If there was one GM nameplate to pull a full-180 turnaround for the better in the 1980s, it was the Pontiac Bonneville. Launched as the halo car of GM’s “excitement division”, the Bonneville soon became Pontiac’s most prestigious full-size line of vehicles, a spot it would comfortably occupy for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Despite a generally well-received downsizing in 1977, the Bonneville floundered in a way its Buick, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile siblings did not. Shuffling the name to a formal restyle of the midsize LeMans didn’t do the Bonneville any wonders either, and it looked like Pontiac’s historic flagship was on the fast track to oblivion.
Then however, a ray of light emerged. The discontinuation of the outclassed and outdated G-body Bonneville prompted Pontiac to move the Bonneville name back to a true full-size car, this time on the front-wheel drive H-body introduced one year prior for 1986. Despite the H-body’s all-new modern architecture and underpinnings, not to mention development costs that reportedly matched or even exceeded that of Ford’s concurrent Taurus/Sable program, the H-body was a highly innocuous, cautious and conservative effort to say the least.
This was something made especially obvious with the prosaic, straight-edged styling and very Broughamy interiors of the both the Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile Delta 88. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with their designs, as these cars certainly had broad appeal, but next to other cars introduced at the same time, most notably the Taurus and Sable, the 1986 H-bodies looked decidedly outdated and backwards in their first year on the market. So how does this all relate to the Pontiac Bonneville?
Well, apart from sharing its basic skeleton, doors, and roofline with the LeSabre/Delta 88, designers treated the Bonneville to a substantial amount of unique sheetmetal including front and rear fenders, hood, trunk, bumpers. Unlike its siblings, this differentiated styling was more rounded and flowing for a distinctive “aero” look, or as much of an aero look as the car’s basic architecture would allow. It was truly a shame the sharp roofline of the LeSabre and Delta 88 had to remain.
Inside, the Bonneville sported a dramatic “cockpit” style dashboard and a thick-rimmed steering wheel to emphasize its more driver-centric nature. Bench seats and column still remained in its base models, but it was clear designers did as much as they could to make the Bonneville less geriatric-feeling given the H-body’s bones.
The most significant step towards this of course was the Bonneville SSE, the heavily boy-racer range topper, visually set apart by a healthy dose of molded plastic prosthetic body accents and ground effects, monochromatic exterior scheme with gold badging, suspension upgrades, and heavily contoured bucket seats.
Building upon the success of the 1987-1991 H-body Bonneville, its redesigned successor unquestionably fulfilled its vision, offering truly distinctive style not just from its siblings but from its competitors, plus enhanced performance and safety features.
Now featuring nearly 100-percent unique sheetmetal, the 1992 Bonneville sported far more aggressive coke-bottle styling, highlighted by long hood and short, sloped deck, contoured body sides, rakish roofline, and a very BMW-like Hofmeister kink. Its only obvious visual linkage to its siblings was its unusual A-pillar treatment with fixed vent windows — very out of place for a 1990s sedan. Sure, in some ways it was a bit cartoonish… but for better or worse, given the conservatively-contemporary Olds and stodgy-formal Buick which the Bonneville shared its underpinnings with, what else did Pontiac really have to work with?
Like the exterior, the Bonneville’s interior looked like a more complete reality of its predecessor’s vision. Its dash, door panels, and center console (when equipped with front bucket seats) flowed together better for an integrated cockpit look, though as expected, most surfaces were of hard, hollow plastic. At least the interior was attractive in its design, and the myriad of video game-like controls in higher spec models could easily divert drivers attention from the cheap plastic.
As with before, three trim levels were offered for 1992. The base model was now known as the SE, followed by the better-equipped and sportier SSE, and then the all out performance-oriented SSEi. Among notable upgrades, the SSEi gained a supercharged version of the standard 3800 Series V6, producing 205 horsepower and 260 lb-ft torque, plus standard antilock brakes, traction control, novel for the time head-up display, and dual front airbags, the latter a first for any GM product.
Minor styling tweaks differentiated each trim level from one another, but even the base SE now featured prominent molded ribbed plastic body cladding formerly reserved for the SSE. Predictably, the SSE and SSEi trims upped the ante with even more flamboyant ribbed lower body cladding, the addition of side skirts, and more aggressively-styled bumpers with underbody spoilers and different foglight placement.
The truth was though that while the Bonneville did offer the notable SSEi performance model, the majority of Bonnevilles sold were the basic fleet-grade SE, complete with bench seats, this horribly cheap corporate GM cloth, and tacky wood trim.
Nevertheless, it must be worth noting that Pontiac did make meaningful changes and upgrades to the Bonneville, at least for the first several years of this ninth generation. 1993 saw a more luxury-oriented SLE sub-trim level of the SE debut and antilock brakes become standard across the board, while 1994 gave way to standard dual-front airbags on all Bonnevilles, and the SSEi’s engine gained a new supercharger, increasing output to 225 horsepower and 275 lb-ft torque.
1995 saw the base engine in the SE, SLE, and SSE trims enhance output to 205 horsepower an 230 lb-ft torque. For 1996, all Bonneville’s received facelifted styling, and a new 3800 Series II supercharged engine now making 240 horsepower and 280 lb-ft torque was standard in the SSEi and SSE, and now optional in the SLE.
This Bonneville’s immaculately-preserved condition is a testament to the southern climate in which it’s likely resided in its whole life. Alive on earth for the same roughly 26 years as your humble author, it’s nearly flawless, and unlike yours truly it doesn’t need to rely on a regiment of cardio, core, and strength training seven days a week, and a diet heavily leafy-green and protein-based, minimal sugar and processed foods, and free of red meat and dairy. I’ll blame its somewhat sun-damaged paint and tiredness on the vodka I guess.
Truth be told, for most of my life I never really cared for this car, finding it the over-styled, fugly sister of its conservative Buick and Oldsmobile siblings. Yet in writing this article, I’ve come to find a sincere appreciation for this generation Bonneville. By no means is this a car I’d call attractive, refined, or exciting to any great length. Notwithstanding its unique styling and features, it is yet another variant of a corporate GM platform from the 1990s… enough said there. However, I can’t deny that I do appreciate the extent to which Pontiac differentiated it from its siblings, both in design and performance, given the massive constraints GM divisions faced from corporate hierarchy by the 1990s.
Photos provided by Will Jackson
1989 Pontiac Bonneville LE (COAL)
1992 Pontiac Bonneville SE (COAL)