Test Driven: 2004 Pontiac GTO

The three letters “G-T-O” are legendary in automotive culture. They stand for “Gran Turismo Omologato”, an Italian phrase which means “Grand Touring Homologation”. Ferrari is the most famous manufacturer to use this phrase, as the famous 250GTO entered history as one of the most famous and sought-after Ferraris ever built. The other manufacturer to use this acronym heavily was General Motors during the same time period. From 1964 to 1974, Pontiac built its GTO, at first just an option package on the midsize Tempest, then later on a fully-fledged model. The GTO kicked off the muscle-car era, an era that went down as one of the most famous in American automotive history, but died in 1974 as a flabby memory of its former self, downgraded to an option on the Ventura (Pontiac’s Chevy Nova clone). But, in 2004, GM decided to bring back the name, 30 years later. They took the Holden Monaro, slapped a new front and rear end on it, moved the steering wheel, and gave it a few Pontiac badges. I took this used 2004 model to the streets to see if it was any good.

The Monaro was a modern day muscle car. Wide, long, and on the heavy side, it had just two doors and four seats, with rear wheel drive and a mandatory 8 cylinders. In its home market, it sold very well and when Pontiac wanted to bring back the muscle car to its showroom, the Monaro became a great platform to use. Alas, when it hit the Woodward Avenues and Main Streets of this country, it got criticized for its jellybean shape, high price (over 30 grand, more expensive than the Mustang at the time) and 2-ton curb weight. None of this mattered to me when I got the keys to it.

At launch, the GTO was a transplant right from Down Under. The engine came straight from the Corvette, a version of the 5.7L LS1 V8 with 350hp, while the transmission was a standard six-speed manual with an optional automatic. In 2005, Pontiac dropped the LS2 under the hood with 400hp at the driver’s disposal, and gave the hood a new set of scoops to differentiate the new model over the old. The rest of the car was pretty much the same as the Monaro. When I stepped into the GTO, the seats were nicely bolstered and quite thick, a good sign. The rest of the interior felt quite durable for its age save for numerous broken switches on the steering wheel and some wear on the shifter. With over 100,000 miles on the clock, it was way past “break-in” but still felt nicely kept on the inside, with all surfaces clean. Similar-age GM products don’t seem to age as well as these, a sign that the GTO used higher-end materials. One sign of its non-American heritage (a feature shared with the G8) was the window switches, which were mounted on the center console instead of the doors.

The outside was free of any real imperfections. I like the 2004’s body for its cleaner shape than the later models with their hood scoops. This look caught criticism for being too invisible on the street and for being too understated for the GTO name. I however disagree–the coupe’s clean looks are a great way to say that the GTO can be somewhat upscale. One twist of the key and I remembered all that was good about the LS1 V8 engine as it fired into life, leaving large amounts of lumpy noises a few feet from my ears. I grabbed for the shifter and put the car on the street to find out how GM modernized the muscle car that started it all.

My first impression was one of size. The GTO is a very big car for a two door 2+2 and being that it weighs nearly 2 tons, it’s no small fry at all. Driving down the road, I felt secure and larger than life. The GTO, even without the scoops, has some presence on the road ahead. The big seats are nice and comfortable, the dials are relatively easy to read (but the red dials make it rather hard to see the numbers at a remote glance), and the view out in front is nicely put together, with nothing getting in the way of that long, sloping hood. The engine was a cherry and a gem, idling smoothly with its American V8 soundtrack filling my ears. Visibility at sides and rear are decent and the thinner C-pillars help rearward visibility a lot. The ride is smooth for a car designed to go fast around corners, but still crashes over very large bumps. The Blaupunkt audio system still sounded great, and feels upscale in a car that originally cost less than 35 grand in 2004.

These letters mean a lot. To Ferrari fans, they are stuff of legend. To muscle car fans, they are the sign of the beginning of a great era.

I decided to stop toying with it after about 10-15 minutes and began hooning it. The 5.7 is not as powerful as the 6.0 (it is down about 50HP to the LS2 engine) but still had enough power to make me smile, even through a 4-speed automatic. It still roars and bellows, and the 350hp takes no chances with the rear tires, either–even on a bone-dry road, the rear tires will spin up all day long. It’s a gutsy engine and wastes no time to accelerate. The transmission is a bit old-fashioned and hunts for gears occasionally but it still works like it is supposed to. That said, a manual function would be a very nice touch. The brakes are decent for the job they do, with only a small amount of fade and surprisingly little nosedive. The suspension is great on ride but on handling it doesn’t disappoint either, with expected body lean but no nasty surprises. The tires have a lot of grip as well, but break loose when desired. Overall, it’s hard not to like this GTO. It’s no Ferrari and it’s no Tri-Power Goat, but it has a charm all its own and feels nicely brought up to date, even with its somewhat ordinary bodywork and high entry price at the time.

-Albert S. Davis

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