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This GTO Needs More Retro

I met Bob Lutz years ago when he was a top executive at Chrysler, now DaimlerChrysler (DCX). I was a New York editor from BusinessWeek visiting the annual Detroit Auto Show to check out the latest cars and made the mistake of referring to him as "Mr. Lutz." His face took on a look of disdain. Turning to the other reporters gathered around him, he said with an air of disgust that wasn't entirely feigned: "Mr. Lutz? Who is this guy? My name is Bob."

Since 2001, of course, Lutz has been a top gun at General Motors (GM), charged with helping it come up with more exciting cars. And the anecdote pretty well reflects many of the new models that show his influence: uncomplicated, no-nonsense, macho. Lutz is a man's man who loves classic American muscle cars, but he's also a sophisticated, European-born executive who admires the sophistication and workmanship of European cars. The two-door, rear-wheel-drive Pontiac GTO reflects bits and pieces of both of those influences.

QUICK PICKUP. Obviously, any car with the Pontiac GTO name inspires high expectations. The original, which was on the market from 1964 to 1974, was one of the great cult cars -- a rough, tough muscle car with classy good looks. In terms of speed and power, the new GTO, which came out in 2004, is designed to revive that heritage. Among other things, GM engineers ran dozens of computer simulations so the new car would exactly emulate the snarl of the original GTO's engine.

GM also made the new GTO one of the fastest street-legal models on the market. The first, '04 version didn't have enough power (a mere 350 horses under the hood), so '05 GTO got hood scoops and a six-liter, 400-horsepower Corvette engine. This car moves. It's like a Ferrari or Maserati in that you can find yourself going 65 miles per hour when you thought you were doing 40. Automobile magazine says the new GTO tops out at 150 mph and goes from 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds, compared with 5.6 seconds for Ford's (F) Mustang GT and 6.1 seconds for the Dodge Charger R/T 9.

The GTO's steering is very precise, and a traction-control system comes standard. Going hard into a curve, you have no trouble. But it's also pleasant just to head down the highway in this car. The ride is smooth. The instrument panel and controls are uncomplicated. The GTO seats four, and the rear is just roomy enough to be comfortable. I was surprised to find the legroom in the back adequate (I'm 5 ft., 10 in.), unless the seats were way back.

HEAVY METAL. Reflecting one of Lutz's preoccupations, the interior is extremely well-made. The workmanship of the black leather upholstery in my test car was flawless. Even the glove box -- which in many GM models is flimsy --is solid and satisfying to open and close. Though I could do without the tacky yellow stitching on the leather-wrapped stick shift.

On the other hand, it has lots of design touches to remind you that this is an American muscle car. When you push the button -- very handily located on the dashboard -- to open the gas-tank door, there's a loud, slingshot sound as the door springs open. The gas, clutch, and brake pedals are all in brutal-looking perforated metal. As with any true muscle car, it takes a lot of muscle to depress the clutch. If you aren't careful, the car chugs when you take off from a dead stop.

So why hasn't the GTO been a runaway hit like the new Mustang? While Ford's car has a retro design that reminds people of classic Mustangs, the GTO looks modern. It's adapted from an Australian GM model and has a curviness that to my eye looks like a giant throat lozenge. "It isn't like the old GTO," says Mark Dolph, 44, a Monroe (N.C.) carpenter who, as a car-crazed 17-year-old, souped up a used 1968 GTO. "I knew it was my car," he says of first seeing the original GTO, but the new model "doesn't bring back the [feeling] that I really want one."

TINY TRUNK. The car has other shortcomings, too. The shift throws on the manual transmission are long, so you can't make the quick, economical shifts that you can in many performance cars. The trunk is minuscule. And the standard rear spoiler makes it hard to see out the rear window -- I had to adjust the seat way up to get a better view.

The GTO is also on the pricey side now that GM's big "employee price for everyone" discounts are phasing out. It comes standard with leather interior, a 10-speaker Blaupunkt sound system and six-CD changer, fog lamps, rear spoiler, and lots of other cool add-ons. But it lists for $34,295, for both the '05 and '06 models, including the $1,300 federal gas-guzzler tax (plus $695 for the six-speed manual transmission, which I would definitely prefer to the standard four-speed automatic).

But there's no stripped-down version if you want to spend less. It's also not all that cheap to operate: The GTO is rated at 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway with a stick shift, and it needs premium gasoline.

Still, that's to be expected with a muscle car. And I have to say, the GTO turns heads. Everywhere I drove, pedestrians would stop and watch. And the '06 comes in cool new colors like Spice Red and Fusion Orange. It's a nice car, but it's as if Lutz only got half the job done. It just isn't enough like the original GTO.

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