COAL: 2004 Pontiac Bonneville – Used, But Not Used Up


I still think it cuts a handsome profile. Mine was also Bronze Dust Mist in colour, and almost never looked really dirty.

After the nightmare that was my 1993 Saab 900, I was ready for something that wouldn’t give me any maintenance headaches – or at least fewer than that Swedish nightmare.

The car I ended up choosing was a 2004 Pontiac Bonneville. Being a car fan from an early age, I’d always noticed how well reviewed the Bonneville seemed to be by the car books I’d been reading for years (Consumer’s Guide, The Lemon-Aid Used Car Guide, and even Consumer’s Reports). However, I’d noticed that the most recent incaration of the model didn’t seem to be as popular with car buyers.

Many reviewers tend to blame the styling. While the first and second generation front-drive Bonnevilles seemed to have the looks that buyers looking for a full-sized sedan wanted, the third generation seemed a bit…wonky. it was almost as though the GM stylists had taken the 1992-1999 version and both stretched and ironed it.

Also, the base price of the Bonneville had swollen to more than 40 g in Canada – almost Cadillac territory!
Regardless, I liked the shape, particularly the fact that the stylists had maintained the little bulge for the c-pillar and rear window, which linked the car to its predecessor.

On the road, the Bonneville was initially pretty great. The ride was comfortable, the seats were comfortable (at least for short drives, longer ones tended to give me a sore butt and I always took my wallet out of my back pocket if driving for a long time) and it had a lot of nice features that my earlier cars didn’t. Features like functional air conditioning, power windows, mirrors and door locks. As Pontiac’s top dog of the time, it also had a few things that i’d never experienced on any car, including redundant steering controls for the radio and a rearview mirror that dimmed if a driver had their high beams on while following me.


Gotta love that ‘high-tech’ dashboard!

This car had GMs proven 3.8 liter V-6 which found use in many higher-end GM products of the time, and the four-speed auto which was pretty ubitiquous in the automaker’s mid-to-full size lineup of the late 90’s-early 2000s.

It was definitely the quickest car i’d owned up to that point, good for 205hp. While not an absolute rocket, the engine easily went from a dead stop and made merging onto any highway an easy task. Also, while driving at 120-130, the transmission allowed the car to loaf along at less than 2000 rpm – a lot different experience from the small-displacement, high revving engines I’d been used to driving up to that point. Probably because of this, fuel economy was also surprisingly good, about the same as my Saab 900.

Over the next five years, the Bonneville proved to be a reliable (if not trouble-free) partner in crime. One weak spot I discovered was the brakes; I did a full brake job at about 170000 kms , another at 230000kms and replaced the front brakes again about 270000 ams. However, the good thing about the car was that anyone could fix it, and the cost of parts was pocket change compared to the Japanese or European vehicles i’d owned before it.

Friends and family alike got to really like the Bonneville as a long-distance cruiser, and even as the odometer got close to 300,000 kms I still thought I’d have at least a few more good years with it.

Except for one huge maintenance oversight on my part which led to me getting rid of the car much sooner than i’d planned. When I bought the car, I’d assumed the transmission had had its necessary maintenance done at 150000km which included a fluid replacement and filter change. However, when I was having some routine maintenance done at about 200000 kms my garage checked the transmission fluid for me. My mechanic actually brought the dipstick out to me, and asked me to smell it. It smelled like burnt varnish. The transmission had never been serviced since the car was new.

They did the essential service 50000 kms after it was due, and did one again at 250000 ams. At that time my mechanic Roy warned me that it would be lucky to get to 300000kms without a new one.
Not long after hitting 302000kms the car started to feel different. Usually it was fine but sometimes there was a shudder or hesitation if I tried to accelerate quickly or while going up a hill. The transmission was clearly on its last legs.

In the interim I’d gotten a higher-paying and less stressful job as a communications person for a local employment agency. After my year contract was renewed for a second time, I reasoned it was the time to think about getting something else.

I took the car for a pre-safety at a local garage. Irrespective of the worsening transmission issues, they told me the car needed suspension and brake work that would cost about $1,200. The writing was on the wall. I listed the car on a local sale site for $1000, and a man bought it the same day, actually quicker than I expected.
Within six months, I drove by that mans house and saw the car for sale again. “I guess the transmission finally went,” I said to myself.

However, someone else bought it, and I still see the vehicle from time to time driving around my home town. I guess someone must think that it’s not still totally used up!

I feel that for the time, the Bonneville was probably one of the best full-sized cars made by any of the North American manufacturers. Comfortable, well sized, reasonably peppy and fuel efficient. It was certainly the first car of mine i ever considered taking a cross-country trip in, even though i never actually ended up doing that. It also ushered in a more sensible period in my life, when something large and safe was more important than small or sporty or exotic.

However, that sensible period didn’t last long, as my next COALs will illustrate.