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Autoblog Tests the G8 GXP

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There's a Looney Tunes cartoon where Bugs Bunny is in charge of Yosemite Sam's inheritance, and every time Yosemite Sam loses his temper at something Bugs has done, the rabbit subtracts money. By the time Yosemite gets his act together... he's out of money. Substitute GM for Yosemite Sam and the buying public for Bugs Bunny, throw in a little credit crisis, and all we can say is that it would be a shame if the Pontiac G8 GXP fell victim to this scenario: GM running out of money just when it gets its act together. Because we're here to tell you – and you can quote us on this – the Pontiac G8 GXP is @#$%&*! Awesome.

When Doug Houlihan, the GM engineer who spent years in Melbourne, Australia attending to the Camaro, dropped off the G8 GXP, he used the word "subtle" a lot. If you were seeing the car for the first time and didn't know anything about Pontiac, "subtle" might not be the first word that comes to mind. Even though the car's busiest aspect is up front, from the front fenders back it eschews any gimmicks for a smooth upward sweep of gently massaged bodywork. For those of us who do know a little about Pontiac, we can rejoice in the visual pleasure afforded now that those old tacky tricks – wings, cladding and hectares of dubious plastic – have been left in the bag.

That word "subtle" comes into sharper play when you sit the Pontiac next to its core competition: the Dodge Charger SRT/8. The Dodge is all furrowed brow and hulking brawn. The Pontiac is practically Clark Kent mild, perhaps without the tie and a few buttons undone. Outside, it steps the game up from the G8 GT with a more sculpted, focused front dam – the fog lights are set off in their own corners and the lower mesh grille is uninterrupted by a dark, vertical strip. Out back, the GXP's rear diffuser gets a steroid injection and a slightly larger set of dual pipes. The body is placed atop four 19-inch wheels that communicate seriousness without screaming. It's all quite... subtle... you see. And it looks good.

Inside, the car is nice – and we don't mean "nice for a Pontiac." Since it will probably come up at some point, no, the interior isn't fastened together with the Absolutely No Play Allowed tolerances and super soft touch materials for which the Germans are credited. The leather seats are plenty plush, and though the leather on the doors isn't Nappa soft, it's decently padded and has the look of quality. And the GXP is unquestionably solid – so much so that, if you're looking for something to compare it to, you'll compare it to the Germans. There were no squeaks, no rattles. When you press any of the large, clearly-marked and well-laid-out buttons, they all perform their functions immediately. Give the metallic finish center console the tap test, it responds with "Yes, sir?", not "I really wish you wouldn't do that." The stalks make a pleasant "thunk" when employed. The switchgear is allergic to fuss.

Speaking of switchgear, what could be the best thing about it is that there really isn't much of it. We are fatigued by getting into yet another car that looks like a giant button monster got drunk and threw up everywhere. This is especially true when they're supposed to be driver-focused cars. It's hard to be a hardcore driver when you want to turn the A/C off but know you'll have to stop driving in order to find the button. The G8 GXP doesn't go in for all that. The digital gauges atop the center stack have now been eliminated. The center screen is large and legible in all light. The climate controls are immediately friendly. And there's not much else to worry about.

Except driving. Which is as it should be.

But before we get to that, one last word on the interior: capacious. Or how about these: commodious, voluminous, ample. There's a ton of room inside. And since this car was put together in Australia, we don't mean one of those miserly U.S. tons, either. No, there's a British long ton of room in there. Four 6-foot-plus men could fit inside and enjoy an interstate ride and still have room for that humongous center armrest in the back. Or a goat. It's that roomy.

Our niggles with the interior: we didn't like the CD dials on the steering wheel – we find buttons easier to deal with. And speaking of easier to deal with, getting directions with OnStar was awful. Like Here Comes the Inquisition awful. Like we'd rather ask that dude sleeping in the street if he knows where to go awful. GM, please give us proper GPS navigation with a map screen. Even as an option. Please.

The headrests were canted too far forward on the seats for our liking. You have to use the button on the keyfob to unlock the trunk. We figure there's a trunk release button inside the car but we couldn't find it. (We're seeing this trend on more and more cars, and we wish it would stop.) You can't unlock the doors when you're inside the car by pulling the handle – you have to press the central locking button or manually unlock the door yourself, and then pull the handle. (Legal Department, you have a call on line two, legal, line two...)

Those are minor annoyances all, barely worth thinking about. Why? Because everything we've said so far is about the G8 GXP when it's static, not moving, and the crucial word to associate with this car is: "drive." The G8 GXP means little when it's not moving. It's a nice looking car, but you're not likely to simply want to sit and gaze at it, Mona Lisa-like. The interior is nice, but it won't make you think "I could live in here." Turn the car on, and what you'll hear is... practically nothing. The rumble at idle is so small, so muted, it should be called a rumblito. More of that GXP subtlety.

This is the most powerful Pontiac ever, and here's the nut: the LS3 6.2-liter small block V8 is good for 415 hp and 415 lb-ft., which is something like a solid 8.5 on the family sedan Richter scale. Pontiac claims a 0-60 time of 4.6 seconds, though we recently heard of an outlet putting down a 4.4, and the quarter will go by in 13 seconds. Of course, if you have some past Pontiac products in mind, this might not provoke the aimed-for respect of driving prowess, and in fact it could all be rather worrisome.

