Pontiac G6 Review

Pontiac G6 ReviewPontiac has dished out its share of cataclysmic subjects over the years. A sports car whose mid-mounted engine caught fire (Fiero), a mutated minivan that forever scarred the legend of an indigenous Mesoamerican tribe (Aztek), and the awesome instant classic roadster landing in showrooms right now (Solstice) are some of the more recent examples.

Sometimes the ones you least suspect cause the most trouble. Just last year General Motors took the Chevrolet Malibu and dressed it up in a Pontiac suit we've seen many times before, giving it the anonymous new name of G6 (replacing Grand Am). Business as usual - right up until they spent $8 million to give away 276 on them on the Oprah Winfrey Show, which got everyone talking. None of this impressed Pulitzer prize winner Dan Neil of the L.A. Times, whose view of the G6 was best conveyed through his suggestion that the man responsible for its design get "sweeped from GM's dugout" like so much dirt. GM's reward for such honesty was to sever a $10 billion advertising deal with the Times, drawing a firestorm of national debate about corporate bullying and freedom of the press. Finally, there was the headline of the G6 missing sales targets despite an average discount of twenty percent given to people who would take them off Pontiac lots, making it seem like the most desperate dud in a very large stable.

What's all the fuss about, anyway?

Road TestPontiac G6 Review
After living with the G6 for days on end, my definitive answer is: I dunno. Seemed pretty normal to me. Our sample had the strongest of the G6's three engines, a new 3.9-liter V6 that easily had enough power and torque (240 each) to satisfy all but the most impatient drivers. That's almost as true of last year's only engine, the 201-horsepower 3.5-liter V6, and the automatic transmission hooked up to both engines shifts just when you would. The G6 steers and turns fine and the disc brakes found on all models (unlike at many competitors) apply themselves with sufficient firmness. GM's marketing and engineering teams could use better communication skills - why stick the "sporty" G6 with an extra-long 112.3-inch wheelbase instead of the Malibu's six-inches-shorter span? - but that was a subjective decision.

Comfort is basically on par as well. While rough roads cause some uncontrolled bounce on this stiffer-sprung GTP model, most bumps are decently shrugged off by the suspension, which got a promotion to a four-link design in the rear (paired to the same struts in front) in the Grand Am > G6 changeover. Quieter cars exist, but the quantity of noise isn't a problem, either. Mostly, the G6 drives the way a mid-size family sedan should.

Mostly, yes, though there are details. We can start by pointing out the cheap engineering budget assigned to this car's most costly components. At a time when Honda, Toyota, and Nissan give 5-speed automatic transmissions and Mazda and Ford pack six-shooters, Pontiac's four-on-the-floor counts as minimum wage, doing no favors for the G6's power flexibility or gas mileage. Defenders counterargue that having too many gears raises the question of diminishing returns, but those well-versed in all things technological don't ask such questions until gear count gets past five or six.

Then there's the engine, whose 240 horsepower really isn't a whole lot for 3.9 liters - the culprit being the archaic pushrod design with only two valves in each cylinder. Refinement is absent from this lumbering mass of iron, which shakes the G6 to life when fired up in the morning and shakes it down some more when idling at every stoplight. Variable valve timing did nothing to improve the lame sound it makes on its way to redline, and this giant V6 sets a segment low with fuel economy of 18 MPG - same as a Honda freakin Odyssey - which combines with the small 16-gallon fuel tank to limit driving range to 238 measly miles before the low-fuel light sets off.

On the majority of G6s, a third flaw is an electric steering unit that gives a number feeling than anything at your dentist's office. Springing for a GTP model like ours gets a conventional hydraulic system that feels more natural, but the fact that I had to look this up says something about the degree of improvement.

The G6 has a few high points, too. Gear count aside, GM's transmission is as mannerly as the best of them, picking gears with near-perfect judgment (something Honda's Accord can't do) and providing a manual shift mode that never butts in or overrides your intentions, unlike almost everyone else's. Throttle response is very nice, the steering is at least sporty in its quickness, and grip is tenacious thanks to the GTP's big P225/50R18 tires. Lastly, GM remains alone in offering a remote engine start feature that you can use to warm up the car and cool/heat the cabin before entering.

Mostly, though, the you have to consciously think about the G6's drive to form a strong opinion about it. If there's something glaringly off about this particular Pontiac, you won't find it behind the wheel.

Inside & OutPontiac G6 Review
There's plenty that's radically absurd in the design department - if you're a former Pontiac owner. Those trading in their Grand Ams may be shocked and appalled by the G6's clean, attractive shape and lack of extraneous body cladding, Trojan-esque ribbing, Batwing spoiler, or cartoonish wheel spoke inserts. The rest of us know this as normal.

The revolution continues on the interior, where the G6 marks the first Pontiac in decades that doesn't assault the eyes with tacky double-barreled instruments, discordant shapes, or a scattered mess of ugly, protruding air vents that continue to mar designs as recent as the 2004 Grand Prix. Sorry, but all you'll find in the G6 is uncluttered, modern design with a good sense of symmetry and easy access to all controls. There are exactly four air vents, all modeled after the Mazda 6's ideal design. Pontiac may have abandoned its war on taste, but didn't abandon such trademark cues like the trademark red glow or slick mix of black and chrome touches, which maintain its distinct flavor. And only in its second year, the G6 ditches its 4-spoke Malibu steering wheel for a much cooler 3-spoker also shared with the Solstice.

