Saturday

2009 Pontiac G8 GT review

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it". Sound familiar? Unfortunately, and to the great disappointment of many a car enthusiast, car companies are the most guilty of forgetting this. Spotlight: Pontiac, division of General Motors. Sometimes Pontiac’s place in GM’s lineup hasn’t been so clear. They’ve been labeled the “excitement” division, and usually their designs have been more extroverted than other GM lines to appeal to people that like to stand out. Sometimes they’ve tried to flat out copy details from high-end makes and would have liked to compare themselves to those same makes. In fact this time around Bob Lutz has claimed that the G8 is a 5 Series at $20k cheaper. We've seen this before. Anyone remember when they said their target for steering feel for the current Grand Prix was the BMW 3 Series? It’s still funny five years later.

The last time they really tried to make an exciting product was 2004 by resurrecting the GTO name. (Admit it – you thought an Aztek reference was coming, didn’t you?) They imported a Holden from Australia, dropped a 350hp V8 engine in it, and called it a GTO. People yawned. Styling was its chief problem – people compared it to a Cavalier on steroids, which wasn't an entirely fair comparison. Due to relocating the gas tank to meet US crash standards, the trunk shrank to uselessness. Some odd options were missing from a car that cost over $30k new – a navigation system and sunroof were completely unavailable from the factory. Worse, they announced almost right away that they would put a 400hp engine in the following year. Sales were dismal, the new GTO never really caught on, and the plug was pulled just two years later. The GTO name went back to being a memory. During the same period, sales of the also new and comparatively slower Mustang went off the chart.

Other new model launches stalled – the G6 has never really been an outstanding success. The G5 (a rebadged Cobalt that few people know Pontiac makes and even fewer bought) is being sent packing, the Torrent crossover/SUV thing never caught on, and both the Aztek and whatever their minivan was called have been retired to the history books. Side note for Pontiac - taking storied names with recognition and respect like Grand Prix, Grand Am, and Bonneville and replacing them with meaningless letters and numbers is NOT the way to improve a brand. Now, once again, GM is trying to interject some excitement back into their lineup by introducing a fire breathing sedan. The story starts familiar as before – bring a Holden from Australia, slap Pontiac badges on it, drop a V8 in it, start the name with a G, and call it The Next Best Thing.

Looking at it, the styling is definitely outgoing. There are fake scoops in the hood, bulging fenders, the BMW-ripoff grill is still there, and large 19” wheels are standard rolling stock (V8 GT model). Aggressive? Yes. Attractive? Not to me. Looking in the trunk, the trunk floor seems awfully high. That would make sense if there was a full size spare in there. Lift the floor and…..uh oh….. where’s the spare? A compressor or tools or something is sitting there instead. There’s a cutout for the wheel, but no wheel. Why have space for the wheel and sacrifice trunk space if you’re not REALLY going to put a wheel in there? This story is continuing to sound familiar isn’t it?

Moving inside, the interior is tidy. Seats are sporty and aggressively bolstered to hold you in place while driving spiritedly. Back and forth and up and down adjustments are powered. Unusually though the backrest and lumbar are adjusted through knobs that sit inconveniently between the seatback and the door pillar. Hope and pray you’re the only one driving it so they’ll never have to be adjusted again once they’re set. There’s an unusual woven material (which is the only way I can think to describe it) running on the top edge of the door and that makes up the top of the dash. It certainly is not material you’re used to seeing in those spots, and it looks like its main function would be to trap dust and dirt over time to prematurely age your shiny new car. The G8 GT I looked at was brand new, but the piece of dash that was underneath the steering wheel was already coming loose. Not good. They should’ve kept the interior design from the GTO. While a bit dated, the GTO interior had a higher quality look and feel about it than the G8.

Another odd note was the rear doors. Because of the design, they swing WIDE when opened. If you buy one, never find yourself in a narrow parking spot needing full access to the backseat. It’ll be impossible.

Continuing with history lessons not learned from the GTO, no in-dash navigation is available from the factory. That’s an especially odd oversight seeing as how the G8’s competitors at least offer something. Don’t think you’ll just slap a double DIN aftermarket system in the space of the stock stereo either – the climate control displays are built into the stock stereo screen. Oh wait a minute – you can get turn by turn directions through the Big Brother On-Star system instead. For a small, recurring monthly fee of course.

Lift the hood and feast your eyes upon 6.0L and 360hp worth of V8 engine. The engine sits low and farther back in the car to help improve balance. Start the engine and it is MUCH quieter than you would expect after reading the spec sheet. It doesn’t sound like a V8 at idle. You lift the hood to doublecheck, and yes, it's definitely a V8. There is a lumpiness though in the idle that never quits, rocking you back and forth slightly everytime you come to a stop. That might be fine in an over-cammed dedicated drag race car, but it’s not cool for a sedan that will see everyday action. I couldn’t even imagine sitting in stop-and-go traffic with this.

