it mid-size car status, although overall length is only a fairly handy 189 inches. The wheelbase permits a smooth ride, good interior room for four tall adults and wide door openings for easy entry and exit -- not to mention allowing rear door glass to roll down all the way and the panoramic roof; three of that roof's four panels slide rearward, creating a sunroof large enough for rear-seat passengers to have an open-air "almost convertible-like experience,'' as Pontiac puts it.

Short overhangs add to the sporty styling, although the smoothly styled G6 doesn't stand out like, say, the new Chrysler 300 sedan. The G6 uses General Motor's new European-designed Epsilon "architecture'' for body stiffness that enhances ride and handling.

The upscale interior of the G6 is a vast improvement over the Grand Am's overstyled, cheesy interior. The G6 has such features as a convenient dashboard ignition switch, supportive front seats and easily read gauges.

Sound system and climate controls are large, and even dashboard vents swivel with a precision feel, which shows attention to detail long lacking in many GM auto interiors. The old-sports-car-style handbrake alongside the front passenger seat looks sporty and doesn't get in the way. Cupholders are conveniently located, as are controls.

The fast variable-assist electric power steering feels almost too light at low speeds, but has a welcome firmer feel at highway speeds for good control. The four-wheel-independent suspension soaks up bumps and provides a comfortable ride, although it occasionally becomes slightly bouncy. Stopping distances are short, and the brake pedal has a nice feel.

The roomy trunk has a rather high liftover that won't be appreciated when loading or unloading heavy objects. Also, the interior of the trunk lid has an unfinished look because it lacks any sort of cover. Rear seatbacks with trunk-mounted release controls flip forward to increase cargo capacity.

Pontiac said the Epsilon architecture allowed a "clean sheet'' approach to designing the G6. The new model promises to attract far more buyers than the Grand Am -- especially when the coupe and retractable hardtop convertible join the lineup.

2005 PONTIAC G6 SEDAN

PRICES
$20,675-$23,300

LIKES
Roomy. Smooth ride. Lively. Clever sunroof design. Optional remote start feature.

DISLIKES
Rather high trunk liftover. Occasional bouncy ride. Rough interior trunk lid.
 
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