The G6's import-inspired controls work pretty well, with generally easy to use radio and climate controls, headlights on the turn signal tip, child-friendly window controls, etc. The steering wheel is wrapped in a nice hide of leather (with more normal-sized bulges at 10 and 2 than some recent Pontiacs) and there's a sturdy feel to the switches and levers. A roomy console sits in the center with reliable cupholders plus a handy coin tray on the driver's side. Possible areas of improvement include the steering wheel controls, whose buttons are too small and numerous for easy use, and a rethinking of the decision to let the main odometer sit alone in the instrument cluster while stashing the multifaceted computer (two trip odometers, miles to empty, average MPG, average MPH, oil life monitor) in the radio display, which is busy enough juggling the stereo, clock, and temperature as it is. Oh, and someone labeled the wiper's intermittent knob backwards.

While I don't share my colleagues' sentiments of cheap-looking materials, a panel peeling off the passenger's seat and an ill-fitting glovebox at only 1,800 miles into our test car's life don't exactly inspire a leap of faith.

Literally, at least, the firmly-padded G6 has got your back. Also, the long track and good contours got your legs and sides, the tilt-and-telescope steering wheel's got your arms, the optional power-adjustable pedals got your feet, and last but not least, that stereo's got your ears. Thumping through no less than three speakers in each door (two more in the back deck) are crisp highs, a wallop of wattage, and a boatload of bass. I loved how the preset buttons grab your station right now.

But about those seats, a little extra firmness still wouldn't be unwelcome, especially in the two-person back row where Grand Am-like sogginess in the support-less bottom cushion makes itself known within minutes. And since that bench only seats two (not a bad idea in a coupe), wouldn't it make sense to contour the chairs accordingly and maybe add an armrest? Lastly, regarding all positions, the mixture of generous legroom, a sloping profile, and a headroom-eating sunroof (coupes get a conventional roof instead of the interesting four-panel Panoramic device optional on sedans) means tall people will fit fine only if they're all legs and no torso. Rear visibility isn't great for the driver, either. That's a pretty nice trunk, though, and GM spent the money to give the G6 space-saving gas struts.

Pontiac's interior doesn't top its league, but it is in the league.

Other ThoughtsPontiac G6 Review
The G6 welcomes several new variants for 2006 to join the 4-door, V6, 4-speed automatic model that fought alone last year. Last year's 3.5-liter V6 (201 horses) now stands sandwiched between a 3.9-liter V6 (240) and 2.4-liter 4-cylinder (167). All still hook up to a 4-speed automatic transmission; the big V6 can get a new 6-speed manual at no extra charge. Coupe and convertible body styles are the other news, the former already here and the latter coming in spring of 2006, both with the V6 engines only. That convertible features a retractable hardtop.

The base model G6 can be had with the two bottom engines, GTs get only the 3.5-liter V6, and GTPs get the 3.9. Lots of slight mechanical variations to remember here. The GT and GTP get thicker stabilizer bars and a manual shift mode in their automatics. The 3.9-liter V6 falls by 13 horsepower on convertibles. Base models have 16-inch wheels, GT 17s, and GTP 18s. The base, 6-cylinder, GT, and GTP models each have their own final-drive ratio. GM's contradictory press releases state the hydraulic power steering coming on GTP coupes only; another says it's on GTP sedans as well. Who's right?

Aside from a new stripped-down price leader model ($17,990), the G6 sedan starts at $19,490 for the 4-cylinder, $20,655 for the V6, $23,180 for the GT, and $24,835 for the GTP. Coupe versions of GT and GTP come $225 cheaper.

GM might not be pushing that 4-cylinder engine, but it actually seems like the most enticing deal here. It's more fitting with the G6's personality and price positioning, and it's of a more modern design than the V6s. Also, with 2.4 liters and 167 horses, it's stronger than the Chevy Malibu's 4, gas mileage will climb back on the correct side of 20 MPG, and the 38% diet in engine volume (along with the switch to aluminum construction) will relieve the G6's overburdened front half of a few hundred pounds.

But as for our GTP. . . 25 grand for this? Sorry, can't picture it. Not counting GM's flavor-of-the-month rebates, that kind of money buys one of the sports sedans the G6 wants to be - the sharp, fun-to-drive Mazda 6 / Ford Fusion or Nissan Altima - or buys the car the G6 ends up hitting: the functional-but-flaccid Toyota Camry / Solara. The G6 may be competitive in many areas, but when compared to cars that bring more satisfaction in the drive, make more pleasant sounds, and go faster and/or farther on gas, Pontiac's slacker powertrains catch up to it.

To fans who have been waiting for GM to build a mid-size sports sedan with a competitive powertrain: wait one year longer. The upcoming Saturn Aura, featuring the 275-horsepower twin cam V6 and 5-speed automatic that were supposed to go into the canceled Pontiac G6 GXP, should cure your woes. [source : automotive.com]


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