Vintage R&T Road Test: 1973 Pontiac Grand Am – American, Yes; Grand, Not So Much So

GM’s new colonnade mid-size family was the biggest news for 1973. Their styling was a bit surprising–almost shocking–after the long run of their predecessors as well as the competition. The coupes got the most dramatic treatment, with their semi-fastback roofs and bulging bodies. Clearly Pontiac’s Grand Am made the biggest visual impact, with its impact-resistant Endura nose. It also tried mighty hard to wrap itself in the mantle of a genuine American Road Car, the equal of the finest that Europe was increasingly sending this way.

Road and Track tested one, a rather mildly equipped 400-2V/automatic version, undoubtedly the most commonly sold version, and came away with some positive impressions. But ultimately it was still just an American car, with many of the usual virtues and vices.

GM was clearly going after the growing European sport sedan market with three of its new Colonnade cars, with the Cutlass Salon, Grand Am, and the Monte Carlo’s new Mercedes-inspired front suspension geometry. R&T set out to test all three, starting with the GA.

It may have been sitting on a rather modest 112″ wheelbase, but it–and the rest of the gang–were neither small nor svelte, measuring over 208″ long and weighing over two tons.

R&T was none too impressed with the “gee whiz” styling, which seemed to imitate hoods from the 1930s, fenders of the 1940s, and the general decadence of the 1950s. True that. Overwrought, unless of course you like that sort of thing. It sure wasn’t an American BMW.

The interior got better marks, although not for space efficiency. The gauges on the dash were round, legible and there was even a thin veneer of genuine mahogany. And of course the isolated aspect when rolling along the freeway was a positive, and included the typically good air conditioning and sound insulation.

The 170 hp two-barrel 400 V8 rated good marks, with enough oomph to spin the tires a bit on an aggressive take-off. 0-60 was acquitted in 10.3 seconds. If one wanted more get-up and go, there were a number of engine options, all the way to a 310 hp 455, the most powerful engine offered by any domestic maker in 1973.  Somehow that seem more appropriate in a Firebird TA.

Fuel economy was poor, averaging 11 mpg. That sucks. And the engine exhibited the all-too common maladies thanks to tighter emission controls: lean surge at suburban speeds and poor cold starting, plus an odd occasional forward surge.

The Grand Am’s road manners combined handling and ride that was better than earlier domestic attempts at “road cars”, but the suspension’s limitations due to lack of sophistication were still there. As usual, the ride and handling was good on good roads but deteriorated as the road conditions did: the front end floats when coming out of undulations at speed, and there was too little suspension travel, one of the key limiting factors in all American cars then. This is what separated them from the Europeans, who had longer travel and yet managed to keep their relatively soft springs under control with excellent damping.

Under these conditions, things “get dicey” because of the numb power steering. R&T called it “power steering for parking, not for driving”. It’s not uncommon to hear praise for these Colonnades when equipped with handling packages (standard on the GA), but in comparison to the better European sedans, the gulf was still considerable. But then that’s not what most buyers of American cars cared about. So that’s what they got.

Braking was “satisfactory”. City-driving maneuverability was limited, due to its size and width as well as visibility.

R&T summed it up by saying the GA was designed for effect, and it got that. Folks either reacted very positively or sneered at it. Polarization isn’t exactly a new phenomena.