Once billed as GM’s “We Build Excitement” division, to many who grew up during the brand’s wonder years, Pontiac will forever rank high in their memories as a builder of muscle cars and performance-minded everyday cars of the 1960s-mid 1970s, and the wonderful Fitzpatrick/Kaufman promotional artwork that went along with it.
The original Gran Am was indeed a product of this golden age of Pontiac, first appearing for 1973 as a premium luxury/performance companion offering to the Pontiac LeMans. A product that actually brought excitement and specialness to the table, this is the idea of Pontiac that so many enthusiasts remember, cherish, and embrace. Nonetheless, to those of us born just a bit later, the perception of Pontiac can be quite different.
You see, Pontiac could not keep its momentum. As the ’60s muscle performance gave way to ’70s Broughamy luxury, Pontiac began to flounder as it struggled to find its identity in an age of increased fuel efficiency awareness, global competition, and ever familiarity to related cars from other GM brands. Although it never abandoned its performance pedigree, by the early 1980s, Pontiac’s lineup was a grab bag of small econoboxes, Brougham-esque large cars, and of course, true sports cars.
Had Pontiac been an independent automaker, a diverse portfolio would have been more understandable, and even a beneficial quality. Yet as one of five car brands from General Motors primarily relying on selling badge-engineered variants of a corporate vehicle at similar price levels, lacking a distinct identity blurred the lines between divisions even further, making Pontiac’s lineup more redundant than ever. By the 1990s, Pontiac had probably become best known for its over-styled, over-cladded, over-ugly, and underwhelming versions of corporate GM cars such as the economy-minded J-car Sunbire/Sunfire, U-body “Dustbuster” TransSport minivan, and best-selling model of this era, the N-body Grand Am compact.
Originally introduced as a 1985 model, replacing the X-body Phoenix as Pontiac’s intermediate model, the N-body Grand Am shared its basic design and notchback “formal” roofline with its Oldsmobile and Buick siblings. As a Pontiac, it did gain several meaningful performance upgrades over its siblings, as well as what was initially tasteful ribbed body cladding, the amount of which varied between trim level.
Minor enhancements over the years made first generation N-body Grand Am a reasonably attractive car, as much as its conservative, formal-roofline body would permit. Along with its Oldsmobile and Buick siblings, the Grand Am was redesigned for the 1992 model year, featuring all-new sheetmetal and a fresh interior, although mechanically-wise, it was largely unchanged. Exterior styling was rounder and more contemporary, though significantly busier with numerous creases, bulges, sharp angles, and of course, more ribbed cladding for greater differentiation from its siblings.
Still, as far as its competitiveness was concerned, for the entirety of its lifetime, the N-body Grand Am couldn’t quite match more refined Japanese rivals in key areas such as ride quality and handling, NVH, interiors, and overall packaging. As one of several flavors of the same basic car, the Grand Am’s defining characteristic would always be its rambunctious, and quite frankly, tacky styling. Indeed, it quickly proved popular, a trend that would continue for most of its run. However, popular is different from being good. Forgive the vulgarity, but just like the “popular” person with many lovers, the fact that the Grand Am was popular often made up for its deficiencies.
By the time this third generation N-body Grand Am rolled around in 1999, this description didn’t change, despite its numerous improvements. Finally gaining an independent multilink rear suspension to complement the independent MacPherson strut front, the Grand Am’s body was 32-percent more rigid, front track was 3.3 inches wider, while wheelbase grew by 3.6 inches all for better handling and ride quality.
The cabin was also roomier, with redesigned seats for greater comfort, and the V6 was enlarged to 3.4 liters, boasting more power than before. Despite these meaningful improvements, numerous weaknesses still remained that decreased the Grand Am’s competitiveness and overall image, qualities that contributed to its sharp decline in sales over its final generation.
Above all was the Grand Am’s take-it-or-leave-it styling. While Pontiac did need to visually differential the Gran Am from its competition both in its overall market and within GM, it was not done tastefully. Despite it being an affordable largish-compact car, the Gran Am was styled like a sports car — in theory, not necessarily a bad thing, but in practice it came across as tacky and cheap.
