The thunder from Down Under: Pontiac’s screaming G8 GT |

The thunder from Down Under: Pontiac’s screaming G8 GT

Andy Stonehouse

There are two sides to every story. And the blessedly wicked 2008 Pontiac G8 GT, a slightly Americanized version of the Australian-made Holden Commodore, can drum up a reaction that’s straight out of a split personality. Here’s what we found about the new Aussie four-door, the warrior of the wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock ‘n’ Rolla, the last of the V8 interceptors.

For all of your family’s hooning needs, leave it to the folks in Oz to craft a large, comfortable five-passenger vehicle which just happens to pack as much horsepower, in GT mode, as an early 2000s Corvette. Strap in the kids and get ready for the rear-wheel-drive, tire-burning, flame-shooting whallop that is the G8.

It’s an astoundingly fast, amply proportioned thunderdome of a car that, despite cramming a high performance 361-horsepower 6.0-liter V8 under the hood, tips the scales just a bit over $31,000. A whole lotta bang for the buck.

Step into the spacious cabin, light up the engine and the G8 lets out a calamitous grunt of old-school engine noise, with seemingly endless passing power always available with a sharp punch of the metallic gas pedal. Don’t tell Jaguar this, but the G8 GT had much more juice than the $56,000 XF I drove a few days earlier, a neck-snapping giddyupness that left me laughing for miles.

More than just a screamer, the G8 ” Pontiac’s first full-size car in a long time, and its first RWD machine in years ” offers a well-balanced chassis, effective if not slightly incommunicative disc brakes, tight steering and a ride that’s subtle enough for both canyon careening and slower-paced family outings.

A three-mode auto stick allows you to slip through the six-speed transmission in three ways: fully automatically, in higher-revving sport mode or semi-manually. Even when cruising at highway speed, burying the pedal will drop the G8 down to second gear and harness a blast of noisy power and neck-snapping acceleration that I found endlessly amusing.

Traction control keeps the G8 largely nailed to the ground but can be disabled, allowing more spirited thrashing; even in automatic mode, you can get roaring stoplight runs to 60 mph in about 5.3 seconds.

The full package is pretty dandy: A clean, futuristic interior that’s intriguingly foreign, but still enticing, with mostly plastic surfaces, except for leather seating and door paneling. A dual-mode metric/standard speedometer is a concession to the Canadian car market (180 can be very scary in either measurement system), while a punchy, 11-speaker, 230 watt Blaupunkt (remember them?) six-CD changer stereo system is matched with a colorful, almost iPod-styled interface screen which also displays climate control information.

The body takes the Commodore basics and adds a few Pontiac trademarks, including the dual mesh and chrome nostril grill and almost Trans-Am inspired mirrored headlamps, plus large air scoops in the hood and some European-styled signal repeaters just behind the wheels. Large, chrome-heavy brake lamps, an active spoiler and impressive, Corvette-styled quad exhaust tips also brighten the looks, as do the shiny 19-inch wheels.

And unlike most cars, the back seat is actually comfortable and spacious (almost 40 inches of leg room), with a pass-through gate leading to the equally cavernous trunk.

Despite the most well intentioned aspirations to European grand touring largess and speed, there are certain limitations imposed by that approachable price point. The plastics are pretty overpowering and finishing is a little loose in the cabin ” even the floppy headliner floats limply and squeezes an inch when pushed.

Certain design features are simply inexcusable: a silver plastic dash trim piece underneath the curved instrument panel reflects sunlight directly into the instruments, rendering them frequently impossible to see (electronic read-outs are also in red, Audi-style, and are equally difficult to read ” as is the audio and HVAC screen, especially with polarized sunglasses).

Above the center stack is a red read-out that looks like a complete afterthought, an oversized battery and oil pressure readout rendered in Atari 2600-styled graphics. It seems like it would have been the ideal location for the “Passenger Airbag Off” light, but this has, instead, been moved into the rearview mirror, meaning you’ll see a bright orange light in your mirror whenever you drive by yourself at night.

The leather seating is pleasant enough and well-bolstered (with a manual knob for lumbar support adjustment), but the base position seems about six inches too high for North American drivers ” maybe the Aussies have shorter limbs and like the booster seat effect, but I got shooting pains in my right knee from the resulting angulation, even with the tilting and telescoping wheel cranked all the way out.

Having seen pictures of the Holden automobiles, the Pontiac-ized nose and tail look just a little overdone, as well; the result is a cool foreign automobile now sporting shiny bits stolen from a G6. Red-blooded Pontiac purists may be impressed, but then again, they’re probably not going to buy a car not actually made in the United States, so … go figure.

Some writers have compared the new G8 in the same favorable terms as the BMW 5-series, which is admittedly a stretch, but maybe not so big an issue if you favor raw performance and capaciousness and aren’t so worried about junky plastic trim. Driving feel is pretty tight for a large $30K automobile, and despite those mooshy brakes, the G8 tackles hills and curves with ferocity not unlike the Lord Humungous.

Raw power, in droves. The less power-mad can opt for either a more austere (but still not insubstantial) 256-HP 3.6-liter V6; total road warriors can wait a bit and soak up the new GXP version, which takes a current ‘Vette-spec, 402-HP 6.2-liter V8 and gets all medieval on your behind. A strange and wonderful machine, indeed, no matter what variation you seek.

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