2004-2006 Pontiac GTO – Is It Worthy of the GTO Name?

2004-2006 Pontiac GTO – Is It Worthy of the GTO Name?

Pontiac is guilty of revisionist history in the 2005 GTO sales brochure. In the brochure, a timeline of significant milestones in the 41 year history of the GTO is presented. The 1964 model naturally leads off the timeline. After all, this car flagrantly violated GM’s anti-racing edict of 1957 and single handedly defined an entirely new category of automobiles. The 1966 GTO also earns mention as the first of the Ram-Air models, followed by the 400 cubic inch 1967 and then the fabled GTO Judge in 1969. However, from 1970 until the 2004 rebirth – the timeline is blank. It’s as if Pontiac has excised all memory of the potent-but-porcine 1971-72 GTO or the underachieving Nova derived 1973 models. And, of course there is zero mention of the puerile Grand-Am based GTO concept that GM paraded around the show circuit in the early nineties.

With the missteps that sullied the reputation of the most famous icon in muscle car history, we can appreciate Pontiac’s selective corporate memory. They do however raise legitimate questions about the 2005 GTO. Is this car worthy of the GTO name? Will the new GTO be remembered 20 years hence as one of the “great ones” or will its memory be the victim of a Stalinist purge from the record?

In our opinion, the 2005 GTO is the real article – and in many ways a perfect modern interpretation of the legendary 1964 GTO. We urge you to drive one, because to drive this car is to love this car.

We had the honor of driving an Impulse Blue 2005 GTO six speed at Josephs Pontiac in Norwell, Massachusetts. Josephs has been selling and servicing Pontiacs since 1928 and to this day it’s an honored and loved south shore landmark with some of the friendliest people you’re likely to meet. This family knows Pontiac, and talk about classic and future Pontiacs with obvious passion. It’s a place where neighbors drop by to chat over coffee and you’re just as likely to see Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler stop in for a tank of fuel. Compared to the soulless auto mega malls, Josephs Pontiac is a direct link back to a better time – and no finer place exists to test drive a legendary Pontiac marque.

Let’s start with styling – arguably the most contentious issue surrounding the 2005 GTO. The car magazines have roundly criticized Pontiac for ultra conservative styling that belies the performance capabilities of the car. We say the critics are idiots – or at the least totally ignorant of the original GTO design philosophy. The 1964-67 GTO was NEVER about visual flash. John DeLorean and Jim Wangers started with the spare and unadorned Tempest body. They added a tasteful scooped hood, attractive wheelcovers and subtle sophisticated badges on the grille, fender and decklid. You had to look closely to pick up the visual clues, and we’d bet a good many people walked right by those early GTO’s with nary a second glance. The GTO wasn’t marketed to drive-through posers. It was a serious performance machine that kept a low visual profile and did it’s talking at the stoplight and dragstrip.

Economic and political considerations also played a part in the GTOs initial styling restraint. The market for the GTO was uncertain, so to minimize capital investments Pontiac needed to make due with the sleekest mid-sized coupe in the existing product portfolio. Pontiac division chief John DeLorean also had to tread lightly for fear of attracting unfavorable attention from the horsepower-phobic GM Executive team. Whatever the reasons, the 1964-67 GTO stands as one of the most tasteful and timelessly styled muscle cars of the era.

The 2005 GTO is a perfect stylistic and economic interpretation of the original. To keep costs low and time to market short, Pontiac raided it’s worldwide parts bin to come up with the most handsome rear drive coupe in the stable, the Australian Holden Monaro. Its lines are tight, clean and tasteful. The GTO badging is subtle as are the twin non-functional hood bulges. As in 1964, you have look for the subtle visual clues as to the true nature of this car. Back in the day, gearheads learned to quickly differentiate the heavyweights from the palookas. It seldom was about shiny paint, garish graphics and chrome wheels. The most serious cars were often the most visually unremarkable – and you learned to look for the tiny “426 Hemi” fender emblems, or the steel wheels with DOT legal Mickey Thompsons. You learned to listen for or the choppy idle of a 305 degree solid cam. And so it is with the 2005 GTO. You’ve got to know what to look for.

Automotive posers won’t get it and they likely won’t recognize it. And that’s fine with us. The 2005 GTO is for people confident in their own skin – people who prefer to kick ass and take names under the radar screen. People like you and me.

In 2005, Pontiac responded to styling criticisms by adding the aforementioned hood scoops and an optional Sport Appearance Package. Our test car was thankfully absent this option. We urge you to boycott the Sport Appearance package as it represents an ominous return of Pontiac’s worst styling excesses in the 1980s. The front fascia is blocky and ham-handed, as are the vestigial “gills” over the quad outlet exhaust tips. Our concern is that if enough people purchase this silly option, GM will interpret this as market approval of flash over substance and we’ll be back to the days of the “Screaming Chicken” and the Mustang Cobra II. Just say NO!

