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Pontiac's Great G8

Editor's Rating: star rating

The Pontiac G8 is a tight, well-built, powerful sport sedan that offers superior performance at a price under $30,000

Up Front

General Motors' (GM) new Pontiac G8 GT surprised me as much as any car I've ever reviewed. I was expecting a mundane family vehicle. What I experienced was a tight, well-built, rear-wheel drive sport sedan with speed and handling akin to the Cadillac CTS, one of the hottest-selling models GM has come out with in years.

Just how good is the new G8 GT? Car and Driver magazine dubbed it "the BMW that Pontiac always wanted to build" because it matched a BMW (BMWG) 5 Series sedan (a $60,000 car) in most performance tests. That's amazing considering the G8 GT's starting price is just $29,995. And the Pontiac not only is powered by a huge, 6-liter, 361-hp V-8 engine but also has a clean, well-appointed interior and comes with standard equipment that includes six airbags, 18-in. aluminum wheels, a tilting and telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, a trip computer, and full power accessories. (For those on a budget, there's also a base model G8 powered by a 3.6-liter, 256-hp V6 that starts at just $27,595.)

At 196 in. long, the G8 is about two inches shorter than the Pontiac Grand Prix, the model it's replacing. But it's still a good-sized sedan that's 4.5 inches longer than the Cadillac CTS. The Pontiac's rear legroom and big 17.5 cu. ft. trunk almost exactly match those of the Chrysler 300, which looks bigger than the G8 when you see it on the road.

The GT's fuel economy isn't half bad, considering its size and the fact that it accelerates like a Bimmer. It's rated to get 15 mpg in the city and 24 on the highway, and in 215 miles of fast driving I got a respectable 22.9 mpg. The base-model G8, which is rated at 17/25, only does moderately better.

Will it sell? The G8 is made in Australia, where a similar model is marketed as the Holden VE Commodore. That isn't necessarily a formula for success, given the fate of the Pontiac GTO, another rear-wheel drive model imported from Down Under that bombed in the U.S. and had to be dropped after the 2006 model year.

GM sold a total of 2,126 G8's in April, the new sedan's first full month on the market, so it's too early to know for sure, but my guess is the G8 will fare better than the GTO. Pontiac could use a boost: Its overall sales fell 8.6%, to 96.386, in the first four months of this year—on top of a 12.7% decline to 358,022 units for all of 2007.

Behind the Wheel

The stunning thing about the G8 GT is how fast it is. I clocked my test car at 5.5 seconds in accelerating from zero to 60, which is about what the company says it will do. That puts the GT midway between a BMW 328i and the superfast BMW 335i—and makes it about 1.5 seconds faster than the base model Pontiac G8. However, the GT's ride is so smooth and quiet it doesn't feel that quick. The first time I clocked my test GT in a zero to 60 run, I didn't believe my stopwatch. So I tried again—and got exactly the same time.

In addition to being fast, the GT is fun to drive. It comes with a six-speed automatic (vs. a five-speed in the base model) with a manual shifting function that in my test GT was quick. The steering is precise and well-balanced. The suspension is stiff enough to handle hard cornering without making the ride too hard. The cabin remains quiet and the ride smooth both on the highway and bumpy back roads. The oversize 12-in.-plus brakes are extremely effective. Car and Driver says the GT comes to a full stop from 70 mph in just 163 ft., 24 feet less than a Dodge Charger R/T.

The G8's standard interior reminds me a little of the BMW 3 Series in that it isn't fancy but has clean, attractive lines. A $1,250 Premium Package that includes leather upholstery and heated and power-adjustable front seats makes the cabin more upscale (but still not luxurious).

To my eye, the G8's exterior looks European, with a crouched, ready-to pounce stance. The GT, which has such styling touches as dual air scoops on the hood, fender bulges around the tires, and big quad exhaust outlets in back, is much less sedate looking than the base model. One styling touch I really like is the exterior door handles, which are the same color as the body, but surrounded by shiny chrome trim.

If raw speed is your thing, maybe you should wait to check out the new 2009 GXP version of the G8, for which the cylinders of the V8 will be bored out, raising its horsepower rating to 402. The company says the GXP, which is due out late this year, will accelerate from zero to 60 in 4.7 seconds. For the 2010 model year, Pontiac also plans to introduce a G8 "sport truck" (powered by the same V8 engine that's in the GT) that it promises will "blur the line between cars and trucks" by offering the performance of a sport sedan and the rear bed of a pickup truck.

Buy it or Bag It?

I think the G8 is a bargain. Preliminary data show the base model is selling for an average of $28,665 and the GT for an average of $31,413, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That includes an average cash rebate of $1,141, largely because GM is offering a $1,000 loyalty bonus to buyers who already own a late-model GM vehicle. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP))

Adding options doesn't jack up the G8's price much, because there aren't many to add. The main options are the aforementioned Premium Package and a $600 Performance Package that includes high performance summer tires and 19-in. aluminum wheels. A sunroof goes for $600. On the base model, the Premium Package costs $1,375 and the sunroof $900. There's also a $795 Comfort and Sound Package on the base model that upgrades the sound system and adds dual-zone air conditioning.

The base model G8 competes with other GM models, such as the Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu, as well as rivals such as the Dodge Charger and the Nissan (NSANY) Maxima. But it's hard to come up with an exact head-on competitor to the GT. Despite Car and Driver's accolades, the G8 GT doesn't really compete with a BMW 5 Series. The BMW that's closest in price is the new 1 Series, which is a much smaller vehicle. More comparable is the Infiniti M35, which handles equally well and has a nicer cabin. But the '08 M35 also costs an average of $35,720, some five grand more than the G8 GT.

In a way, the Pontiac's closest rival in terms of style and handling is the Caddie CTS. But the CTS is fancier inside and smaller in size—and sells for an average of $39,477, eight grand more than the G8 GT. Call the G8 GT the poor man's (or woman's) CTS. That's not a bad thing to be.

Click here to see more of the 2008 Pontiac G8 GT.

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