2008 Pontiac Torrent GXP

Pontiac is juicing up its mid-size crossover by giving it a massively more powerful 3.6-liter V-6 and other performance-related goodies

Pontiac, the brand that gave us the GTO in 1964 and officially launched the muscle car era, knows that adding a dose of horsepower to an otherwise ho-hum vehicle can have a transformative effect. A nothing-special 326 LeMans can become a Tri-Power 389 GTO.

Likewise, a transportation module like the Torrent crossover can finally live up to its name, once it becomes a GXP.

What's a GXP? It's a new version of the Torrent that Pontiac is putting into the lineup for '08 to help juice up interest in its mid-size, five-door crossover. The package centers around a 3.6-liter V-6 that's massively more powerful than the 3.4-liter V-6 that's been the standard Torrent powerplant since the model's introduction back in 2006. The new engine produces 264 hp, a great leap forward of nearly 80 horsepower over the 3.4's not-so-torrential 185 hp rating.

The GXP package also includes a standard six-speed automatic transmission with "tap up, tap down" manual shift control, polished 18-inch rims with 50-series Goodyear Eagle RS-A performance tires, unique hood with twin pressed-in "aero scoops," dual exhaust tips jutting out of the rear valance, and projector-style fog lamps leading the way up front. The suspension's been lowered and tuned to be firmer, too. GM's Stabilitrak integrated electronic traction/stability control system is also included, as are heated front seats, a performance-themed gauge cluster and GXP-specific exterior, and interior trim.

The GXP may be ordered with either front-wheel drive ($27,830) or all-wheel drive ($28,980). This is unusual: most of the time with a performance-themed crossover/wagon, all-wheel drive is mandatory. That's a great choice to have, because not everyone needs or wants AWD, but most of us would agree that the extra power is desirable. The AWD system adds about 140 pounds (4060 vs. 3919) and slows down the GXP a little, and cuts fuel economy a bit, but again, it's choice that matters.

Rubber on the road

So, what kind of performance does the GXP deliver? Zero to sixty is now reachable in about 6.9 seconds with the front-drive version. All-wheel-drive versions are maybe a tenth or so slower. Either way, this is a huge improvement over the 3.4-liter Torrent, which needs closer to ten seconds to make the same run.

The DOHC 3.6-liter V-6 likes to rev and pulls enthusiastically to almost 7000 rpm before bouncing off the limiter - with the six-speed automatic holding it close to redline during full-throttle runs. The "tap-up/tap-down" feature is fun to play with, but isn't necessary to get performance-feel shifts. The six-speed will respond sharply even when left in Drive; like other new-generation automatics, it's programmed with shift algorithms that let the transmission "know" when you are driving like a hooligan and will do things like hold a lower gear for you without being told. I did experience some unsettling clunks when transitioning to wide-open throttle from steady-state cruise at road speeds; the problem, hopefully, was unique to the vehicle I tested, which as a press car has probably seen a lot of abuse.

So outfitted, the Torrent GXP will handily run circles around a Hyundai Santa Fe, Mitsubishi Outlander, or Toyota RAV4. None of those competitors even offer performance packages. The Torrent also delivers a far more credible facsimile of sporty handling than the typical truck-based SUV (or even car-based crossover). Though you're not going to out-corner sports cars, you will be piloting something a lot more agile than the typical lumbering SUV, something happy to tackle corners at speeds that would make most of its more SUV-looking crossover competition seriously unhappy.

There is a price to be paid for this performance edge, however. Because it's lower to the ground than most any truck-based SUV (and most car-based crossovers and minivans, too) and rides on some pretty aggressive low-profile tires, the Torrent GXP's not the ticket for poor weather driving, even with the optional all-wheel drive. It's better suited to paved roads and dry weather.

Spacey where it counts

In more introverted matters, the Torrent is a well-sized, well-organized package, particularly if you need the family-friendly versatility. Though it doesn't offer a third-row seat, the Torrent is extremely roomy, even in the back seat. A passenger as tall as I am (6' 3") still has several inches of room between their knees and the front seatbacks, as well as a couple of inches of air between their head and the roof. The roominess extends to the cargo area, which is almost big enough to handle another person at 35 cubic feet. Drop the second row and you've got almost 70 cubic feet to fill. Pontiac also thoughtfully added a concave plastic cover to the passenger side front seatback that can used as a tray, or serve as a protective cover, when that seat is folded forward.

A deep well takes the place between the front seats instead of the usual space-eating console. It has molded wells for small items, plus an integral, molded-in CD holder toward the back that's still within easy reach. A smaller flip-up/flip-down cubby rides above this, providing some additional storage space.

GM has done great work as well in the ease of use department, and the GXP's a case in point. The controls for the A/C system and radio are simple, effective rotary-style knobs that can be operated by feel without having to look at them as you drive. I also like that you can turn of the formerly always-on Daytime Running Lamps (DRLs), and the easy-access fuse box located under the hood, which also includes a "+" power point to hook up the positive side of a jumper cable if you ever need a jump. Good stuff.

The dash layout is swell, too, though not as rich and "finished" looking as some of GM's newer models such as the new Chevy Malibu and the absolutely gorgeous Buick Enclave. There's still a bit too much rhino-hard black plastic that detracts from the quality feel a $30,000 vehicle ought to convey in 2008.

The Torrent's biggest obstacle, though, may just be the two-year legacy of not living up to its name. At least not until now. It's too bad GM took this long to get the GXP package into the mix. As it's tuned now, the Torrent makes a much better case for its name.

2008 Pontiac Torrent GXP

Base price: $27,380; price as tested: $30,785

Engine: 3.6 liter V-6, 264 hp/250 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front- or all-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 188.8 x 71.4 x 65.7 in

Wheelbase: 112.5 in

Curb Weight: 3919 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 16/24 mpg

Safety equipment: Dual front airbags; anti-lock brakes, traction and stability control

Major standard features: Sport suspension with 18-inch wheels, dual exhaust; leather-wrapped steering wheel with secondary controls for audio; climate control; multi-level heated driver and front passenger sport bucket seats; rear wiper; cruise control; power windows/locks/mirrors; six-speaker AM/FM stereo with single disc CD player and MP3 capability; OnStar

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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