1997 Pontiac Grand Am
If a student of sociology were inclined to put a finger on the pulse of the American automotive market, pointing said finger at a Pontiac Grand Am buyer would be about as close to the nation's automotive center as you might reasonably expect to get.
Pontiac's 1997 Grand Am is the division's volume leader and GM's leading compact entry. As such, its development and evolution receives a lot of attention from both customers and Pontiac dealers. The Grand Am has received some significant refinements recently. The interior and front and rear fascias were freshend last year. And this year there is an increase in standard equipment.
Pontiac says the Grand Am appeals to active people who “want the best combination of bold, distinctive styling, driving fun and value in a compact car.” For the most part, the Grand Am still delivers on that promise, but its age shows when compared with newer competition, such as the Ford Contour, Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Cirrus.
On the other hand, it's clear that Pontiac's excitement formula works. When it first appeared, the Grand Am was one of three equally important corporate cousins, along with the Buick Skylark and Oldsmobile Achieva. But it seems likely that by the end of the 1997 model years the Grand Am will be the only survivor.
The bold, distinctive styling of the Grand Am begins with its familiar split-grille nose. Our test coupe, a GT, benefits from a front spoiler, lower body cladding, and spoiler-mounted driving lights.
The subtly contoured hood encloses one of two powerplants. The base 2.4-liter Twin Cam four-cylinder engine comes with a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic.
The optional 3.1-liter V6 offers slightly more horsepower (155 vs. 150) and significantly more torque (185 vs. 155 lb.-ft.) than the 2.4-liter engine. The V6 comes standard with a four-speed automatic.
The Grand Am's generous greenhouse is balanced by a relatively high belt line and low seating position. The roof pillars are thin, minimizing blind spots for driver and passengers.
At the rear, a short deck lid conceals 13.4 cubic feet of luggage space, good-sized by the standards for this class. This area is expandable via a folding rear seat when the sport interior option is ordered.
The Grand Am's sporty styling still stands out in a field of family sedans, even though its basic look is more than 10 years old. The front and rear fascias, redesigned last year, successfully freshen the overall body shape.
We prefer the look of the SE model (from $15,159, including destination) with its cleaner lines. The GT Coupe (from $16,399) comes with lower body cladding, a rear deck lid spoiler and other aerodynamic touches that give it that Pontiac flair. But it's a look that's becoming a trifle dated in a new age of uncluttered exterior designs.
The GT Coupe also comes with a suspension tuned more for spirited driving, including more aggressive tires on 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels and larger anti-roll bars that reduce body lean in corners.
Pontiac paid particular attention to redesigning the interior last year. Improvements include a new instrument panel with new analog instrumentation that glows in orange and red at night for a racy, cockpit appearance, which is consistent with Pontiac's carefully cultivated performance image trademark touch. The instrument package includes a tachometer for all models.
There's new door trim, integrated cup holders and an overall improvement in ergonomics, making secondary controls a littler easier to find and use. Dual airbags are standard.
In general, we think the updates work, making the Grand Am as user friendly as many of its more contemporary competitors.
The driver sits low in the cockpit, behind a properly proportioned steering wheel. The gauges are immediately in front and clearly visible.
The steering wheel includes wheel-mounted radio controls, though we found it easy to change tuning by mistake while driving. Misplace a palm, and Vivaldi suddenly gives way to Van Halen. However, the main controls for the Grand Am's standard AM/FM radio are conveniently located, with large controls that make adjustments easy, even at night.
For '97, Pontiac has made air conditioning standard, and all climate controls are located just below the stereo controls. We prefer this stacking priority, since radio adjustments are more common when the car is moving. Three large knobs make changing temperatures a breeze.
The center console features cup holders and storage beneath the center armrest, supplemented by door map pockets and a glove box. The front bucket seats are supportive, while avoiding some of the claustrophobic proportions common to the sports GT genre.
There's plenty of room up front, and the coupe offers nearly as much rear seat room as the sedan. However, rear seat leg room isn't the Grand Am's strongest suit compared to its newer competitors.
Fire up the 3.1-liter V6 and you're impressed by what you don't hear. While the standard 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine remains a trifle intrusive, even after continuous updates over the years, our test car's 3100 V6 was civilized and quiet at most operating speeds.
The V6 is responsive, with lots of muscle at lower engine speeds. This makes it a willing companion with the four-speed automatic transmission, the only transmission offered with the V6 engine option.
The 3100 V6 is economical to operate and maintain. And, at just $450, the V6 option seems like a bargain, especially when compared with the cost of a V6 in imported cars. That, and packaging, are the prime virtues of overhead-valve designs versus the overhead cam, multi-valve engines that are increasingly common in this class. Overhead cam engines produce generally better top-end performance, but are bulkier and more expensive to produce.
Like all GM automatics, our test car's four-speed performed flawlessly. Shifts were positive, but virtually undetectable, and the gearing is well matched to the V6's torque curve.
Steering is power-assisted rack-and-pinion. Effort is reasonably low, but there's little excitement in its feedback. Braking is accomplished with ventilated discs in front, drums in the rear. ABS is standard on both the SE and GT models.
With MacPherson struts up front and trailing arms linked by a torsion beam in the rear, the Grand Am's road manners are, if not refined, at least competent.
In general, the Grand Am has a one-piece feel that belies its age. However, in contrast to some of its competitors, this car seems more comfortable on interstates and freeways, less so when negotiating a twisty two-lane back road.
As noted, our test vehicle, a GT Coupe, is at one end of the intended buyer demographic, and the sedan is at the other. With a base price of $16,399, and an as-tested price of $19,571, the Grand Am has been afflicted with a mild case of window sticker creep. Much better was the SE sedan, moderately equipped, at $17,419. Neither figure is low, but the SE represents a much more versatile choice for most buyers.
While the Grand Am may not perform as well as a Ford Probe or a Dodge Avenger, it still offers styling flair and a price considerably lower than some of its imported rivals.
We think the Grand Am GT seems too close in price to the larger Grand Prix, while remaining closer in function to the smaller, less expensive Sunfire.
The SE version is a better buy, and with careful attention to your option-shopping can deliver an attractive blend of style, driving fun and value.