For quite a few years, the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors had a job to do. It’s job was to recall the Division’s great bygone days as the company’s standard bearer for performance by bringing to market a hot road car that would make the buff books go into a swoon.
But all too often, once the buff books turned their GM-provided test vehicles back into the promotional fleet, the buzz went away and Mr. & Mrs. America would go on to buy other cars in great numbers. Sometimes this was because Mr. & Mrs. America were too dense to buy the really good stuff. But other times – it was the car.
In 1973 Pontiac played the performance card with the Grand Am. Everyone went wild about the Grand Am in the fall of 1972. Everyone who wrote for magazines, anyhow. It was not a stupid muscle car that made up for its lack of manners with way too much power. It was a finely balanced road car which showed us towards a market where handling and roadability were the reasons for its existence.
Sadly for Pontiac, there was something called the BMW 2002 which did what the Grand Am was supposed to be able to do, only without all of the superfluous flab of the corpulent GM A body. That BMW also charged slightly more money for a lot less car showed that the Bavarians had figured something out about the aspirational market in this country – something that General Motors was never able to grasp. Pontiac’s failure to move 71,000 Grand Ams over the original model’s three year life showed that the buff books were not always right.
The following decade, Pontiac would try again. The time period? The go-go 1980s. The car? The 6000 STE.
The 1982 Pontiac 6000 was one of four flavors of GM’s first all-new A body since 1978. Pontiac had spent the previous four years trying to sell a LeMans that had trouble getting traction in the sliver of daylight between the Oldsmobile Cutlass and Pontiac’s own Grand Prix. The LeMans would compete “up a division” for 1982 when it was renamed Bonneville, sent out to appeal to a dwindling number of traditionalists who still appreciated the traits of the broughams that Detroit had developed into an art form before the dismal era of post-peak-oil.
The 1982 A body cars were basically lengthened X body cars. The new models shared critical measurements like front (58.7 inch) and rear (57 inch) tracks and many other stats with their smaller progenitors. The new As even shared the 104.9 inch wheelbase of the Xs’ hatchback sedan body. The main difference was a roughly twelve inch increase in overall length, apparently split between overhangs up front and out back. The EPA calculated about three additional cubic feet of overall interior space, but most of this was likely due to the adoption of the “sheer look” upright roof design in place of the fastback bodies of the X sedans.
During the 6000’s first model year of 1982 it was essentially an updated LeMans, meaning that it was not much different from its siblings named Celebrity, Cutlass and Century. But in 1983 Pontiac tried to make things interesting.
In addition to offering regular (6000) and premium (6000 LE), Pontiac went all Grand Am and introduced the car it hoped would appeal to the sports sedan crowd – the 6000 STE.
In 1964 Pontiac had taken a vanilla Tempest and added a hot engine. However, the buyer still had to pay extra for many other items necessary to make the car into a truly appealing package, both mechanically and visually. The 6000 STE went the other direction.
“STE” stood for Special Touring Edition. With this car, Pontiac declined to follow the then-typical GM playbook which took a basic car and added some touches for a sporting appearance. The STE was an expensive upgrade which made for an extremely well-equipped car. If the brochure was accurate, leather and a sunroof were the only ways for one STE buyer to one-up the next. Pontiac threw everything into the STE from air conditioning and electronic ride control to carpeted floor mats. With this all-or-nothing package, there would be no stripper STEs.
Mechanically the car received a fuel injected “High Output” 130 bhp version of the 2.8 L Chevrolet V6, which was exclusively mated to a 3 speed automatic with a lockup torque converter. This powertrain was accompanied by specially designed or tuned components for suspension, steering and brakes, all of which interfaced with the pavement via beefy Goodyear Eagle GT tires. In the introductory brochure Pontiac claimed that the STE was “[p]ossibly the most exciting high-performance sedan to hit America’s streets in a long, long time!”
130 SAE net horsepower was not nothing in 1983. For example, it outpowered the base engine in the new Thunderbird, even though the Bird’s 3.8 V6 had a full liter in displacement advantage. On the other hand, the BMW 318i was down only 30 ponies against the STE with an engine smaller by one liter (and weighing 500 pounds less). And what did real performance look like in 1983? The Mustang GT was good for 175 bhp, which was definitely setting the new standard in bang-for-the-buck performance. Plus, each of these others (and the 145 bhp Thunderbird Turbo Coupe to name another example) offered a stick shift to cater to the enthusiast market.
The STE’s level of excitement (such that it was) did not come without a cost – the base price of the STE was about $13,500, which was a pretty fair amount of money for an American car of this size in 1983.
The buff books went wild. The car was named as one of Car & Driver’s Ten Best that year. C&D was effusive in its praise.
“If the downsized General Motors big cars of 1977 were the best American cars since the end of World War II, the 1982 General Motors A-bodies are the best since 1977, and the Pontiac 6000STE is the best of all. Exactly opposite the Firebird, the 6000STE is light and lively, features the most up-to- date technology available from GM, and comes wrapped in sheetmetal that can only be described as controversial. Another major point of differentiation is the fact that these cars aren’t selling very well. We believe that the appearance of the A-cars will grow on the American public, and the 6000STE ought to lead the way in that regard. It is, by our lights, the most handsomely trimmed and detailed new product in the current GM portfolio. It is also the least compromised, and the one that does the best job of telegraphing exactly what kind of car it is, and to exactly what kind of driver it is supposed to appeal. This is in every way a Car and Driver kind of car. Fun to drive, economical, distinctive in appearance, comfortable in an active participant’s sense of the word, and absolutely contemporary.”
