(first posted 1/4/2016) Staid Pontiac had been revitalised in the 1960s, assuming a hipper, more youthful image. The magic of the first GTO and Firebird was an elixir of life for the mid-price brand, and GM would intermittently try and get a few more white drops out. Unfortunately, for the rest of its life, the spirit of Pontiac would be tarnished by corporate mismanagement and weakened by changing consumer tastes before being vanquished by bankruptcy. Before the brand’s untimely demise, Pontiac’s alchemists would create some curious vehicles.
G6 3.9 manual
Years produced: 2006-07
Total production: ?
It seems like it has gotten much harder to find a mid-size sedan from a mainstream brand that offers a manual transmission in North America for 2016. Ford recently discontinued the manual Fusion, leaving only the Buick Regal, Honda Accord, Mazda6 and Volkswagen Passat. Rewind ten years and offerings included the aforementioned vehicles, as well as the Mercury Milan, Nissan Altima, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Subaru Legacy and Toyota Camry. Ah, but how many 2006 mid-sizers had a manual and a V6? Just four: the Mazda6, Altima, Accord, and this, the Pontiac G6 3.9.
Sadly, Pontiac’s first V6 mid-size sedan in over a decade would prove to be short-lived. Its niche was shrinking, as chief rivals would all lose their V6 manual variants by the end of the decade; only the Accord coupe and Altima coupe would survive past 2010, although the latter is gone now.
The number of G6 offerings had increased dramatically for 2006, with two new engines, a 2.4 four and a 3.9 V6, and two new bodystyles, a coupe and a convertible. The 12-valve 3.9 was a bored-out version of the base 3.5 High Value V6 with an iron block and aluminum heads. It featured Variable Valve Timing, a first for a pushrod V6. The 3.9 produced 240 horsepower and a stout 241 pound-feet of torque. This was a good 30 ft-lbs over the Accord’s 3.0 V6 and was available at 2800 rpm. 0-60 was achieved in 6.2 seconds.
The 3.9/6-speed manual specification was initially offered only in GTP sedan and coupe. There were varying reports of the manual transmission’s quality, with some critics referring to it as being cumbersome. The G6’s dynamics were also criticised, as despite the solid platform, the ride/handling balance needed fine-tuning: a generally compliant ride and competent handling were undermined by too much body roll in corners and up-and-down motion over bumps and ruts. Fortunately, the electric steering of lesser G6s was nixed in favor of a hydraulic set-up with more feel.
Some changes were made in 2007 to improve shift quality, but it would be the last year for the manual. A new GTP edition had been launched with GM’s new 3.6 High Feature DOHC V6, and the 3.9/manual combo shifted to the mid-range GT as an option. The GTP 3.6 had a new six-speed automatic with manual shift mode, an improvement over previous G6 auto’s four-speed box. Evidently, this is what buyers preferred and the manual didn’t return for 2008.
G6 Street Edition
Years produced: 2008-09
Total production: ?
Sigh. It seems Pontiac designers just couldn’t resist going back to the old well, despite a mid-2000s cleanup of their cars’ exteriors that had started with the smoothed-out Bonneville GXP. By mid-decade, almost all the cladding, oversized fog lights and black plastic-fantastic interiors were gone. This shift in design direction was best illustrated by the transition from boy-racer Grand Am to restrained G6. And yet, just a few years into the G6’s run and right after targeting enthusiasts with the manual-equipped 3.9, Pontiac released the Street Edition.
Mid-2000s GM was infamous for releasing uplevel engine options and corresponding “performance” trim levels that merely matched rivals in power output: look at the Malibu SS, LaCrosse CXS, et all. The G6 had launched with a mediocre 3.5 in 2005, before adding a punchier 3.9 for 2006. For 2007, the sporty GTP trim received GM’s new and increasingly ubiquitous High Feature 3.6 V6. For 2008, the GXP nameplate – previously reserved for V8 Pontiacs – replaced the GTP in the G6 range. The new flagship G6 also featured a polarizing, stretched new dual-nostril grille and revised lower fasciae both front and rear.
But that grille wasn’t the worst part. The GXP, as well as the lesser GT, were available with the Street Edition package. Purely cosmetic, it added hood scoops and a gargantuan hammerhead rear spoiler which utterly messed up the G6’s clean lines. The GXP’s 252 hp and 251 ft-lbs was competitive but nothing extraordinary, making this appearance package even more ridiculous. At least the GT Street Edition did without the scoops and spoiler, merely adding the GXP’s unique fasciae but making do with the 3.5 V6 (219 hp and 219 ft-lbs).
The Street Edition showed just how confused GM’s “Excitement” division was in the 2000s. Although Bob Lutz had decreed it would become a cut-price, American BMW and the exciting Solstice and G8 had been released, GM was still signing off on over-the-top stuff like this, half-baked showroom-stuffers like the G5, and absolutely embarrassing dreck like the G3. And so the Pontiac division came to be shuttered during a year it was offering some of the most exciting cars it had ever sold as well as some of the most cynical and misguided. A pity.
LeMans GSE Aerocoupe
Years produced: 1988-90
Total production: ?
