By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009
CORNWALL, N.Y. -- It pulled nicely up Mountain Brook Road in second gear, which was no small feat. Mountain Brook is steep. Its elevation has caused many transmissions to grind and whine, many engines to groan, as if they were designed only to complement this nation's massive investment in flat surfaces.
But the 2009 Pontiac G8 GXP -- a high-performance, rear-wheel-drive sedan with a 425-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 engine and six-speed manual transmission -- had guts. It moved smoothly, confidently uphill in second, never once evidencing strain or distemper.
It was a nice car. That's "nice" as in "bad" and "kick- . . . ," well, you get the idea.
The Pontiac Division of General Motors has got something here -- part old-fashioned American muscle car, part sophisticated European performance ride.
That's good news. But here's hoping it doesn't come too late in the news cycle for GM.
You've read the headlines, heard and seen the news reports. The century-old GM, once a mainstay of American industrial might, is in trouble, at risk of no longer remaining a going concern. It messed up in the 1970s and 1980s, producing the motorized equivalent of schlock, including a bevy of Pontiacs that barely qualified as rental cars.
Pontiac, which had once truly lived up to the title "the excitement division," became GM's "whatever" shop.
It took time and money -- tens of billions of dollars -- to set all of that right. And just when it seemed that GM was getting things fixed, the bottom fell out of the national and global economies, scaring buyers out of new-car showrooms and almost putting GM out of business.
That's too bad. And here's hoping that GM can hold on, because the G8 GXP proves that GM can and does make darned good cars.
My wife, Mary Anne, and I drove this one 600 miles, including a one-way trip here from our home in Northern Virginia and a couple of roundtrips between Cornwall and New York City. The car drew spectators and raves everywhere we went. And that includes highly favorable reviews for the G8 GXP's interior, which were noteworthy because Pontiac interiors for the longest time were less than praiseworthy.
But the G8 GXP cabin's high-quality materials, ergonomically sensible layout (with power-window buttons easily reachable on a central, floor-mounted console, for example), and perfect fit-and-finish were on a level comparable to something from Audi. And that's saying something, because Audi and its parent, Volkswagen, make some of the best interiors in the business.
But now for an inconvenient truth:
The G8 GXP, like most high-performance automobiles, is a gas-guzzler. It gets 13 miles per gallon in the city and 20 miles per gallon on the highway, requiring premium unleaded gasoline "for best performance," which means it is not likely to win any awards from the Sierra Club or from President Obama's auto task force.
But here's hoping that Obama's people understand that the automobile industry is multi-dimensional, with different customers in different niches all demanding and -- when credit is available -- all willing to pay for different vehicles. GM competes in all those niches, including the developing segment for electrically powered urban commuters, as amply demonstrated in this Sunday's accompanying Car Culture column.
People shopping for models such as the G8 GXP, comparatively smaller in number than those looking for economy cars or other mainstream automobiles, tend to be substantially less interested in fuel economy than they are in vehicle handling and power.
With the G8 GXP, they get healthy helpings of the latter, delivered with a richness that is competitive with the best in the business. People interested in fuel economy should choose another model.