The Last Pontiac GTO Is Criminally Underrated: GM Hit Or Miss

Can a car be ahead of its time without being radical? After all, some of the great landmark cars of the past 100 years seriously moved the game on in some form. The Citroen DS still feels like the future, the original Mercedes-Benz CLS changed sedans forever, and even the Pontiac Aztek is currently enjoying its day in the sun. However, sometimes a car isn’t a game-changer, yet it still doesn’t see proper appreciation in its day. Take the final Pontiac GTO, for instance. In the words of Marty McFly, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we enter the walk-in freezer of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning, hoping to find delicious appetizers and not rats or whatever.

In the early 2000s, GM was sunsetting its pony car production, but Bob Lutz still wanted something muscular in the lineup. However, the General was in a tight spot. With the F-Body exiting production, the Kappa platform still several years out, and Cadillac looking to hog two rear-wheel-drive platforms, the company didn’t have many options for something that could take the role of the Firebird as a halo car for Buick-Olds-Pontiac showrooms. Fortunately, GM’s excitement brand ended up getting by with a little help from its Australian friends.

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Out Where The River Broke

Holden Monaro

To the casual observer, Australia looks a bit like what a British Texas would be. We’re talking about a nation of beer, utes, vast stretches of emptiness, wildlife that wants to kill you, regulations up the wazoo, and a penchant for fast, rear-wheel-drive cars. Relatively unbothered by the corporate overlords in Detroit, possibly because they were dealing with a domestic clusterfuck of their own, Holden kept cranking out rear-wheel-drive V8 passenger cars long after, say, the B-Body exited production. The  was really a simple matter of taking an Opel Omega, changing everything, and dropping in an Aussie-built version of GM’s third-generation small-block V8. Americans will better know this engine as the LS.

Along the way, Holden cooked up a large, rounded coupe variant called the Monaro, a moniker throwing things back to the heyday of Australian supercars. As the story goes, Bob Lutz took one look at this big bruiser, imagined it ripping up American highways, and then moved heaven and earth to bring it to America, because fast, rear-wheel-drive coupes are an American thing. There was just one thing to work out: What to call it.

Italian Lessons

Gran Turismo Omologato. That’s Italian for Grand Touring Homologated. It’s an evocative name, used on properly old-school Ferraris, and one that Pontiac shamelessly pilfered for an option package on its 1964 Tempest Le Mans. For a mere $295, shoppers could add a 325-horsepower (gross) 6.4-liter V8 engine, a three-speed manual transmission with a Hurst floor shifter, a four-barrel carb, dual pipes, a seven-blade fan, stiffer suspension, redline tires, and a list of cosmetic sundries. Unsurprisingly, it was a hit. The working, middle-class young people of America wanted horsepower and wanted it now. Little did everyone know that this hopped-up Pontiac was a declaration of war.

Over the next eight years, warheads bearing names like Cuda, 442, Boss, and SS ripped down American streets as a decade about peace and love in paranoid times showed its underbelly of hot, nasty, badass speed. In response to competition, the GTO just got faster, with big block motors, ram air induction, hood-mounted tachometers, and wild paint schemes. However, by 1973, the party was pretty much over. New emissions and safety requirements along with an oil crisis marked the end of the muscle car, with the American automotive industry plunging into a state of deep malaise. Fast forward to late 2003, and domestic performance was back. From supercharged Mustangs to the freaking Chevrolet SSR, America was in a new renaissance of muscle, and a reborn GTO sounded like just the car to take on the competition with.

Rumble In The Bronx

Pontiac Gto 2

Was the 2004 Pontiac GTO fast? Does an underprepared camper shit in the woods? Here’s what Car And Driver managed to get out of the 5.7-liter GTO — the slowest one sold.

If you want necks snapped, row hard and keep the gas pedal flat. The all-season 245/45 BFGoodrich g-Force T/As are mere shrimps on the barbie of the LS1 V-8. The GTO charges headlights ablaze out of a toxic cloud of tire smoke to turn 5.3 seconds at 60 mph and 14 seconds flat in the quarter-mile at 102 mph, clobbering with big-bore snort new import coupes such as the Infiniti G35 and Mazda RX-8.

