Curbside Classic: 1982-1991 Pontiac 6000 – The Power Of The Halo

(first posted 6/5/2018)        Mention the name “Pontiac 6000” to most people today and you’ll probably get a blank stare, considering it was discontinued 28 years ago. Mention the name to someone with even a passing interest in cars, however, and the first thing you’ll probably hear is, “Ah, the 6000 STE!” The existence of that sporting flagship shone a positive light across the whole model line, as halo models typically do, but also scrubbed a lot of folks’ memories of the myriad less impressive, bench seat-equipped, Iron Duke-powered 6000s that roamed North America.

While the STE wasn’t the volume model in the 6000 range, it consistently accounted for 10-15% of volume between 1983 – its debut year – and 1986, outselling the 6000 coupes and often even the wagons. Its sophomore season was its best year in terms of percentage volume – 15.74% – while 1986 saw the greatest production tally. That year was the 6000’s best, with 211,375 6000s produced including a record 26,299 STE sedans. Thereafter, 6000 sales sagged.

What happened? Well, the 6000 got old. While the Japanese were running tight, five-year model runs, the 6000 received gradual tweaks and enhancements over a long model cycle.

At least the 6000 didn’t remain completely stagnant. Just look at the STE: it launched with no tachometer, fuel injection or manual transmission. By 1986, it had all of those, as well as anti-lock brakes, steering wheel audio controls, and a four-speed (instead of three) automatic. By 1988, all-wheel-drive had become available and the 2.8 V6 was replaced by a 3.1. All the while, the STE offered rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel disc brakes and self-levelling rear air suspension, although the STE kept the regular 6000’s beam twist axle at the rear. Perplexingly, the four-speed automatic wasn’t available on the STE’s high-output, 130 hp version of the 2.8 for a full two years after it arrived on the regular 6000’s V6.

The STE was so memorable because it was, up to that point, the most convincing attempt by the Big 3 to make a European-inspired sport sedan. Previous efforts had either been too big and ungainly, or had suspensions that were too stiff. The STE, in comparison, earned glowing praise from Road & Track and Car and Driver, appearing on the latter’s 10Best list multiple years. In a 1983 “Mexican torture test” by Car and Driver, the STE was ranked better overall than a diverse field of cars including the Toyota Cressida, Volvo 760GLE, and Volkswagen Quantum, losing narrowly only to the Audi 5000.

Although GM also made sporting variants of the other A-Bodies – including the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera ES, Buick Century T-Type and Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport – none of those cars offered quite the balance of ride comfort and keen handling. With the STE and its sporty cousins, GM appeared to understand the market was moving towards sedans, which makes it all the more perplexing they would bungle the GM-10 launch so badly. The sporting 6000 wasn’t perfect – a common refrain was that it could have used more power – but it was a highly impressive American sedan nonetheless. “World-class” was a term often used.

So, it’s pretty clear why everyone remembers the STE. But what about the other 6000s? Well, they varied in overall competence. Base models, for example, were powered by engine formerly known as the Iron Duke: the fuel-injected 2.5 Tech IV, initially producing 90 hp at 4000 rpm and 132 ft-lbs at 2800 rpm. Although the base 6000 weighed only 2700 pounds, the Tech IV had its work cut out for it and could manage only a 16 second saunter to 60 mph. It didn’t sound particularly good during those 16 seconds or at any other time and, unlike the X-Body Phoenix on which the 6000 was based, there was no manual transmission option. There was only a three-speed automatic or, from 1984, an optional four-speed automatic.

The STE may have held its own against similarly-sized Japanese and European sedans but the rest of the range required a judicious review of the option sheet. For example, ticking the box for the 2.8 V6 (112 hp at 5100 rpm; 148 ft-lbs at 2400 rpm) provided you with an engine that was vastly more flexible than the four and with scarcely a penalty at the pump. There was also the option of a naturally-aspirated 4.3 V6 diesel (85 hp at 3600 rpm; 165 ft-lbs at 1600 rpm) which, although smoother and more reliable than previous GM diesel engines, proved to be an unpopular option and was dropped after 1985.

