Curbside Classic: 2004-08 Pontiac Grand Prix – The Final Lap

(first posted 4/28/2017)    Has there ever been a car more mercilessly attacked from every angle than the 2004 Pontiac Grand Prix? It’s not a surprise it became fleet fodder, ending the 42-year old Grand Prix nameplate on a rather ignoble note but paving the way for a far superior successor.

To tell the story of the final Grand Prix, it’s best to look at those that saw to its demise.

Enemy #1: Nissan Altima

The redesigned 2002 Altima really took the ball from the Grand Prix and ran with it. While it’s true a large percentage of Altimas were sold with a four-cylinder engine – much as the bulk of Grands Prix sold had the naturally-aspirated 3.8 – the redesigned Nissan offered an optional powertrain with some very impressive figures.

Both the Grand Prix’s V6 and the Altima’s VQ35DE 3.5 V6 had featured on the Ward’s Best Engines list. Producing 240 hp at 5800 rpm and 246 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm, the Altima outgunned the Grand Prix’s Series III 3800 and edged closer to matching the flagship GTP’s supercharged 3800. The 3.8 had seen only a 5 pound-feet increase in torque from the previous generation, producing 200 hp at 5200 rpm and 230 ft-lbs at 4000 rpm. The supercharged version, conversely, saw a bump in horsepower – up 20 to 260 hp at 5200 rpm – while torque remained the same at 280 ft-lbs at 3600 rpm.

The Grand Prix still had impressive numbers for its segment but the Altima had shown that Pontiac’s rivals weren’t standing still. Shortly thereafter, a mid-size horsepower war broke out. To cement its sporty image, Pontiac needed a high-performance Grand Prix that could continue to outgun the increasingly powerful Japanese intermediates. This brings us to the Grand Prix’s next enemy…

Enemy #2: Chrysler’s LX Cars

Chrysler’s aggressively-styled, rear-wheel-drive sedans – and their Magnum wagon counterpart – arrived at the worst possible time for the Grand Prix. These brash Mopars completely overshadowed the Grand Prix’s new GXP performance flagship, introduced in 2005.

For the first time, a V8 engine was available in the front-wheel-drive GM W-Body. The GXP’s launch preceded the related Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo SS by a year (the Buick LaCrosse Super debuted in 2008). The 5.3 pushrod V8, used in GM’s trucks, produced 303 hp at 5600 rpm and 323 ft-lbs at 4400 rpm and in the GXP reached 60 mph in 5.7 seconds.

That much power and torque in a FWD platform sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. In the Chevy, it was. But GM’s Performance Division had put a lot more effort into the Pontiac than the SS models, making a series of performance tweaks that Car & Driver said resulted in “excellent road manners”. These tweaks included a 0.4-inch lower ride height, Bilstein gas-charged struts, revised spring rates, and a thicker anti-roll bar. The most interesting feature was the footwear: Bridgestone Potenza RE050As, 255/45-18 at the front and 225/50-18 at the rear. This set-up helped quell torque steer and made the handling more neutral, resulting in probably the most dynamically competent W-Body yet. The GXP also received the a four-speed automatic with TapShift paddle shifters, borrowed from the erstwhile Grand Prix flagship, the GTP Comp G.

Ah, but Chrysler’s LX cars had more power and torque and an intrinsically better-balanced chassis, as well as a roomier cabin (not to mention, a transmission that didn’t self-destruct). For around $3k more, the Charger R/T was still a performance bargain. Buyers agreed: GXP sales totaled just 17,990 units over four years of production, accounting for around 5.5% of sales. Critics generally agreed: had the GXP arrived 5-10 years earlier, it would have been better received by critics and consumers alike.

Enemy #3: Pontiac G6

Japanese cars were growing ever larger by the 1990s and yet, despite this, the Japanese didn’t try to plug the gaps. While the Camry was considered a compact in the 1980s, it became firmly ensconced as Toyota’s mid-size offering in the 1990s. The Big 3, however, had split the mid-size segment with large compacts like the Pontiac Grand Am and large intermediates like the Grand Prix. This wasn’t sustainable as it depleted development and marketing funds while the Japanese had smaller, more focussed model ranges. The first step by GM towards breaking this practice was the Grand Am’s replacement, the 2005 G6.

The G6 was now as long as the contemporary Camry and had a wheelbase around 5 inches longer than both the Camry and the Grand Am. Pontiac’s erstwhile compact line was now about as spacious as the Grand Prix with a total wheelbase length of 112.3 inches; the Grand Prix’s span was 110.5 inches. The G6 only gave up an inch in width, although the Grand Prix was still 9 inches longer overall.

