GTO has earth-pounding performance

Friday, September 24, 2004

In 1964 we were reeling from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the intensifying Cold War. Films like "Fail-Safe" heated up our fears of nuclear war, and Dr. Strangelove had us watching from the cockpit of a B-52 as we launched a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union. The nation was suffering from a massive tension headache as two American automotive icons shocked the world when they debuted about the same time -- the Ford Mustang and the Pontiac GTO. One would become known as the world's first pony car, and the other would become the first muscle car.

Introduced as a high-performance version of Pontiac's Tempest, the GTO won raves with its combination of styling and pavement-scorching V-8 power. The GTO was a midsize car sporting a big 389-cubic-inch V-8 engine, a firm suspension, hood scoops, fancy wheels and chrome dual exhausts. It started a rivalry among the majors, and soon names like Roadrunner, Charger, 442, SS-396 and Torino Cobra were showing up at gas stations and swilling lead-laced, high-octane fuel. Those cars were just what we needed to get our minds off our problems, yet they created problems of their own. Within a few years, because of gas shortages and government restrictions, they would either disappear or lose much of their sporting muscle. By 1974 the "Goat's" source of power was a 350-cubic-inch V-8 that put out a respectable 200 horsepower, but didn't come close to packing the punch of the old 389 with its triple two-barrel carburetors. The GTO was dropped after 1974, but had it continued in production, it would have celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

So I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new GTO, wondering if the new version would get the old Goat's personality and performance. Last week I test-drove a pretty yellow one equipped with the only available option -- a six-speed manual transmission -- and I can tell you without reservation that the new GTO ain't what it used to be in terms of handling, acceleration, comfort, convenience or economy.

Awesome acceleration

Although the GTO's MSRP of about $32,000 isn't cheap, you'll have to spend much more than that to get this kind of acceleration from any other brand of true four-passenger automobile. In 1960's parlance, "This baby runs"! I'm talking zero to 60 mph in about 5.5 seconds! The old Goat couldn't do that. With 350 horsepower and 365 pound-feet of torque, the 5.7-liter, "LS1" powerhouse comes equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission or the optional six-speed manual gearbox and a 3.46-ratio limited-slip rear end. Traction control is standard on the new GTO, as are 245/45 BF-Goodrich performance tires running on 17-inch, five-spoke wheels. The quarter-mile arrives in 14 ticks flat, which means a match between the old and the new GTOs would embarrass the old Goat. And to the best of my memory, the '64 got around 10 miles to the gallon, while the 2004 should get nearly 30 mpg in highway driving!

Great handling

Stopping the new 3,700-pound GTO is as easy as making it go, thanks to the antilock four-wheel disc brakes that can bring it to a rest from 60 mph in under 122 feet. But avoidance is often the bast tactic, and the GTO shines here, too. With four-wheel independent suspension, variable-assist power steering and sticky performance tires, I had a great time on twisty back roads, without the sports car-like pounding that some performance cars give you. The ride was not plush, but it was supple. This car not only handles well, but also can be used for normal everyday commuting.

Speaking of commuting, you're going to be seeing a lot of smiles on driver's faces when word gets around about the new GTO's seating and other comfort features. Other than crawling into the back seats, I have nothing but praise for the interior accommodations. The combination of high-quality trim, attractive style and excellent build quality is noteworthy. Four well-shaped buckets (two in front and two in back) offer great seating no matter where you plop down. And the back seats have their own air conditioning vents and plenty of leg and head room for extended trips.

The instrument panel and dashboard are tastefully done, but do not have the Pontiac family resemblance that I have become accustomed to. That's probably because this vehicle is imported from GM's Holden division in Australia. The Holden Monaro is the basis for the new GTO, which also explains why the new version doesn't resemble the old one on the exterior, either. Gone are the old hood scoops and muscular look. There is, however, a modern-looking wing-spoiler on the trunk lid, which leads to a surprisingly small trunk. I don't know why the trunk is so short … perhaps a convertible is coming? That would suit me to a tee. Make that a Goat-ee!

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at sjr1@robertsonsphotography.com.

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