Popular Science thought enough of the car to include it in a four way 1983 test which also pitted the Dodge 600 ES and the Buick Century T-Type against the $20,000 Audi 5000 Turbo. The Pontiac acquitted itself well in this test, approaching or beating the much more expensive Audi in performance numbers.
Unfortunately the excitement of the motoring press failed to retain potency in Pontiac showrooms. The STE’s production figures tell the sad tale:
To put this in some perspective, there were 26,080 DeSotos built in 1960.
The car seemed to go out of style relatively quickly. PopSci tried again to compare three Amerikaners to an Audi in April of 1986, but the STE (by then priced at about $15,000) failed to make the cut. Instead the new Ford Taurus was the focus of the magazine’s affection as a bang-for-the-buck sports sedan. Like the STE three years earlier, the Taurus performed with numbers that neared those of the Audi 5000S and for a whole lot less money (and despite the Ford being saddled with all-season radials).
GM’s conception of a European-style sport sedan was skewed by the ’80s (as it had been in the ’70s and as it would be again in the ’90s). On the plus side, the STE was made to handle about as well as a front-heavy, MacPherson strut, fwd, twist beam rear axle car could handle. Sure, it was far from overpowered, but then neither were the European targets.
It got “the look” with toned down and blackout trim that GM thought would resonate. Unfortunately, stylists at Audi and Ford were beginning to take vehicle styling in a different direction, one that the square-rigged A bodies were ill prepared to go. And this ignores that to the untrained eye the STE looked an awful like Aunt Maggie’s Cutlass Ciera.
And while the STE carried full instrumentation, it was: A) electronic which pretty much every buyer in this class considered a gimmick and B) stuck in a panel that would have been right at home in Grandpa’s ’69 Catalina. And a 5 speed Getrag manual was not added to the options list until the 1987 model.
Add to all of this the fact that the cars never had that “machined from a single block of steel” feel that was so commonly found in German sports sedans of the era and you got . . . a really expensive GM A body that was fairly quick and handled pretty well.
The STE was undoubtedly the best version of GM’s ’80s A body sport sedans, outclassing the Buick T-Types and Chevrolet Eurosports in terms of both the effort put into building them and on the performance merits of the cars that resulted. But like those lesser models, they were still just decent cars with decent performance whose claim to fame was that they were better drivers than the models farther down the line. At least Pontiac put more distance between the STE and its base models than was the case elsewhere under the GM umbrella.
These STEs were not balls-out performers like the Buick Grand National or even the 1985 Ford LTD LX. Actually, they were not as powerful as the 1986 3.0 V6 Taurus. The first four model years also never got a stick shift, something that Chrysler was putting into cars like the Dodge 600 and Lancer. The final verdict has to be that the real Euro-American sports sedan of the ’80s was coming from Ford, albeit in a highly Americanized form. The Taurus had the look outside, had the look inside and was not really at a power or handling disadvantage either – and it wasn’t really even trying to be a sports sedan. And while the Taurus was never going to woo many buyers out of a BMW or Audi, the sad fact was that the 6000 STE wasn’t going to either.
The “Goooste” would take a year off then come back for a final lap in 1989, this time in AWD form. Pontiac was doing what it could with what it had, but . . . sorry.
All in all, the car was not really a flop, but it wasn’t a hit either. In its three best years (the only ones that got to five figures in production) the car sold about as well as the 1973-75 Grand Am had, though the STE had the advantage of a better economic climate.
When new, the 6000 STE generated a lot of respect but failed to turn that respect into decent sales figures. Sometimes time has a way of righting a wrong like this. An extreme example would be the Dodge Charger Daytona that languished on dealer lots in 1969-70 but is worth a fortune to collectors today. ’80s cars like the Buick Grand National and the Fox body Fords have fan support that has become quite robust. The 6000 STE, however, remains an inexpensive oddity – when you can find one at all. But then so are cars like the Omni GLH and the original Taurus SHO, both of which put more “sport” in sport sedan than the STE ever did.
Is it because the car was not powerful enough? Because it lacked a stick shift for all but its final year? Or was it looking for a niche that just wasn’t really there. It is not difficult to conclude that by the mid 80’s most buyers willing to consider a GM A body were not really interested in performance, and most buyers really into performance were not interested in a GM A body.
If you were a longtime GM buyer who wanted the nicest, coolest, best driving A body you could get in the mid ’80s, the 6000 STE was the car for you. But if you were looking for the best sports sedan you could get for the money? The STE may have been worth a look, but you could be forgiven for not falling under its spell.
Note: Measurements were obtained from www.automobile-catalog.com
1982-91 Pontiac 6000 – The Power Of The Halo (William Stopford)
1991 Pontiac 6000 LE – A Rare Sight (Carey Haubrick)
1980-84 Pontiac Phoenix – A Short (And Feeble) Second Life (Paul Niedermeyer)
COAL: 1984 Pontiac 6000 Wagon – 20 Years Of Use And Abuse (Carlo DiTullio)