GM’s Greatest Hit #15: 1997-2003 Pontiac Grand Prix – Randy’s Here For Dinner And He Brought The Wild Turkey

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A Pontiac Grand Prix, a GM W-Body car, one of GM’s Greatest Hits? Have I lost my mind? Wait, hear me out…

Let’s think about some of the more common criticisms of GM vehicles from the 1970s, 80s and 90s:

  • Badge engineering was rampant and everything looked the same, with no real brand identity
  • Many of their cars appealed only to dyed-in-the-wool GM fans, bargain shoppers, fleets and the elderly
  • Many of their cars were bland
  • Some were unreliable
  • Product lifecycles were too long

Whew, that was about as exhaustive a list as I could muster. Did I miss anything? No? Well, let me tell you why the Grand Prix was successful. Hint: it avoided most of these sins and offered a compelling product in an incredibly competitive segment.

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In a way, the mid-sized segment of the late 1990s could be likened to a very diverse dinner party. The Camry and Accord were the refined, Japanese-American houseguests, polite to a fault and delightful company to have. The Oldsmobile Intrigue had some witty anecdotes to share and a charming personality, but it seemed as though he was putting on airs and perhaps wasn’t as sophisticated and urbane as he purported to be. The Volkswagen Passat was a stylish, worldly guest and utterly engaging, although you might realize after a few dinners that perhaps he wasn’t reliable enough to entrust with bringing the wine. The Hyundai Sonata was eager to please if a little immature and the Nissan Altima and Mazda 626 were lovely girls somewhat lacking in personality.

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Then there was the Grand Prix, ignoring the dress code and exuding brash American swagger. Sure, this guest was a little rough around the edges and maybe some of his stories were a bit bawdy for polite company but he was charming and engaging. There would be no glass of Chianti next to his plate—this all-American guest was far more likely to be knocking back a couple of bourbons. Call him Randy.

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No, the Grand Prix wasn’t perfect. Build quality couldn’t match the Accord and Camry although it did follow the adage, “A GM vehicle runs poorly for longer than other cars run at all.” So while the reliable powertrains and transmissions kept on ticking, a Grand Prix driver might expect to eventually find pieces of trim fall off or accessories fail. The Accord and Camry may not have had exciting interiors but they were less prone to squeaks and rattles and generally used nicer materials.

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A 1997-2000 SE

One other problem with the Grand Prix was endemic of GM as a whole. They had not yet matched the Japanese and their 5-year model cycles, this generation of Grand Prix remaining on the market for 7 model years. Still, this was shorter than the first-generation W-Body Grand Prix, and future GM intermediates’ lifecycles would be shorter still. A minor nip-and-tuck might have helped retain freshness; the contemporary Accord and Camry received mid-cycle enhancements, even if they were mostly cosmetic in nature. The one exterior modification was made in 2001, when the SE swapped its unique fascia for that of the GT and GTP models.

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The failings of the W-Body cars have been well-publicized, perhaps more so than any other GM car of the era, due to the sheer importance of the mid-sized segment. The first W-Body Grand Prix had a bungled launch – the sedan delayed by two years – and was initially underpowered, then later offered with thrashy and/or unreliable engines. Build quality was mediocre while airbags arrived much later than in rivals. But GM had taken some promising steps, making a greater effort to differentiate the four different W-Body lines and rid the corporation of generic, me-too styling. The 1991 Grand Prix GTP, in particular, was distinctively and aggressively styled and packed a punch.

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The second-generation W-Body Grand Prix furthered this progress. Its front-wheel-drive layout followed the Accord/Camry mold but the Grand Prix didn’t simply mimic those class leaders. While Chevrolet had its blue-light special Lumina to sell, Buick tried not to offend older buyers with its Century and Regal, and Oldsmobile’s Intrigue tried to go toe-to-toe with the imports, the Grand Prix offered a uniquely American and satisfying interpretation of the mid-sized sedan.

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First, there was the styling. First previewed in near-production spec by the 1995 300 GPX concept, the new Grand Prix was the prettiest Pontiac in years, toning down the plastic cladding theme so often employed by Pontiacs. Design staff were happy to have the freedom of unique sheetmetal, the Grand Prix not sharing any exterior panels with its W-Body siblings. Marketing harkened back to the swinging sixties, Pontiac’s salad days, by dubbing the new car the “Wide-Track” Grand Prix. It wasn’t just marketing fluff: track width was increased by 2 inches fore, 3 inches aft and the wheelbase lengthened by 3 inches compared to other W-Bodies, affording the Grand Prix a more aggressive stance. The sleek styling didn’t come at the expense of cabin room, although the surprisingly good rear headroom was achieved by keeping the rear bench close to the floor which created an uncomfortable seating position for some.

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Then there were the engines. Some may have scoffed at GM for offering a pushrod, two-valve-per cylinder V6 – complete with cast-iron block and heads – that dated back to 1962 but the company had continued to enhance and refine its 3.8 V6 enough to earn it a recurring spot on the Ward’s 10 Best Engines list. In Series II form, the 3800 produced 200 hp at 5200 rpm and 225 hp at 4000 rpm. This was good for a 0-60 time of 8.2 seconds, slightly faster than the less torquey Camry V6 and considerably faster than other V6 rivals. The 3800 had plenty of low-end grunt and was mated to a smooth-shifting four-speed automatic; no manual was available. Fuel economy was also superior to the Camry V6 automatic: 17/27 mpg (21 combined), while the Camry posted 17/25 mpg (20 combined).

