The Pontiac GTO was the unloved bastard child of the muscle car resurgence of the 2000s. You don’t have to be an automotive designer to know the styling pushed the wrong buttons, leaving the LS1 engine to write checks the Holden-derived body couldn’t cash. That didn’t stop me from wanting one though. For reasons I’ll try to explain in the following “review,” something about the GTO just resonated with me whereas most Americans simply didn’t see it as the expression of aggression that was the retro-modern 2005 Mustang. Pontiac couldn’t sell 14,000 GTOs in 2004, and numbers declined until its demise in 2006. It disappeared without so much as a whisper.
What was to blame for the car’s failure? To start, it had no sharp edges, Australian roots, and a nameplate harkening back to one of the most memorable muscle cars of their golden years. It had little chance to win over the American people from day one. But maybe everyone was missing out; was Pontiac’s last rear-wheel-drive, V8-powered coupe any good? Was I insane for putting the GTO on a pedestal as a teenager, questionably making it an attainable dream car? Is the GTO worth pursuing in 2017?
Recently I finally found out what it was like to drive one of the cars I had dreamed of owning as a teenager. Read on to see if I left with my head held high or with my expectations crushed.
I was one of the relatively few who lusted after the Holden when it came Stateside. It just hit me right, the right amount of power without the look-at-me neediness for attention of other cars with similar performance credentials. The GTO also happened to be the only V8 RWD Pontiac on sale as I was coming of driving age, striking a chord with the fondness over stories told by my father of his ‘77 Trans Am. Or maybe it was the magazine comparo between a GTO and an CLK55 AMG, a similarly bulbous yet doubly-priced and no better performing coupe. Whatever it was, I lusted: GTO pictures were taped to my wall.
I’ve been on an on-and-off hunt for a 2004-2006 GTO since I graduated from college. They had been on my mind again lately when coincidentally a 2004 popped up for sale just a few miles away. Knowing how quickly they’re usually snatched up, it would have been foolish not to take a look so I dropped in and had a go. My loop consisted of some side streets and some highway, and left me feeling very mixed about the forgotten mid-2000s muscle coupe.
In my eyes 2004 was the worst year for the Americanized Monaro, and the faded and scratched Yellow Jacket paint here isn’t helping to minimize the flat slabs of body, instead making the rounded shapes seem even less chiseled. Proportionally the car works at least, buying into the long hood / short deck formula, but overall it’s just bland. Pontiac did better upon buyers, and our eyes, with a few visual upgrades for the 2005-2006 model years, but nothing could convince people the GTO was as desirable as the Mustang.
Climbing inside the GTO is a wave of the past and a touch of the modern. It mostly resembles what’s sold today, but everything gives off an air of what once was. Not in the sense of late ‘60s or early ‘70s in the muscle car heydeys, but of what early 2000s Holden was pumping out that, admittedly, was much better than that of contemporary Pontiac. The bolstered seats are plenty comfortable, finding the nice middle-ground between ample cushioning and still enough lateral support to keep you from sliding about. What struck me as odd though was the curvature of the window between the A and B pillars, not outside but on the inside of the car; despite the cabin feeling in no way cramped, it was nearly impossible to move my head even the slightest bit left-ward without smacking it on the roof. It must be mentioned that the interior was falling apart in places and, while the major items like the seats, dashboard, and headliner were intact, a bunch of trim pieces were either falling off or completely missing. Evidently the most recent owner(s) weren’t too kind to this car, and that was most apparent in the clutch.
Never in my life have I experienced a clutch pedal with so much play and so little grab. Seriously, it was as mushy as mushy gets. Once moving it was better, aside from the wholly distracting noise coming up through the transmission tunnel and gear-shift area itself. Something down there was making sounds that shouldn’t be coming out of any automobile, functional or not. The shifter too felt like something was three-quarters of the way to broken status, with a concerning amount of play in the stick itself when in neutral and some difficulty in finding the gears themselves. But put your foot down in any gear at any RPM and those quality nuisances were forgotten…at least momentarily.
By today’s standards the LS1 isn’t overwhelmingly powerful; not even close. This thirteen-year-old car probably isn’t even making the power GM once claimed it did, even with the K&N intake and unidentifiable aftermarket exhaust. But lay your foot into the throttle and you’re rewarded with a smooth delivery of torque that brings the V8 roaring through the rev range as you ready yourself to upshift into the next gate and continue hammering on the gas pedal until logic gets the better side of you. Power delivery is so direct that it gives you the impression that not only is the car waiting to leap at the tiniest bit of prodding, but that it wants you to kick it in the ass so it can put an evil grin on its, and your, face. It’s the lively kind of powerful-responsiveness that you want to play with at every given instance. The GTO might be a heavy car, but ripping through the gears makes it feel almost svelte, the weight hiding behind the engine’s strength as the twin pipes bellow 5.7 liters of American glory out at the surrounding world. If the GTO’s looks are underwhelming, the LS1 makes up for them.
And yet, the car cruises beautifully at speed despite its more raucous intentions. The motor purrs along quietly at near-idle at 65-75 MPH, and the ride quality matches somewhat bulky GTO nicely. I have no doubt whatsoever that this car would be fantastic at eating up the miles on a long road trip, and I was shocked to find that what I thought was 50 MPH was actually 70. And 55? 80. Speed is hard to perceive with such a comfortable, smooth ride and the knowledge of such instantly-accessible power reserve ready at the slightest touch of your big toe.
So if the suspension’s compliance was good, dare I say even near-Cadillac smooth, the handling is the dynamic downfall. Given, this car was pretty beat and needed not only suspension bushings but likely full shocks/struts as well, but it was easy to tell that the weight is the Achilles heel in this situation. That said, it still felt fairly nimble– more so than my gone-but-not-too-dearly-missed Challenger R/T– but it makes seem like a Lotus compared to the wallowy, older chassis of the GTO. Not that it’s catastrophically bad by any means, but it’s easy to see its limits. Would make an incredible drift car though…
After the test drive I found myself wishing I had fallen head-over-heels in love with the car, and found myself wishing Pontiac had named it anything except what they did. As it stands, the 2004 LS1-powered GTO is a good car with an identity crisis, a hell of an engine and platform stuck in an Australian body. In some ways, I love it. In others, I can’t. I’d happily road trip a GTO across the country, own one as a weekend toy, or take one to a drift event with an endless supply of rear tires. But live with one? I just don’t know. With an asking price of $10,999 this particular GTO felt like a $6000 engine with maybe a $4000 car strapped to it. A better example might have left me feeling differently; I’ll have to find another to compare it to. The main point I gathered from my test drive was this: great engine, questionable vehicle otherwise. And if that’s not the recipe for a muscle car, I don’t know what is…I just wish it felt more special.