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Sedan Lives Up to Its Heritage

2004 Pontiac Bonneville GXP

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page G01

I once visited friends in a Northern Virginia neighborhood where "diversity" refers to the texture of lawns, or maybe the size of cooking galleys in kitchens large enough to serve as cafeterias.

I decided to be naughty. I showed up in a black-on-black Chevrolet Impala SS with polished chrome wheels and exhaust tips, something radical enough to stand out among the Volvos, BMWs and Mercedes-Benz cars parked in the hosts' driveway and cul-de-sac.

2004 Pontiac Bonneville GXP

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: The interior remains a bit overdone, even with the various "sporty" carbon fiber inlays on the steering wheel and inside door handles. Although it is comfortable, the passenger cabin feels more "fat" than "sporty." More streamlining is in order.

Ride, handling, acceleration: Very good big-car ride and handling. Excellent acceleration. The GXP can jump from "nice" to "demon" in an instant without the slightest hint of downshifting.

Head-turning quotient: If you don't like it, you can fill in the blank. The people who will buy and love this one couldn't give a hoot about what detractors think, which is why many of them buy and love it.

Body style/layout: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive sedan, with traditional notchback trunk. The 2004 Bonneville is sold in three trim levels -- base SE, mid-scale SLE, and top-scale GXP. The Bonneville remains practically unchanged for 2005.

Engines/transmissions: GM's 3.8-liter, Series II V-6 with two valves per cylinder goes to the SE and SLE. It develops 205 horsepower at 5,200 revolutions per minute and 230 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 revolutions per minute. The GXP gets the 4.6-liter, 32-valve Northstar V-8, which develops 275 horsepower at 5,600 revolutions per minute and 300 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 revolutions per minute. Both engines are mated to four-speed automatic transmissions.

Mileage: In the tested GXP, I averaged 23 miles per gallon mostly in highway driving.

Capacities: All Bonneville models have seating for up to five people. Cargo volume for all models is 18 cubic feet. Fuel capacity is 18 gallons of unleaded gasoline. The SE and SLE take regular unleaded. The GXP requires premium.

Safety: Four-wheel anti-lock brakes, side air bags, traction and stability control.

Price: Base price on the tested 2004 GXP is $35,270. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $32,372. Price as tested is $37,715, including $1,720 in options and a $725 destination charge. Dealer price as tested with options and destination charge is $34,528.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Lincoln LS and Chrysler 300C. The Bonneville is a good car surrounded by worthy competitors. Lots of bargaining room here.

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I got the desired reaction. "Oh, Warren," said the woman of the house, "that car is so urban!"

It had been a while since I'd driven an automobile with that kind of I'm-from-Detroit-and-if-you-don't-like-it-you-can-fill-in-the-blank attitude. And so I was thrilled when General Motors Corp. recently called to say it was shipping the 2004 Pontiac Bonneville GXP sedan for a week's test run.

I'd loved Bonnevilles since I was 9 years old, which was back in 1957, when the first of their line came out. Black preachers and public school principals drove those models in my Ninth Ward New Orleans community. Most were too afraid then to buy Cadillacs, because Cadillacs created jealousy on the black and white ends of the color spectrum.

But Bonneville ownership showed they had stepped ahead of their congregations and teaching staffs without stepping into the socially, politically and possibly physically dangerous Land of Uppity.

Mechanically gifted black laborers, however, found a way to undermine that sophistry. They bought used Bonnevilles, lowered their suspensions, tweaked their engines and exhaust systems, and added extra chrome pieces wherever they would fit. Those hot-rod Bonnevilles were sizzling -- fast and loud enough to grab attention; debauched enough to attract hipsters but to be dismissed as trifles for the trifling by upper-class blacks; and comic enough to earn derisive laughter from many whites who regarded the zoot-suited cars as cultural icons of an inherently lesser sort.

But car-crazy people of all hues knew better. They loved the loud exhaust notes of the reworked exhaust systems, the way the altered Bonneville suspensions could handle curves and dips without the cars breaking loose or bottoming out, and the general thrill of driving something different.

It is largely in their honor that GM created the 2004 Bonneville GXP, a muscular, full-size sedan with a four-wheel independent suspension system and a 275-horsepower, Northstar V-8 engine.

Unlike the first Bonneville of 1957, which was built on a rear-wheel-drive platform, the current car, which shares Cadillac Seville underpinnings, is front-wheel-drive.

Car enthusiasts generally consider front-wheel-drive automobiles less than sporting, citing a performance-compromising doubling of labor for the front wheels, which are obligated to drive and steer a car at the same time.

The GXP, indeed, does not offer the same level of performance or handling of a 340-horsepower, V-8 Chrysler 300C sedan or a 280-horsepower, V-8 Lincoln LS sport model, both of which are rear-wheel-drive. But the top-scale GXP -- one of three Bonneville models that also include the base SE and mid-scale SLE -- comes commendably close.

Certainly, the GXP has the requisite swagger, cloaked beneath a body devoid of the excessive cladding that covered previous Bonnevilles, such as the now-discontinued Bonneville SSEi sedan.

The new car has attitude, which means its generous, conspicuously sinewy exterior won't please everyone -- making it delightfully polarizing and not at all politically correct. And despite its considerable heft -- it weighs 3,790 pounds -- the GXP can run fast and with something approaching admirable grace on the open highway. Much credit here goes to advanced electronics, such as that used in the GXP's stability control system (GM's trademarked "StabiliTrak") that keeps the car well balanced at all speeds, and quite nimble and yaw-free in curves.

I enjoyed my time in the big car, especially on long runs during which it alternated between cruiser and hell-raiser, depending on acceleration needs. But, mostly, I enjoyed its personality. Despite its highway prowess, it's -- you know -- so darned urban.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company