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Rather than offer a four-cylinder base engine like Japanese and Korean rivals, the entry-level Grand Prix SE stuck with the carryover 3.1 V6, rated at 160 hp at 5200 rpm and 195 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. In 2000, this was retuned for an extra 15 hp. While GM often had a frustrating reluctance in offering a competitive, base four-cylinder engine – or even any four-cylinder engine at all – there was one available in the smaller Grand Am, a “compact” that was extremely close to the Camry in size and which undercut it in price.

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Pricing was another strong suit for the Grand Prix. Despite dimensions closer to the Avalon, the base Grand Prix undercut the cheapest V6 Camry by $2k. Even the cheapest Grand Prix, the SE, came standard with anti-lock brakes and traction control. At the top end, the flagship GTP cost the same as the flagship Camry XLE.

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That GTP model was the real ace up the Grand Prix’s sleeve. In today’s market, the GTP’s performance figures would still be competitive if not class-leading. During the Grand Prix’s run they were exemplary. The GTP’s 3.8 V6 featured an Eaton M90 surcharger that boosted power to 240 hp at 5200 rpm and 280 ft-lbs at 3200 rpm. This meant the GTP produced almost identical power to the Ford Taurus SHO and trounced it in torque (by 50 ft-lbs) and in the 0-60 (by 1 second), all while costing $5k less; a regular 3.8 Grand Prix posted almost identical times to the SHO. As for lesser Taurus V6s and the Japanese, the GTP left them in the dust with a 0-60 time of under 7 seconds. Standard was a head-up display, a rarity in the market, and the transmission was a beefed up 4T65-E with a dash-mounted performance switch that delayed upshifts and provided more aggressive downshifts. The Grand Prix GTP’s strong performance at a lower price point than the Taurus SHO paved the way for ever-faster rivals: the 2002 Nissan Altima packed an optional 240 hp 3.5 V6 that helped further a V6 horsepower race in the segment.

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The Grand Prix wasn’t just about straight-line power, with critics praising its overall dynamic ability. Consumer Guide said the Grand Prix “feels agile and sure-footed on winding roads” while the SE and GT’s ride “absorbs most bumps well and provides capable handling with little body lean”. The GTP’s firmer set-up was said to sharpen handling at the expense of some ride quality although they said “the ride still does not rate as harsh”. These superior dynamics were the result of a stiffening of the W-Body structure and the substitution of the old car’s rear composite leaf spring with coil springs. Pontiac also benchmarked BMW for the steering, which was much improved over earlier GM set-ups; optional was a variable-assist Magnasteer set-up that Motor Trend praised for excellent feecback.

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While the Grand Prix may not have been to everybody’s tastes, it was consistently popular and avoided a recurring GM trend of sales declining precipitously during a model’s run. In its extended debut year, the Grand Prix posted 159k sales. Sales dipped slightly for its sophomore season but later increased, with 172,772 units sold in 2000.

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The good news for GM was the majority of these were the higher-end GT and GTP models. In 2000, for example, Pontiac shifted 59k GT sedans and just over 23k GT coupes to 62k examples of the sedan-only SE. In comparison, in the Grand Am lineup the base SE outsold the GT three-to-one.

Was the Grand Prix close to the Camry and Accord in sales? No, but for a more narrowly-focussed model with a lot of internal competition, not just from the other W-Bodies but also from the Grand Am and Bonneville, the Grand Prix sold well. The demographics of Grand Prix buyers were also encouraging: Road Report reported the average buyer age was 45 with an annual income of $55,000, almost identical to that of the average Accord coupe buyer and younger and more affluent than key rivals’ average buyers.

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Unfortunately, the Grand Prix’s successor was little more than a visual redesign, acting as a stopgap model for the much more exciting G8 sedan. The 2004 Grand Prix simply didn’t advance the car’s mission. Interior quality and performance were scarcely improved – but for a V8 flagship model that exposed the limitations of the chassis – and the exterior styling traded sensuous curves for aggressive and rather unsightly bulges. Those seeking a uniquely American interpretation of the family sedan were better served by the exciting new Dodge Charger.

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The 1997 Grand Prix showed GM could successfully differentiate various cars on a platform. It also showed GM knew how to use a common platform and still create a Pontiac that looked and felt like a Pontiac should. Furthermore, for the Grand Prix, GM threw away the Camry/Accord/Taurus rulebook and made something that was not only class-competitive (and in some respects, class-leading) but also authentically and distinctively American. For that, I believe the Grand Prix earns Greatest Hits status.

GT photographed in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NY.

SE photographed in Cow Hollow, San Francisco, CA.

First generation W-Body sedan photographed in Hollywood, CA.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1997 Chevrolet Lumina – GM’s Deadly Sin #28 – The Re-Gifter

Curbside Classic: 1988-96 GM-10 Buick Regal – Right Car, Wrong Time