While the 1999-2005 Grand Am was arguably a more attractive car than the 1992-1998 iteration, at least as far as its body and proportions went, the overload of ribbed plastic lower body cladding, deeply flared grille “nostrils”, and other related Pontiac styling touches reached gimmicky by this point. In fact, it’s worth noting that Pontiac actually offered two very different ribbed lower body cladding treatments on the Grand Am, one for the SE and one for the GT, neither any less vulgar than the other.
For comparison, just look at the Oldsmobile Alero. Sharing the same architecture, doors, and roofline, the Alero did without the Grand Am’s boy racer add-ons making for a far more visually appealing look. It’s also worth noting that the Grand Am SE models lost their ribbed cladding in 2003, though it was merely too little, too late.
Despite its sporty looks and aspirations, the Grand Am offered little in the way of meaningful performance upgrades to match them. Engines and transmissions were shared with its Oldsmobile Alero sibling, and while its optional 3.4 liter V6 made a reasonably healthy 170 horsepower and 200 lb-ft torque, it didn’t exact blow competitors out of the water, either on paper or on the road. Furthermore, despite the Grand Am’s chassis and suspension improvements aimed at improving its ride and handling, numerous road tests found it exhibited substantial NVH, body roll, front plow, and mushy brake pedal, which all prevented it from feeling either very sporty or refined.
While the Grand Am’s interior effortlessly exuded greater personality than say, Toyota’s Camry or Corolla interiors of the era, any advantages brought by Pontiac’s highly-stylized interiors were lost in its cheap looking, feeling, and fitting plastics and switchgear.
The Grand Am’s cartoonish interior styling, with its numerous crevices, protuberances, gaps, inconsistently finished surfaces, and ill-fitting individual pieces screamed cheapness in a very loud way.
Likewise, the exterior, with its overall business just didn’t look quite as integrated or solid as most similar-sized vehicles, other GMs included. Again, maybe it was the body cladding and other plastic prosthetics to blame, but Grand Ams always seemed to have among the worst body panel gaps of the bunch. Adding insult to injury was the fact that rubber window seals and headlight gaskets notoriously came loose, as on this SE sedan.
Regardless of its shortcomings, the Gran Am was at least a popular car for most of its life, averaging sales above 200,000 units annually. Of course with Pontiac’s large dealer network, steep incentives, and a significant percentage of fleet customers, the Grand Am had a little help reaching those numbers. And therein lies the problem for Pontiac.
You see, for most of its life, the N-body Grand Am was Pontiac’s best selling car, accounting for over 30%, and in some years nearly 45% of total brand sales. Though halo models like the Firebird and later GTO were always present, everyday models like the Grand Am, Sunfire, and Montana were what Pontiac was in the minds of those less aware of the brand’s performance past.
Furthermore, for reasons I won’t delve into any further, Pontiac and the Grand Am especially developed a negative reputation based on who many perceived its real-world buyers were. For risk of creating controversy and/or offending anyone, I won’t go into any greater detail regarding that, but let’s just say that Pontiac wasn’t necessarily a brand that many viewd as one to brag about owning, even though many owners frequently did so.
Over the years, I’ve struggled to make sense of why many discuss Pontiac as such a praiseworthy brand and lament its loss, when I have but a lifetime of negative perception for the brand. I’ve concluded that this dichotomy is a result of period in which one was born and the Pontiac that they grew up knowing. Pontiac might have once made appealing, sporty, and above all special cars, yet this was a Pontiac I never knew.
See for me, this Grand Am is the Pontiac I grew up with and came to know, and this particular car will forever be my primary association with Pontiac. It’s sad to say, but this is also why I have never felt much sympathy for Pontiac’s demise in the same way I did for brands such as Oldsmobile and Mercury. With any of its highly regarded models merely storied relics of a far distant past, I only ever really knew Pontiac as the builder of over-styled, underwhelming, and quite frankly, ugly cars.
2001 Grand Am SE sedan photographed in Hingham, Massachusetts – August 2018
2001 Grand Am GT coupe photographed in Hanover, Massachusetts – December, 2016