Speed is wonderful, but it needs to come with sensation to be memorable. Whether the “oh god” spleen-mashing silent violence of a fast electric car or the primal banshee wail of an Italian V12, speed should feel a little bit antisocial, lest we become complacent. Thankfully, the GTO obliged, and Car And Driver summed it up best:

Best of all, the GTO vents USDA Prime V-8 grumble out of a genuine dual exhaust (the Monaro’s interconnecting H-pipe is there, but blocked off for meatier noise). The pops and thuds of backfires on the overrun sound positively illegal, like you’d pulled the cans and were heading for Paradise Road.

Now that’s what a fast, V8 coupe should be all about. However, the acceleration and noise might be the least-impressive part of the Pontiac GTO. I’ve been lucky enough to experience one, and came away enamored with its velvet-glove refinement.

Pontiac Gto 1

It’s a big, soft grand tourer that still handles better than you’d expect. Not only is the steering well-weighted, the chassis balance is set up in a properly approachable manner, hanging the tail out should you ask, reining it in with ease, and still defaulting to manageable understeer when seriously overdriven. Ride quality leans more Bavarian than anything, the whole car is surprisingly precise for a 3,800-pound bar of soap, and the GTO feels better screwed-together than any American GM product of that time. Forget a Cadillac, this was the best GM car you could buy for several years.

Growing Pains

Pontiac Gto 3

Despite spine-snapping bark and Rottweiler bite, the Pontiac GTO did have a few problems. Arguably the biggest problem on a day-to-day basis was the fuel tank. Due to pesky American requirements for not barbecuing occupants in rear-end collisions, the tank was moved from under the trunk floor to inside the trunk, right up against the rear seats. This raised the center of gravity and cut trunk space down to a mere 13 cubic feet. That’s less than you get in a Toyota Echo.

Pontiac Gto Interior

Of a more pressing matter in the GTO’s day was its styling — it just wasn’t lairy enough for American tastes. Instead of being some macho-posturing, testosterone-laden object of bedroom poster lust, the GTO was conservative, demure, and under the radar. Oh, and it’s not just me who thinks this way — Car And Driver noted the GTO’s tame appearance back in 2003, calling the styling “a snooze.” The soap bar looks and derivative greenhouse did make it look a bit like an oversized Sunfire, and I can totally understand that failing to resonate with American audiences.

Bulking Up

Pontiac Gto 5

In an attempt to overcome the somewhat anonymous styling, General Motors did the only thing it knew how to do — it threw more power at the problem. For 2005, the 5.7-liter, 350-horsepower LS1 V8 was out, and the six-liter, 400-horsepower LS2 was in. Oh, and the GTO also gained an unceremoniously grafted-on pair of nostrils as standard equipment, rather than as part of an optional package. The extra kick in the trousers pushed the GTO to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, as per Motor Trend, but the car still didn’t look particularly wild. Keep in mind, the Chrysler 300C and retro-style 2005 Ford Mustang were on the market at this point, both offering far more flash with reasonable performance.

For 2006, the Pontiac GTO carried over almost unchanged. A few new colors joined the palette, new taillights joined the party, minor switchgear changes occurred, and that was it. Sales jumped from 11,069 units to 13,948 GTOs, but the car still never met its initial 18,000-per-year sales target. Australian publication Drive reports that by June 14, 2006, the last GTO rolled off the line in Adelaide, and it was curtains for Pontiac’s two-door import.

Time Is A Healer

Pontiac Gto 6

Over the past 17 years, something funny has happened to the GTO’s competitors: They’ve all aged like milk. The 2005 Ford Mustang now looks like the cartoonish pastiche it is, and it has some hilarious build quality issues like paint not adhering to its aluminum hood and leather door card inserts flopping down at the drop of a hat. The Chrysler 300C that was so cool in the mid-aughts was another fashion car that now looks like the four-wheeled equivalent of a Von Dutch trucker hat. Sure, it’s nostalgic, but its trashy nature is showing. Besides, those Chryslers go through front end components like no tomorrow, and often weren’t cared for particularly well.

In contrast, the Pontiac GTO has only grown better with age. Sure, parts support can be a bear, but the staid lines have aged well, and the interior stands the test of time. It’s a wonderfully mature yet sinfully powerful bruiser that seems to transcend class much the way that the Volkswagen GTI does. You can turn up to a no-prep race or a corporate managerial job in a GTO and not look like a complete buffoon at either location. What’s more, it’s still quick and lovely to drive by today’s standards. These days, with a little bit of digging, you can pick up an LS2-powered GTO for under $20,000, and still have it be sublime. For anyone infatuated with the car when it was new, it’s still a hero worth driving. If that doesn’t make it a hit, I don’t know what does.

(Photo credits: Pontiac, Holden)

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