Cringe not, fair reader – here's the bolt: 4-wheel, fully-adjustable independent suspension that, need you even ask, was tuned on The 'Ring. MacPherson struts up front are paired with a four-link, coil-over-shock setup out back, and the pair tied down with front and rear stabilizer bars. Up front, everything is adjustable: caster, camber and toe. To the stern, you can fiddle with camber and toe.

And here's the lockring to make sure it all sticks just so: a 6-speed Tremec TR6060 manual transmission as an available option. The Hydra-Matic 6L80 automatic transmission is standard, but if you want that... do you really want a GXP?

It's all controlled through steering on a variable-rate rack, and it's all stopped with 4-piston Brembos up front, single-piston calipers out back. This leaves an equation giving us six speeds to unleash 415 hp and 415 lb-ft through a sport suspension and P245/40 R19 tires. On a 4,000-pound car. That means there are quite a few possible answers. The answer we came up with: "Oh @#%*! yeah."

Take off from a standstill on a smooth road, and it's Go-Go-Gadget horsepower. The GXP is set up to react like a sports car, so there's 2-percent squat and 98-percent "Baby, it's time to go!" Take off on a bumpy road and the birds will chirp, those being the 19-inch tires looking for anything that will offer some traction. But they'll do it efficiently, business-like and in a straight line – the car doesn't jump around looking for purchase, it simply looks. And you can hit the 'Repeat' button on that as often as you like.

Straight line speed, however, has never been an issue. The pearly gates open up when you start cramming the car through turns and discover home-baked, heavenly goodness. Houlihan told us that they got rid of telescoping steering in order to keep the rack stiffer, and the rear brace across the top of the back seat remains as well, even though it eats into the pass-through space. Stiffness here was the name of all games. And in keeping the bodyshell stiff, they didn't need to make undue compromises with the suspension to keep everything in line.

It works.

The steering doesn't weight up as much as we would like, but that's because we drove the car like a high horsepower 2-seater and so we began to expect more resistance. But it is meaty enough to be plenty filling, and the wheels will pass all messages instantly through the rack, telling you everything you need to know.

LA has a mess of curvy roads with awful pavement, and the GXP never came unglued. If it was an excessively large expansion joint taken at impressive speeds on the highway, the car skooched over a couple of millimeters and continued on course. If it was a hairpin that looked like the pavement had caught the measles, the back end and its wider track did nearly all of the work and left you plenty of options for correction should you need it: steering, throttle, brakes and even lifting off. It would not come unstuck.

Only once were we reminded that the car weighs 4,000 pounds, and that was because we had come around a corner at something like Ludicrous Speed and there was a log in the road. A quick, instinctual juke to the left, and the log was gone and forgotten. All we thought was, "Hey, that was 4,000 pounds right there..."

Yet the G8 GXP is still, finally, a G8: an around-town Home-Depot-to-the-grocery-store-to-the-babysitter's-to-the-barbecue family car. Potholes and uneven roads are handled easily with no crashing, no bucking, none of the intrusive noises of a hard working yet pliable suspension. Highway manners are aplenty, with just a little bit of wind and tire noise that is effectively dispensed with once you turn on the 230-watt Blaupunkt stereo. And that might also explain the nearly invisible exhaust noise, since Grandma – and maybe even the wife and kids – aren't looking for constant reminders about the aluminum colossus sitting in the engine bay.

What didn't we like about the the driving? Just this: the first-to-fourth shift pattern. And we can't believe anyone likes it, gas mileage be damned. We buy a manual because we wanted to be in control, and then the engineers take it away. All that made us do was run the revs up past 3,500 in first, which was neither hard nor un-enjoyable. Twenty mpg on the highway wasn't so nice to think about, either, especially when the Corvette outdoes it by 9 mpg. And it was a mild annoyance that the redline isn't marked on the rpm gauge.

How much will it run you? The early, unconfirmed word is about $40K. That will be about $39,000, plus $685 destination charge and gas guzzler tax – oh yeah, estimated ratings of 14/20 mpg on the manual will do that. Beyond that, the sole cost options will be the 6-speed manual for $695 and the sunroof $900.

But we can change the shift pattern, we'll learn the redline, and we'll deal with the gas mileage. Gladly. Easily. Without even thinking about it. And it all comes down to the incredible driving experience. No, we didn't take it to the track. No, we didn't do the skidpad or slalom. Others will do that, and they might have something to say about it. But we drove this car on the same roads we have taken Bentleys, Bugattis, Corvettes, BMWs, Porsches, and all the rest. We drove this car in ways we don't recommend, trying to get it unstuck. We did the city run in urban Los Angeles, blasting from light to light for hours - so long in fact that the gearshift got a little warm glow to it.

And after all of that, we don't need to make one excuse for this car's driving. None. Zero. It really is the most powerful Pontiac ever, and that's about so much more than just the engine. The car is fantastic. Which means our last quote of the day will be: "Get one while you can."

Ah, GM, where have you been all this time...

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