Backing up the engine is a 6 speed automatic or manual transmission. The one I drove was automatic, and notably has the familiar + and – signs to manually control the six gears. Also, the transmission is programmed to blip the throttle on downshifts when in manual mode, pretending to execute heel-and-toe downshifts for you.

Study the dash for long enough, and you’ll get the feeling something is missing. It may not strike you right away, but just give it a minute. After examining the gauges, eventually you’ll realize that something is missing on the tachometer – something that should never be missing on a car with performance aspirations. The redline. The tach promises an awful lot by having numbers 0-8 on it, but you and I both know no GM road engine will ever spin that high. Pontiac, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Seriously, what beancounter figured out that they could save a nickel per car by eliminating the color red on the tach, the single most important gauge to an enthusiast? Whether it was a single person or a committee, anyone involved in that decision should be publicly humiliated and perp-walked down Woodward Avenue. The fact that something this ridiculous made it all the way though to the launch of this car tells me that GM still doesn’t ‘get it’. I had strong hopes for them watching the resurgence of Cadillac, seeing them bring over Opel’s from Europe, and bringing over this sedan for Pontiac....but then they go and do something like this, shattering all of my hopes and simultaneously confirming all of my fears.

On the road the ride is taut but controlled. Steering feels a touch slow. It doesn’t want for power though. Put the gas pedal down and you’re gone without even thinking about it, once it decides to downshift at least. The engine sound changes to what you would expect a V8 to be when you have your foot in it, but only at upper RPM’s. Let the transmission make its own choices and it upshifts early and often. In several cases, I found it leaving a dead stop in 2nd gear, although I couldn’t figure out what conditions triggered it to do that. In manual mode, like most manumatic setups, your shift commands feel delayed. The downshift rev-match feature was more a gimmick than anything. It lessened the shock on the trans when downshifting, but was nowhere as smooth or as effective as a true heel-and-toe downshift on a manual trans. Despite the big rubber and the fancy suspension, understeer rears its head early in fast sweepers, contributing to a lack of confidence in fast maneuvers. On second thought, this could also just be the natural physics of slinging over 4000 pounds of GM iron into a bend. This combined with the slow steering and it seems GM still has some calibrating to do before this car earns the title sport sedan. There is potential – it just depends on whether or not GM uncorks it. And no GM, that doesn’t mean using this car to bring out a “sport pickup” by recreating the El Camino. That is true; that is what they’re planning to do, and that fact alone should tell you something about GM’s thinking.

All in all, I came away disappointed. If all you’re interested in is a big engine with a big number that you can brag about, then this car is for you. Most likely this car will be shopped against the Charger (my review here , which it undercuts by several thousand while delivering a better interior and world’s better steering feel (comparatively keep in mind). If you buy into Lutz's marketing speak and think you’re going to get Euro supersedan performance at a cut rate price, keep looking. It wasn't true in 2004, it isn't true now either. For specifics why, check out my review of the BMW 550i here. Remember the quote at the beginning of this review. There are just too many odd oversights to really justify this car as a good all-around enthusiast machine. Aside from no redline on the tach (?!?!!?!?), build quality is so-so. The idle is too lumpy. There is too much wind noise on the highway. And the back of the front seats is made out of a hard plastic that I’ve seen scratch easily in other cars. Think twice if your backseat will be used frequently; I bet the back of the front seats will show scuffs quite quickly.

In these times of almost $4.00 a gallon gasoline, high power, big engine sedans are a tough sell. In order for it to succeed, the product has to look, feel, and drive spectacularly well. Unfortunately, as usual, GM has promised a lot with this car, but have succeeded only in underdelivering.

Photos property of General Motors

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Funny though, a used 2008 G8 GT is selling for the same as a used 2008 BMW 5. I can't believe how fast BMW's lose value. I guess the G8 did something right.

The writter blows up what should only be minor grips. First he says a V8 should be louder at idle, but then complains about a little lope?

I love BMW's, but USED would be the only way I would ever buy one. Pluss BMW's are a dime a dozen in New England.

disclosure: 2009.5 G8 GXP owner.

Chris said...

Funny that you bring up residual - someone else had pointed the same thing out about the G8's resale. So I looked it up and was astounded. They certainly have a following. Although I have to say, if you research what it takes to maintain that 2008 M5, especially with that hyper exotic V-10 running the show, you start to understand why the value drops precipitously once the warranty gets close to expiring.

Congrats on your GXP. I've often wondered if I had a chance to sample a G8 in that flavor if the review would've gone differently. Have you had the chance to drive the regular G8 GT as well? I'd love to hear how they compare.

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