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GTO returns to Pontiac lineup

December 26, 2003|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

How many other names in automotive history exude power, performance and muscle-car pedigree with just three letters?

How many other cars can be known, simply, as GTO?

Yes, this powerful brand is back for 2004. But does the new GTO stand a chance at recapturing the magic of the original without trampling all over its rich heritage? That is the question, but as the only rear-drive V-8 powered GM two-door car this side of a Corvette, it might not matter what badge is on it. The GTO will sell.

Back in the early 1960s, Pontiac wanted to re-energize the youth car market. It wanted to command attention and excite customers' senses.

Check. Check. And check.

When the "Goat," as it is affectionately known, appeared on the scene in late 1963, heads turned and the auto world counter-rotated on its axis. The name GTO came from the Italian Gran Turismo Omologato racing series. It's also a name that Ferrari happened to be using for one of its vehicles.

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Pontiac's version was a powerful rear-wheel-drive coupe - a modified Tempest - that came to symbolize the division's performance image. The car defined true American street strength. It was the first muscle car.

Designated as the "rebirth of a legend," the 2004 GTO is a modern-day incarnation of classic street performance. Turn the key and you can hear the throaty dual exhaust. Raise the hood and you can see the beefy V-8. Despite a familiar name, however, these two traits are the only real connection with past and, again, only in spirit.

Where the original GTO earned its stripes hashing it out on the streets and drag strips across America, the new model attempts to play off the nostalgia of that success. Whether it can, 40 years later, is entirely the point, but might be completely irrelevant when you consider what this car offers in its own right.

The name might be a way into buyers' hearts, but the car will do all the talking once they get behind the wheel.

How does a Corvette-based 350-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8 and a six-speed manual transmission sound? Go to Pontiac's website and you can "click" to hear it for yourself. The powertrain hustles the 3,700-pound package to 60 mph in a respectable 5.5 seconds. It's off the pace of the Corvette, but the GTO is both substantially cheaper and heavier (by 500 pounds) than the Chevy, and, of course, it holds three other passengers. Aside from the snarling exhaust note, special performance hardware includes a 17-inch wheel/tire combo that's matched to a fully independent performance-tuned suspension. Traction control is standard as are four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock.

OK, it has the right gear, but where, exactly, did this new GTO come from? Is it a modified Grand Prix, perhaps? A stretched Cavalier platform, maybe? Actually, it's not based on anything found on these shores, but, in fact, a reworked Australian Holden Monaro (Holden is a General Motors' subsidiary). Can it then really be called a GTO? Again, it might not matter.

The new GTO is a real looker with a distinct and tautly stretched exterior, an aggressive lowered stance and a sleek, simple form. It's clean and uncluttered, which is half the battle these days. However, unlike Ford's 2005 Mustang or current Thunderbird, there's really nothing nostalgic about the GTO . . . it just plain looks great.

Inside is more of the same modern flair. In fact, it will quickly make you forget about the past. Standard features are plentiful, including leather seats with large thigh and torso bolsters, a six-disc CD changer with 10 speakers, cruise control, a multi-function driver-information center and keyless entry.

Safety features include side-impact air bags and an Emergency Mode that automatically shuts down the engine, turns off the fuel pump, unlocks the doors and illuminates the interior any time an air bag pops.

Leaving your past in the dust while paying homage to it is a fine line for the GTO walk. Its finesse in doing so will ultimately be proven in the showroom.

Back in 1964, only 5,000 units were scheduled to be built. More than 30,000 were ordered. Before the GTO ended its production in 1974, more than 500,000 were sold.

That's the kind of production GM is aiming for this time around.

That's the kind of GTO we've been waiting for, whether it emulates a piece of the past or simply outperforms it by a wide margin.

© 2003, Wheelbase Communications

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