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Test Drive: Pontiac GTO
12/8/2005 - By David Haueter

One of the highlights of the 2006 Grand Am GT season was the introduction of the Pontiac GTO.R race car, which was competitive from its first race, went on to win four race out of eight races it competed in, won the GT team championship and nearly took Andy Lally and Marc Bunting to the driver's championship. While the racing version of the GTO is much different than the road version, with tube-frame construction and a racing sequential gearbox (among other changes) the GTO was on our short list of cars to drive during 2005.

The GTO is based on the Australian model Holden Monaro, which has raced very successfully in the Bathurst 24 Hour race, and the GTO is manufactured in Australia, at the Holden plant in Elizabeth. Even so, the GTO is a throwback to American muscle cars of the 1950's, with a big 400hp V8 put into a conservatively styled package. That package proved to be a little too conservative for the buying demographic of the new GTO when it first came out, so for 2005 Pontiac spiced things up by installing dual exhaust pipes and hood scoop, which give the car a more sporty appearance than the more understated 2004 model. Apparently the design changes are working, as Pontiac is selling a lot more GTO's in 2005 than they were last year.

One piece of hardware that is shared on both the street and race versions of the GTO, and is the heart of both of them, is GM's LS2 motor, which is 6-liters of good old American V8 and puts out an even 400hp and 400 lb-ft of torque (50 more horsepower and 35 lb-ft more torque than the 2004 model). This is the same motor that powers the Corvette and has several design improvements over the previous generation motor, including a flat-top piston design that reduces friction, a larger single-blade throttle body and a new aluminum block with revised oil galleries. The compression ratio was raised to 10.9:1 and redline was increased to 6,500rpm.

Braking was also improved for the 2005 model, which features vented discs in the front with 4-channel ABS and solid discs in the rear. For the suspension, the GTO uses independent MacPherson struts in the front with progressive-rate springs, while a semi-trailing design is used at the rear, with tuned gas pressure dampers.

Inside, the GTO is comfortable, with supportive sport seats in the front (which have better lateral support than the Corvette's seats) and a pair of slim-fitting rear seats that are best used for short distances only. The front driver's seat does sit a little too high, but other than that they are excellent. The GTO also features standard amenities such as a Blaupunkt 200-watt audio system with a 6-disc CD changer and ten speakers, programmable keyless entry and a driver information center that shows average speed, average MPG, trip odometers, fuel mileage and a stopwatch. One thing you will notice about this car after only a few miles behind the wheel is that it has character. With the air scoops prominent in the view out over the hood and the muscle-car rumble from the exhaust at idle, the GTO provides a unique experience just sitting still that is also carried over to the driving experience. Pontiac worked on the tuning of the exhaust to make it sound as fast as it drives, and they did a great job.

The GTO is a modern-day American muscle car, with a lot of power on tap when you want it. Doing standing-start burnouts in this car is a little too easy, which is one reason why the GTO is so popular in the drifting world. Where was this car when I was in High School? Planting your right foot and getting the full experience of 400 horses and 400 lb-ft of torque is hard to resist, as the power and sound are very intoxicating. If you end up buying this car, you should set aside a yearly tire allowance because you will be going through them pretty regularly. In fact, the press car we drove had the rear tires replaced right before we picked it up, and it had a mere 15,000 miles on it.

In terms of handling dynamics, the GTO is decent but could use improvement. With the power ready and willing to break the rear end loose with any provocation of the throttle, Pontiac has dialed in a fair amount of understeer in the suspension, but the suspension also feels a bit too soft for a car with this much power, with too much body roll and not quite enough sharpness in the steering transitions. It's best to take the traditional Porsche approach to being quick in this car - slow in, fast out. Come in fast to a corner, use the very good brakes to slow the car down, then let the weight transfer take place before getting smoothly back on the power for the apex and exit of the corner, always taking care to be judicious with the throttle so the rear doesn't get too loose. The GTO is surprisingly comfortable on longer trips, and the suspension does a good job of absorbing bumps.

Steering feel is pretty decent also, but there were also a few complaints during our experience. For one thing, the dead pedal is too close and too far behind the clutch pedal. On more than one occasion, my shoe got hung up on the edge of the clutch pedal when coming quickly off the dead pedal. The pedal placement on the GTO also makes it very hard to heel-toe downshift, as there is simply too much space between the brake and throttle, and neither pedal is shaped in a way that promotes heel-toeing.

We also had a problem with the gear lever popping out of first gear on starts, and it was often tricky getting it into second gear quickly and smoothly.

Overall, the GTO is a very good car with lots of entertainment value for driving enthusiasts, especially if you're into big power more than handling. At under $33,000, it's also a great value for the money. Yes, it does cost around $7,000 more than the Ford Mustang GT, but it has 100 more horsepower, handles better and is more comfortable. The GTO could very easily make the transition from good car to great car with the right improvements, such as a stiffer suspension setup with less body roll, lowered seats and some better pedal positioning.

On the racing side, the GTO.R is shaping up to be the car to beat in the 2006 Grand Am GT championship, and the new season will also see the car (the unibody version, not tube-frame) competing in the Grand Am Cup series. We also expect to see the car back in World Challenge GT competition in 2006. We hope GM keeps this car around - it's a great complement to the Corvette in the product line, for both the street and the track.


6.0-liter LS2 V8
400hp @ 5,200rpm
400 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio 10.9:1

0-60mph in 4.7 seconds
Quarter-mile in 13 seconds

Tremec T56 6-speed manual, or electronically controlled 4-speed automatic with torque converter clutch

Front - Independent MacPherson struts and progressive rate springs
Rear - Independent semi-trailing control link with gas pressure dampers

4-wheel vented discs, power assisted with 4-channel ABS

Curb weight - 3,725 lbs
Weight distribution (front/rear) - 55% / 45%
Price as tested:

$33,690 ($32,295 base price with optional manual transmission an additional $695 and $700 for destination charge)

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1badgto said:
that is sooo bs not like they don't make enough off us just for the can but destination charge WTF??

Just about every car company out there tacks on a destination charge. Hey, at least pontiac doesn't charge us $1500 for the paint :mad: like a certain european manufacturer...
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