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2000 Pontiac Bonneville

The 2000 Pontiac Bonneville is an excellent example of the multi-model, common platform strategy.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. Volkswagen is being praised to the skies for its ability to ring a number of changes off a common platform. This strategy saves millions of dollars and gets new models to market faster.

Funny, since General Motors invented this concept. Indeed, the company was literally founded on it. Yet when they do it, they're accused of badge engineering.

Either way, the 2000 Pontiac Bonneville is an excellent example of the multi-model, common platform strategy.

It uses GM's large car G-body architecture, now in its fourth generation in just its fifth year of existence. It launched on the 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora and now departed Buick Riviera, was heavily changed for the 1997 Buick Park Avenue, got another update with the 1998 Cadillac Seville and has been modified again with last year's Buick Le Sabre and now the Bonneville.

But if you parked the Le Sabre and Bonneville side by side, you'd be hard pressed to see many similarities.

As befits Pontiac's role in going after a younger, more aggressive, more heavily male demographic, the Bonny's styling features all the Pontiac cues we've come to expect: cat's eye headlights; twin nostril air intake; ribbed body side mouldings; Coke bottle flanks; deck lid spoiler on up level models.

The basic shape is quite handsome, with a wedgier, lower nose/higher tail hound dog on the scent profile than before.

The base Bonneville SE is aimed primarily at fleet buyers and less flamboyant privateers, while the one up SLE and SSEi range topper are what chief designer Jack Forden calls "meaner," and are "intended for James Bond wannabes." Um, okay.

This is an extremely rigid structure, also about 23 kg lighter than before, that's progress! but all the beams, bars and tubes required to make the car this tough take up space.

Despite a 36 mm longer wheelbase, there's fractionally less room inside than before still plenty spacious for four riders and for the few who still carry five. There's even a six-passenger option on the base SE.

The interior styling is, again, familiar Pontiac: lots of red-lit dials and gauges (including an optional head up display, which projects road speed and various other bits of data onto

the windshield); lots of buttons.

But the ergonomics are better, and each of two drivers can set their favourite seat adjustment, mirror adjustment, climate control and radio station presets, and whether the car chirps when you lock and unlock it via the remote control.

Speaking of climate control, a pollen filter is included with the automatic dual zone climate control system that's standard on all but base SE models.

Bonneville adopts GM's catcher's mitt front seats, whose backrests and head restraints better support the spine and neck, to reduce whiplash injuries.

They are also supremely comfortable to ride in.

The front seatbelts are attached to the seats themselves, so no matter how the seat is adjusted, belt alignment is correct.

Only a lap belt is provided for the middle rear rider.

Three child seat tether anchors are nicely integrated into the hat shelf, and dual front side airbags are standard.

The range of radios includes availability of Radio Data System (RDS), which can communicate a whole raft of data to you, such as the format of the radio station you're listening to, traffic reports, etc. This has been popular in Europe for years, but is only now starting to sneak into North America, and is dependent on the station you're listening to offering the service. Not many do yet, but it is expected to grow.

Pontiac prides itself on offering a complete car. If, for example, you don't order the head up display, the panel isn't filled in with a cheap looking blanking plate. Instead you get a

little storage bin.

There are lots of nice little touches like that throughout the car.

Two engines are offered, depending on model. Both are 3.8 L V6s, in naturally aspirated (205 hp at 5,200 r.p.m.; 230 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 r.p.m.) and supercharged (240 hp; 280 lb.-ft. at 3,600) forms.

Despite all the alleged wonders of modern multi-valve, multi-cam technology, this ancient two-valve, pushrod engine works beautifully. It drives the front wheels through a four-speed automatic transaxle. Traction control is standard on SSEi.

Suspension is similar to Le Sabre's: MacStruts up front, with the strut towers integrated into the firewall for better rigidity, and a three-link independent setup at the rear. Here

it is tuned for firmer ride and crisper handling.

Many of the suspension components are aluminum, for reduced un-sprung weight, which leads to better ride and handling.

Variable ratio rack and pinion steering is standard, with the SSEi upgrading to GM's sophisticated Magna-steer system.

Four-wheel disc brakes with Delco Bosch anti-lock control are standard on all models.

Borrowed from Cadillac for the new Bonneville SSEi is Stabili Trak, GM's yaw control system.

If the car under-steers (starts to plow) because you're cornering too quickly, the system automatically applies the inside front brake to try to pull the nose of the car back in line.

If it oversteers (the back end starts to come around), it applies the outside front brake to help correct the incipient skid

The big Pontiac doesn't get the automatic steering effort compensation. That remains a Caddy exclusive for now.

I don't know many more entertaining places to test drive a new car than the Santa Barbara area. Lots of winding, twisty, largely traffic-free roads, great weather, spectacular scenery.

And the new Bonny ate it all up.

Even the Le Sabre iteration of this platform is a lot better than most of its drivers will ever discover. Bonneville drivers are more likely to press the car, and it will prove to have vastly more talent than most big sedans.

There's some bump-thump on rough pavement or on Bott's dots, those raised lane marking cat's eyes so popular down here.

Body roll is well controlled, and while you're never unaware of the car's bulk, it's remarkably nimble.

GM set up a little slalom course, with a Chrysler 300M, identified as Bonneville's key competitor by the marketing people, for side by side comparison.

You'd hardly expect GM to set up a test it couldn't win, and Bonneville SSEi did, handily. In the tightly coned course, the Chrysler's steering power assist couldn't keep up with the rapid back and forth motions.

The Bonny's could, only just, but the Pontiac was taking the cones about 8 km/h faster.

And while the Chryco has 13 more horsepower, the 300M was demonstrably slower in a zeroto60 mph sprint.

On the road, the supercharged Bonneville didn't subjectively feel that much faster than the regular car.

That's because the normal motor has such a nice, beefy torque curve, launching the car from rest extremely well.

Both engines sound a bit strained as revs rise, but you don't have to let them rise. Let the torque do the work and these engines are remarkably frugal in real-world driving.

In all, the Bonneville makes a pretty impressive package, providing you can handle the looks.

If you can't, there's always the Buick Le Sabre.

Because, GM's theory behind that multi-model, common platform strategy is to sell different cars to different market segments.

On the other hand, Honda and Toyota manage to sell Accords and Camrys to everyone, regardless of demographic. Who's right?

Rick Wagoner, the president of General Motors, told me in a recent interview that if you can minimize the cost of making the different models, then there is a clear marketing advantage to the differentiation.

No need to force a guy who'd rather have a Pontiac to buy a Buick, and vice versa.

Trust me, Rick Wagoner's a lot smarter than either you or me.

Base prices

SE: $30,740

SLE: $35,685

SSEi: $41,995

HIGHS

Strong performance

Fine dynamics

Well-equipped LOWS

Over the top styling

Interior trim quality

SSEi price

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on sessions arranged and paid for by GM Canada.

Email: jbkenzie@interhop.net

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