1998 Pontiac Bonneville

By November 10, 1999
1998 Pontiac Bonneville

In the automotive world, “brand” is the buzzword of the day. And at General Motors, that means every product is supposed to deliver the sort of cues and features that best define its place in the automotive hierarchy. A midsize Pontiac is supposed to be distinctly different from a midsize Buick or Chevrolet.

Putting the brand concept into practice isn't as easy as it sounds, especially for a company as big as GM. But Pontiac has excelled in this area. Bonneville remains one of the most visually and technically distinctive products available from General Motors, underscoring Pontiac's role as GM's youthful, sporty division.

Pontiac's youthful look doesn't appeal to everyone, especially those who prefer clean, elegant, unbroken lines. Instead, Pontiac offers visual excitement. To help the Bonneville stand out, Pontiac has outfitted it with spoilers, scoops and body cladding. Likewise, the interior is a haven for those who like the latest bells-and-whistles.

Beneath its extroverted exterior, the Bonneville is a nimble sports sedan, offering exemplary handling for a car of this size. It appeals to driving enthusiasts who need or want a big sedan.

The SSE is the premium package in the Bonneville line-up. The base model is the SE. Between those two and the SSEi and new SLE packages, there's a selection of features and powertrains to fit a range of budgets and needs.


Pontiac's Bonneville was one of the first truly modern designs to roll out of the GM styling studios. It remains contemporary, even though it's been on the road for several years. Based on the same platform as the Oldsmobile 88 and LSS sedans, it's possible to see some family resemblance, but the Bonneville looks much sportier and more youthful.

Bonneville's shape has had a strong influence over the entire Pontiac line, including the new Grand Prix. Bonneville is curvaceous without being soft, like some of the marshmallow designs that have become popular in recent years. On the head-turner index, this car continues to draw admiring stares.

Subtle touches help distinguish the SSE from other Bonneville editions. It gets wide ribbed monotone bodyside moldings, a monotone ground effects package, sporty 16-inch aluminum wheels, leather bucket seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The SSE competes with upscale sedans, such as the Chrysler LHS, Mazda Millenia and Toyota Avalon, though these cars don't posess Bonneville's youthful styling.

Interior Features

Our most recent test drive put us behind the wheel of the SSE for a week, and the overall look is sleek and sophisticated. Dark pewter-colored leather wrapped around the doors and seats, a rich yet subtle hue with European-style stitching. Dark-colored controls have a nicely grained texture and organic (flowing) shape. Overall, its an attractive interior except for gray plastic buttons on the heater/air conditioning console that look out of place and diminish the overall effect.

The Bose stereo in our car sounded like it could match the performance of an expensive home system. The controls are well placed, with a large easily accessible volume knob adjacent a smaller dial for tuning. A selection of often-used controls are designed into the steering wheel hub, obviating the need to move your hands away from the steering wheel. A deft touch of the index finger is all that's needed to change stations or adjust the volume. It's a nice safety feature as messing around with stereo controls can lead to serious accidents.

Less elegant is the distracting array of buttons on the center console. There are nine separate ways to adjust the seats and it takes careful attention to make sense of the small icons that indicate the settings. More than once we attempted to slide our seats forward, only to adjust the lumbar support. Once the controls are mastered, the power buckets are comfortable and supportive, even in hard cornering.

Rear seat passengers will find more than adequate leg room, even with the front seats all the way back on their tracks. This car has acres of space to offer and it uses it well.

The instrument panel is a clean, performance-oriented design, though newer designs have passed it on the pizzazz scale. There are two, large LED displays, one is an oversized Information Center alerting you to a variety of potential problems, such as low fuel or an open door. The other is a gimmicky compass that tends to lag behind in turns.

A head-up display, or HUD, offered as an option on SSE and SSEi models projects images on the windshield just off the line of sight. This technology, borrowed from military fighter jets, provides the driver with information at a quick glance. The main display is a digital speedometer. Some people love head-up displays, others hate it, but it can be turned on and off. We appreciated the little gas pump that popped into view alerting us that we were running low on gas as we were on a long drive on a lonely freeway and weren't in the mood for a long walk.

Driving Impressions

The Bonneville's 3800 Series II V6 is responsive and powerful, generating 205 horsepower and 230 foot-pounds (lb.-ft.) of torque. It delivers surprisingly good fuel mileage and environmentally friendly emissions numbers. Achieving these mutually exclusive benefits provides a convincing argument for the simpler, push-rod design used by the Series II V6 instead of double overhead-cam designs.

Our car was fitted with this engine and we were, as always, impressed with it. The relatively high amount of torque available provides robust power for rocketing away from a standing start or climbing long, power-sapping grades. We found our 205-hp normally aspirated version of this engine to be more than adequate to propel the Bonneville into socially irresponsible territory.

Drivers who want more power should consider the supercharged version that is part of the optional SSEi package. The supercharged 3800 Series II increases the output to 240 hp and a tire-smoking 280 lb.-ft. of torque. This setup moves the Bonneville closer to muscle car territory.

An electronically controlled 4-speed automatic transmission is designed to handle the power of these engines and allows the driver to select between Normal or Performance shift modes. The latter shifts at higher rpm under heavy acceleration to increase acceleration performance. In Normal mode it shifts up earlier to increase fuel economy.

The Bonneville features front disc and rear drum brakes. Anti-lock brakes are standard equipment across the line-up, and traction control is offered as an option.

The base model Bonneville comes with conventional power steering. With the SSE and SSEi, you get GM's unique Magnasteer system. Magnasteer uses an innovative magnetic control to reduce the amount of physical effort needed to steer at low speeds. The faster you go, the less steering boost you get, which improves road feel. Magnasteer is a definite improvement, though we find that it doesn't deliver the precise feeling of contact with the road found in fine European sports sedans.

The overall ride is a pleasant compromise-not quite as stiff and responsive as a BMW, but the Bonneville offers much more precise ride and handling than Detroit's traditional boulevard cruisers.

One phenomenon we noticed is something known as torque steer. Under aggressive acceleration, the car had a tendency to pull the steering to one side. It's often associated with high-horsepower front-wheel-drive cars. It's not really a problem, but drivers should be aware of it.


Don't let the size of the Bonneville fool you. Pontiac's big sedan is quick, nimble, stylish and quite roomy.

And while it may be big on the outside, Bonneville is a relatively compact package in terms of the dent it will make on your wallet-especially if you are careful about loading up on options.

Drivers who want lots of interior room, sporty performance and youthful styling-all at an attractive price should put the Bonneville high on the shopping list.