So what’s the 2005 GTO like to drive? Mana baby, pure mana! The full frame doors open and close with a solid thunk – and the upper window frame promises wind, rattle and leak proof glass. The interior is quite simply GM’s best. Ever. The full instrument cluster is legible – rimmed in brushed nickel and color keyed to the exterior paint. On our Impulse Blue tester this was an unexpected and elegant touch. The interior panels are finished in matte gloss soft touch padding – a dramatic improvement from GM’s traditional glossy hard plastic interior trimming. Interior space is good, seat comfort excellent and visual sightlines good. About the only criticism we could levy at the interior is the steering wheel. While it feels good in your hand, the center pad looks like a giant goofy Shriners hat. This car needs a steering wheel that better emulates the gorgeous GM rosewood wheels from the 1960s.

Twist the key and the starter engages with a satisfying and substantial whirr – like it’s spinning over a high compression big block. The 6.0 LS2 V8 roars to life and the exhaust note is intoxicating. Deep, mellow and throaty with not a hint of tinniness. Blip the throttle and the the pipes pop and spit as the revs fall. Think big block power boat and you’d be close to the effect. Close your eyes and it’s 1969 all over again!

Clutch takeup is smooth and dead precise. With 400 Lb/ft of torque (SAE net!!) the GTO steps off cleanly and crisply with little driveline lash. The six speed Tremec trans shifts easily, with just the right amount of mechanical notchiness to remind you what’s happening on the other end of the lever. An especially nice touch is the slight shifter vibration you feel while accelerating hard in third gear. Anyone who’s ever rowed a Muncie M22, Ford Toploader or MoPar A833 through a Hurst shifter knows that feeling. There’s a generation of drivers raised on cable shifted, rubber insulated transaxles that have no clue what this feels like!

The ride is firm and precise with no impact harshness over sharp bumps. The steering is satisfyingly sharp with excellent turn in and good road feel. The GTO tracks straight and true with little dartiness on rough pavement. There are no squeaks and rattles and the GTO exudes a hefty solidity and stiffness reminiscent of the Porsche 928. This is a car you could easily live with on a daily basis – equally adept at ferrying Grandma to Bingo as ripping up the back roads.

The GTO LS2 makes a true 400 horsepower. In pre-1972 SAE gross ratings the number is likely around 470 BHP at the flywheel. Compression is a stratospheric 10.9 and the lightweight valvetrain, efficient cylinder head port design and 90mm throttle body make this motor a smooth, torquey and rev happy screamer. Think about that for a moment. 400 horsepower for $33,000 – or about $82.50 per pony. And, you can service it at any of thousands of GM outlets nationwide for pocket change. And it gets 25 MPG per the EPA highway cycle. Given the monumental strides in GM product quality in the past decade, it’s a reasonable expectation that the GTO will require only routine maintenance in the course of prudent, conscientious ownership.

The 1996 Porsche 911 Turbo made 400 horsepower and stickered for about $120,000 ($300 per). The 2000 BMW M5 made 400 horses and stickered at about $80,000 ($200 per). And the sticker price of these Teutonic supercars was just the minimum ante. Think $200 oil changes, $1,000 routine maintenance bills and you get idea. These aren’t cars for you and me. These are cars for the trust fund kids you knew and hated in college. The GTO is a car for normal people, just like in 1964.

This car flat cranks – and the LS2 pulls cleanly in every gear from idle to the 6,500 redline. The LS2 really comes alive at over 3,000 RPM, and when you stand on the pedal in first or second you ought to have the wheel pointing straight ahead – because the tires are going to break loose. Under more gentle throttle inputs the GTO accelerates without histrionics – just a liquid, seemingly limitless rush to the upper limits of the speedometer. Modern engine management ensures that there are no flat spots in the fuel and spark delivery. Think well tuned LS-6 Chevelle and you’ll be in the low-end ballpark of just how effortlessly the GTO accelerates. The shifter is direct with well-defined gates and shift effort appropriate for a supercar. The exhaust note is heavenly, but no so loud as to cause your wife to shrink in her seat from embarrassment.

This is a very serious performance car, and we’d be surprised if the GTO wasn’t good for a sub-5 second dash to 60. The quarter mile times ought to be around 13.30 at 108 MPH. These are huge numbers, and vastly superior to ANY stock GTO from the past – including the fabled 1969-70 Ram-Air IV. It’s merely a matter of time before companies like Lingenfelter begin marketing supercharger kits and stroker LS2 motors – so if stock isn’t fast enough the days of 500 HP GTOs can’t be far off.

So, what’s the conclusion? We believe that the 2005 GTO is for real and in most ways a true spiritual successor to the original. The styling is handsome, interior exceptional and the driving experience is simultaneously comfortable and thrilling. This is NOT a car for the “bling bling” crowd who live to be seen and endlessly chase the approval of their peer group. It’s a car for self confident performance enthusiasts who value substance over style. It’s a car for GTO people.

We want this car to succeed because it will presage the permanent return of such cars not only by GM but Ford and Daimler-Chrysler. We urge you to drive it – because you’ll likely buy it!