While the 6000 offered more space than a similarly-priced Honda Accord, it had a floatier ride and didn’t feel as tight and poised to drive. Spending the $50 or so on the Y99 suspension package, however, narrowed the gap considerably and made the 6000 rather fun-to-drive. The upgraded suspension was part of a lengthy options list, a Detroit tradition. The Japanese, in comparison, were choosing to sell cars well-equipped by default. In particular, the Datsun Maxima and Toyota Cressida had a comprehensive features list so, although they cost around $3k more than a 6000, their price premium was much lower once you specified a 6000 to their level.

From 1984, however, Pontiac offered something the similarly-priced Toyota Camry and Honda Accord wouldn’t offer for a few years: a station wagon. The 6000 wagon took over from the Bonneville Model G wagon, offering the option of a third row of seating and undercutting the Toyota Cressida and Datsun Maxima wagons on price.

Pontiac introduced a sporty S/E model in 1987 with some of the STE’s features, including sport suspension and dual exhausts and the short-lived option (1987-88) of a five-speed manual transmission. The S/E’s introduction probably explains the drop in STE sales around this time. It didn’t help the STE that it typically cost $5-6k more than the next most expensive 6000, although its extra content largely justified that.

Although Pontiac was ostensibly the sporty brand in the GM stable again, GM gave all four of its A-Body models a sporty variant and made the other trim levels cushy and softly-suspended. While that provided dealers with plenty of variety, it didn’t accelerate GM’s attempts to once again reinvent Pontiac as their excitement brand. Instead, it continued the classic GM practice of making almost all of their brands be all things to all people. At least with the 6000 there wasn’t a choice between a floaty suspension and a rock-hard, filling-rattling one, but Ford would show in 1986 that you could just offer a base suspension that split the difference.

GM had clearly tried to make their A-Bodies ride like the old rear-wheel-drive ones, perhaps so as to ensure a seamless transition for American buyers. Alas, they didn’t embrace the opportunity to capitalize on the nimble handling afforded to their new front-wheel-drive cars by virtue of their mechanical layout and smaller dimensions. There were also the typical Old Detroit touches like scant instrumentation and strip-style speedometers.

Alas, as the 1980s drew to a close, the 6000 didn’t look all that different to when it had launched. That was a problem as Ford had upended the segment with its Taurus, while there were also new, larger generations of Camry and Accord to contend with. The GM-10 project proved to be a debacle with constant delays and so the A-Body had to sit for longer than intended. The 6000 was still a sensible choice and a good value – and it was the best out of the A-Body stable – but it was getting old.

The 6000 had one final hurrah with the introduction of all-wheel-drive in 1989, the first such application by GM in a passenger car. Initially standard fitment in the STE, it switched to the S/E when the STE was discontinued in 1990. The full-time all-wheel-drive system split engine torque 60 percent front and 40 percent rear. Only a three-speed automatic was available but all-wheel-drive 6000s added independent rear suspension, keeping the old FWD STE’s electronic ride control. There was a console-mounted switch provided to activate the electro-mechanical center differential locking system in extreme conditions. Interestingly, the AWD 6000’s IRS was based on the front axle of a Chevrolet S-10. All-wheel-drive added 300 pounds to the 6000’s curb weight, blunting performance and hampering fuel economy, but handling and grip were further improved. The ageing 6000 may have seemed an odd choice for the new all-wheel-drive system but it served as a low-volume (around 1500 annual units) production mule of sorts, GM intending to roll it out to other models in due course.

The arrival of the Grand Prix sedan and Trans Sport minivan spelled the end of the 6000 sedan and wagon, although the 6000 lingered until the 1991 model year. The 6000 had helped transition Pontiac to front-wheel-drive but it had seemed to overstay its welcome: sales had plummeted from a high of 211,375 units in 1986 to 138,489 units the year after. How much of that decline could be attributed to the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable is debatable but it’s clear the segment was in flux and the 6000 wasn’t the freshest car around. Of course, virtually nobody remembers that drop in sales. Nor do they remember the stodgy four-cylinder models, or the tragic, puffy vinyl roof available on the forgettable, boxy coupe.

They just remember the STE, one of the most impressive domestic cars of the 1980s.

1989-91 6000 S/E photo courtesy of dave_7. 

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