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1999 Pontiac Grand Am

Pontiac has sold a boatload of Grand Ams over the years.

It's largely been a triumph of style over substance.

The previous cars were essentially upgraded Chevy Cavaliers, a car that wasn't very good in the early '80s when it was new and which long ago was overtaken by virtually everybody.

Its replacement, the 1999 Grand Am, has retained the characteristic strong appearance. I find the new car more attractive than the old, with distinctive cat's eye headlights; Pontiac traditional, twin nostril grille; and deeply contoured, ribbed moulding surrounding the entire car.

Like or loathe it, at least it's not bland, an accusation that's all to easy to make for most of the cars in this segment.

That side moulding should be more than a match for vagrant grocery carts. The gleaming jetblack paint on my test coupe made the barrier look less obvious.

A unique feature to the new Grand Am is an additional pair of backup lights. They're round, mimicking the driving lamps up front and located at the corners of the car, providing better

illumination when reversing, a blessing for those of us who live in the deep, dark boonies.

Speaking of which, the headlights are bright. But as with most of these new generation, faceted headlights, the beam pattern is irregular, with several shards of light and several darker

patches off to the sides.

The interior is as dramatic as the exterior. "Round" is the word, with two large circular nacelles in front of the driver housing gigantic speedo and tach and smaller fuel and temperature gauges, with three smaller circles in the middle of the dash for air vents.

When you switch on the Grand Am, all the warning lights glow, and all the gauge needles swing fully clockwise, before settling back to their static positions. Not sure this performs any

useful function, but it never failed to elicit at least one "Wow" from passengers.

The minor controls offer round knobs for HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), thank you, and mostly knobs and large push buttons for the radio, plus a too busy graphic

equalizer. They're located close to the driver and are generally easy to work.

Steering wheel spoke buttons duplicate the most frequently used radio functions, and cruise control is handled by another set of buttons on the lower edge of the wheel hub.

If, like me, you practise your drumming on the steering column stalks, you'll have the wipers dancing in time to the music. The button on the end of the right stalk that activates the

wiper/washer is very sensitive.

I found the seats less than perfect: a ridge along the edge of the thigh support was a bit too obtrusive. The seats are low in the car (my tester thankfully had the optional power height

adjustment).

The coupe body style, with its small, high silled rear window, small side rear windows and large headrests, leaves visibility to the rear a guessing game. That's the price you pay for style.

A sedan is also available.

The coupe's right front seat has an "easy entry" mode. It slides forward to let passengers in and out of the surprisingly spacious back seat. But the release lever is low on the back

side of the seatback, easy enough to reach when getting out of the car, awkward when getting in.

Volkswagen's Golf, for one, puts the release high on the seat edge. Much better.

BOLTED TO BODY

The trunk is enormous and easy to load. The electric release on the driver's armrest is handy, as is the optional mesh net. A one-third/two-thirds, split folding rear seatback, again, an

option, makes the cargo area more versatile.

The old Grand Am was the automotive equivalent of a Flexi Flyer. The new car's platform, designated the X130 and shared with the new Olds Alero, is a further development of the P90

platform used on Chevy's Malibu. Rated at 25 Hertz, a world class number, it's much stiffer than anything else in its class.

A front subframe, made of hydro-formed tubes, supports the engine, the front MacStrut suspension and the steering rack.

It's bolted rigidly to the body, not via bushings, a decision Pontiac may wish to rethink.

Rigidity is generally a good thing, but it's also a challenge to keep a stiff body from transmitting every bump and thump audibly to the passenger compartment.

GM has the rigidity figured out; now it has to work on the isolation. That's because despite what's touted as "a variety of noise reduction measures," such as heat expandable sealants in

various body and frame cavities and sound insulation mats on the floor and firewall, Grand Am's suspension is really, really noisy.

Pontiac bills the Grand Am as a "driver's car." In Pontiac speak, this usually means suspension settings that are way too hard. l wouldn't say that's the case with this car, but they're still pretty hard; the ride is definitely on the stiff side.

I'd hate to think I'm getting too old for a car like this, but others do a better job on the ride/handling compromise.

"Driver's car" also implies to me, anyway, direct, precise and communicative steering. Grand Am's sales brochure promises more than my test car delivered. It had an optional, variable effort system; I've seldom found these to be much good, even on very expensive cars.

The Grand Am's was vague and numb, and not particularly light at low speeds. There is also a touch of torque ,1,0 steer on hard acceleration, and the car tended to follow those bobsled

ruts in the 401.

That, plus some blame for the stiff ride, may be attributable to the wide (optional) P225/50R16 tires.

Two engines are offered in the Grand Am. My tester had the son of Quad 4, a 2.4 L four now called simply Twin Cam, with four valves per cylinder and aw, you guessed, double overhead

camshafts.

Its 150 hp ties it with Nissan's Altima for most standard power in the class.

A 170-horse, 3.4 L, pushrod V6, borrowed from the Venture/Trans Sport/Silhouette minivan family, is optional.

A four-speed automatic is standard with both engines, although they are different transmissions.

The Twin Cam offers decent performance, but in none of its iterations, even now that it has dual balance shafts, has this motor ever been particularly quiet or refined.

Honda is losing no sleep over this one.

Automatic transmissions, though, are a GM strength, and the one in my Grand AM shifted impeccably.

Dynamically, the new Grand Am is streets ahead of its predecessor, if for no other reason than the stiff body.

Pontiac still has a way to go in refinement and noise isolation to match the best of the Japanese though and maybe Ford's Contour as well, that car being proof that mid-life

corrections can be successful.

Pontiac can point with pride to a whacking raft of standard equipment on the Grand Am that's either optional or simply not available on other cars.

The base car's $21,795 list price includes such standard issue gear as:

Automatic transmission, traction control, antilock brakes, air conditioning, tilt steering, battery rundown protection (leave a light on and the car switches it off after 10 minutes or so),

AMFM stereo cassette sound system, programmable power door locks with lockout protection (the doors won't lock if the key is in the ignition), power trunk release, depowered dual

airbags, fog lamps, GM's Pass Lock theft deterrent system, block heater, and galvanized body panels.

My test car had a $2,680 package that included the variable assist power steering, cruise, power windows and mirrors, a radio upgrade, singleshot CD player, 16-inch aluminum wheels

and remote keyless entry.

The Grand Am may not be best in class in all areas.

But if you'd like a car with lots of goodies that makes a visual statement, assuming, of course, that Grand Am's is the statement you want to make, there's a lot of car for the dollar

here.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a Pontiac Grand Am provided by GM Canada. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio at noon.

Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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