Raw figures aside, this now meant prospective Pontiac buyers saw two similarly-sized cars in the same showroom. They might have been impressed by the Grand Prix’s superior trunk space but subsequently disheartened by its rear seat accommodations which featured a low seat base and high belt line.

Pontiac also introduced a base four-cylinder G6 and, later, a modern DOHC V6 in the flagship GTP. The Grand Prix had lost its coupe body style – sales had been slowly decreasing for a few years – but a two-door returned for the G6. Pontiac’s new model was receiving all of the attention, leaving the Grand Prix in the cold. That the cheapest G6 V6 sedan cost around $3k less than the base Grand Prix was simply the final enticement to prospective G6 shoppers.

The G6, Charger and Altima all had decidedly average interiors but the Grand Prix’s cabin was nothing special, either. There were some soft-touch plastics and the driver-oriented center stack was convenient. A two-tone beige/black interior was available, too, and the GXP had faux-suede seat inserts. Unfortunately, the interior was hobbled by some truly awful plastics on the center stack and dated, 1990s-style switchgear. Although a tiny bit of brightwork was added around the air vents for 2006, no other changes were made for the rest of the car’s run, not even the addition of GM’s “Black Tie” radio unit (with AUX input) featured in almost every other Pontiac and Chevrolet. Surprisingly, there was an optional nav unit–a feature missing entirely from the Epsilon cars.

Enemy #4: Changing Priorities

With Bob Lutz as Chairman of GMNA (and, from 2005, head of global product development), product was king at GM and the corporation was storming towards a future of consolidated and competitive global platforms, fuel-efficient hybrids, world-class luxury cars, and affordable RWD performance. The Epsilon platform was rolled out to Pontiac, Chevrolet, Saturn and Saab (and Opel overseas), the RWD Zeta platform was to underpin a new Chevrolet Monte Carlo as well as flagship Cadillac and Buick sedans, and GM was rumored to be developing a full-size FWD platform for sedans, known as Chi, that was based on the Lambda platform.

The ’04 Grand Prix may have been touted as having 80% new parts but the W-Body chassis was little changed. Lutz made his mark on the Grand Prix simply by ensuring it didn’t look as plastic fantastic as Pontiacs of the ‘90s, much as he had stripped the cladding from the 2004 Bonneville. Although the Grand Prix introduced novel features like rear doors that opened almost 90 degrees and a front passenger seat that folded down, it’s clear the ’04 redesign was always meant to be a stop-gap.

The disappointing sales performance of the Australian GTO didn’t dampen Lutz’s enthusiasm for bringing the upcoming Holden VE Commodore over as a Grand Prix replacement. With the ailing Bonneville terminated after 2005, Pontiac’s future line-up would offer one compact wagon (Vibe), one compact coupe (G5), one mid-size (the G6), and one full-size (the G8). All the Grand Prix had to do was ride it out until the G8’s arrival, which ended up being two years after the VE Commodore’s launch. And the G8 and its Zeta platform-mates were predicted to sell 400,000 units annually.

As fate would have it, the Grand Prix almost survived up until Pontiac’s execution date. Lutz and his colleagues must have been deeply disappointed that their plans of reinventing Pontiac as a niche performance brand had been torn asunder. But those plans had gotten off to a rocky start as GM continued to foist lazy rebadges like the G3 and G5 on the excitement division. Even the dated Grand Prix was a more authentic, brand-appropriate vehicle than the cloned-Aveo G3.

Despite intense internal and external competition, Grand Prix sales didn’t completely fall off a cliff after 2004. The previous generation had sold between 120,000 and 140,000 units annually, and the first year of the new generation saw an uptick from 2003 to 131,551 units. From then until 2007, the Grand Prix lost around 10-20k sales each year until 2008 when just 8,636 were sold. Although the car was still a good seller, that was primarily due to heavy fleet sales: in the first half of 2007, for example, 77.6% of Grand Prix sedans went to fleets. That was an even higher percentage than the Ford Econoline!

Ultimately, the Grand Prix was a stopgap, an appetiser for a tastier meal to come. Unfortunately, last night’s leftovers weren’t what retail customers were craving.

Photo Credits:

Grand Prix photographed by Jason Shafer in April 2017 in Osage Beach, Missouri. 

Altima photographed by author in Chelsea, NY and 300 in Washington Heights, NY during 2013-14; Charger and G8 in Washington, D.C. in 2012

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