When one looks at the LeMans, it’s hard to decide which is more insulting: that GM deprived North America of its competitive 1984 Opel Astra for four years, or that when they finally brought it over, it was a low-buck, value-engineered Korean clone. Even more egregious was Pontiac’s use of the respected LeMans nameplate on a replacement for the cheapskate Chevette-clone Pontiac 1000. Even if GM had insisted on using a mid-size nameplate on a subcompact, they had far superior imports to use it on. But they didn’t. The LeMans happened. Perhaps to atone for their sin, Pontiac introduced the GSE Aerocoupe.
For a brand that had touted its “excitement” credentials throughout the decade, the LeMans’ predecessor had never offered a sporting variant. The 1988 GSE may have offered a bodykit and trendy body-color alloy wheels, but it was no faster than the regular LeMans: the same 1.6 four-cylinder powered the GSE, producing 74 hp and 90 ft-lbs.
For the GSE’s sophomore season, it received a shot in the arm in the form of a 2.0 four-cylinder with a more impressive 96 hp and 118 ft-lbs. A sport-tuned suspension was offered as well as larger front disc brakes. The Opel Astra body had aged well, so LeMans GSE buyers were getting a sharp-looking subcompact.
What they didn’t get anything as well-built or entertaining as the similarly-named Opel Kadett GSi. Its DOHC 2.0 four-cylinder pumped out 150 hp and 145 ft-lbs, numbers that were very close to the just-launched Quad 4 engine. In comparison, the LeMans GSE looked like a very weak effort. After 1990, GM dropped any pretense of sportiness in the LeMans range by shelving the GSE.
Astre Lil’ Wide Track
Years produced: 1976
Total production: 3000
Pontiac dealers were probably relieved to have something small and fuel-efficient to sell after the oil crisis of 1974, even if it was just a Chevy Vega with a split grille. However, Pontiac executives still decided to inject some excitement into their new subcompact range.
The Lil’ Wide Track was built for a special promotion sponsored by the Pontiac Dealers Association. Motortown Corp of Detroit, the company responsible for the 1976 Chevrolet Vega Nomad, were contracted to modify the Astres.
The $400 option package added Motortown-fitted wire mag wheels, window louvers, front air dam, rear spoiler, a chrome exhaust tip and various tape stripe decals. The only color available was silver. The only powertrain available was the Vega 2300 four-cylinder, by now improved and rechristened the Dura-Built 140.
Although the Astre was only sold from 1975-77 in the USA (it launched in ’73 in Canada), the Lil’ Wide Track wasn’t the only sport model. The Astre SJ combined upgraded interior materials with full instrumentation, a higher-output version of the 2300 and Pontiac’s Radial Tuned Suspension; the GT offered the same less the upgraded interior. Finally, to end the Astre’s abbreviated run there was the garish 1977 Astre Formula, now available with the 2.5 Iron Duke four-cylinder. And even after the Astre’s short run came to an end, there were mechanically-related, sporty Sunbirds in Pontiac dealerships.
Grand Am sedan
Years produced: 1978-79
Total production: 4706
The first Grand Am of 1973 was a mid-size LeMans derivative that promised Trans Am excitement with Grand Prix luxury. It was easily one of the most impressive domestic intermediates of the mid-1970s, but that didn’t translate to sales. Brougham Fever was contagious, and cars like the related Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme were dominating the sales charts. The Grand Am was axed after a dismal 1975, but it wasn’t down for good. The nameplate returned on the downsized A-Body for 1978, once again featuring a unique front fascia and a choice of coupe or sedan body styles. Although it again lasted just 3 model years, the revived Grand Am sedan was sold for only 2.
The 1978 had a less prominent prow, and behind that prow was less prominent as well. While the ’73-75 had a choice of 400 or 455 cubic-inch V8s, the new Grand Am offered only the Pontiac 301 with either a 2- or 4-barrel carb or the Chevy 305 in California. For ’79, the Buick 231 V6 became the new base engine. Although there was no increase in power over the regular LeMans, all Grand Ams came with Pontiac’s Rally RTS handling package with larger stabilizer bars, 205/70R14 steel-belted radial tires, power steering and power front disc brakes.
Although those features came standard, there were some curious omissions. For example, full instrumentation was optional, as were bucket seats and a console. And while the first Grand Am had featured a more upscale interior design shared with the Grand Prix, the second Grand Am had the same dashboard as the entire Pontiac A-Body range; those with “Grand” in their names merely added some extra insulation, different seat trim, door pull straps and carpeted lower door panels. There was nothing a prospective Grand Am buyer couldn’t have optioned on a LeMans, except for the unique front-end styling and four-speed stick (LeMans could only have a three-speed). On that note, a buyer could opt for a padded vinyl roof on the Grand Am coupe albeit not the sedan and there was even available loose-pillow style seating for ’79. The revived Grand Am had proved to be less “pure” a touring sedan than its predecessor.
Pontiac had publicized the first Grand Am heavily but the second Grand Am, despite being listed in promotional material as a separate line from the LeMans, was given less attention. The sedan was almost forgotten by Pontiac and buyers alike: 2,841 sedans were manufactured in 1978 and a further 1,865 in 1979, less than half as many produced as the coupe. The sedan was axed after 1979 and with sales even lower than its predecessor and scant promotion and differentiation, the Grand Am line would again be axed before the related LeMans’ time was up.
Pontiac, throughout its entire lifetime, offered various mainstream sedans, coupes, wagons and crossovers. To separate it from any other mainstream marque, however, they always made sure to tap that elixir and offer cars that promised and/or delivered genuine excitement. The week after next, we shall look at 5 more of those attempts.