Home » The Last Pontiac GTO Is Criminally Underrated: GM Hit Or Miss

The Last Pontiac GTO Is Criminally Underrated: GM Hit Or Miss

2004 Pontiac Gto Topshot
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Can a car be ahead of its time without being radical? After all, some of the great landmark cars of the past 100 years seriously moved the game on in some form. The Citroen DS still feels like the future, the original Mercedes-Benz CLS changed sedans forever, and even the Pontiac Aztek is currently enjoying its day in the sun. However, sometimes a car isn’t a game-changer, yet it still doesn’t see proper appreciation in its day. Take the final Pontiac GTO, for instance. In the words of Marty McFly, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.” Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we enter the walk-in freezer of GM’s pre-bankruptcy product planning, hoping to find delicious appetizers and not rats or whatever.

In the early 2000s, GM was sunsetting its pony car production, but Bob Lutz still wanted something muscular in the lineup. However, the General was in a tight spot. With the F-Body exiting production, the Kappa platform still several years out, and Cadillac looking to hog two rear-wheel-drive platforms, the company didn’t have many options for something that could take the role of the Firebird as a halo car for Buick-Olds-Pontiac showrooms. Fortunately, GM’s excitement brand ended up getting by with a little help from its Australian friends.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Out Where The River Broke

Holden Monaro

To the casual observer, Australia looks a bit like what a British Texas would be. We’re talking about a nation of beer, utes, vast stretches of emptiness, wildlife that wants to kill you, regulations up the wazoo, and a penchant for fast, rear-wheel-drive cars. Relatively unbothered by the corporate overlords in Detroit, possibly because they were dealing with a domestic clusterfuck of their own, Holden kept cranking out rear-wheel-drive V8 passenger cars long after, say, the B-Body exited production. The  was really a simple matter of taking an Opel Omega, changing everything, and dropping in an Aussie-built version of GM’s third-generation small-block V8. Americans will better know this engine as the LS.

Along the way, Holden cooked up a large, rounded coupe variant called the Monaro, a moniker throwing things back to the heyday of Australian supercars. As the story goes, Bob Lutz took one look at this big bruiser, imagined it ripping up American highways, and then moved heaven and earth to bring it to America, because fast, rear-wheel-drive coupes are an American thing. There was just one thing to work out: What to call it.

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Italian Lessons

Gran Turismo Omologato. That’s Italian for Grand Touring Homologated. It’s an evocative name, used on properly old-school Ferraris, and one that Pontiac shamelessly pilfered for an option package on its 1964 Tempest Le Mans. For a mere $295, shoppers could add a 325-horsepower (gross) 6.4-liter V8 engine, a three-speed manual transmission with a Hurst floor shifter, a four-barrel carb, dual pipes, a seven-blade fan, stiffer suspension, redline tires, and a list of cosmetic sundries. Unsurprisingly, it was a hit. The working, middle-class young people of America wanted horsepower and wanted it now. Little did everyone know that this hopped-up Pontiac was a declaration of war.

Over the next eight years, warheads bearing names like Cuda, 442, Boss, and SS ripped down American streets as a decade about peace and love in paranoid times showed its underbelly of hot, nasty, badass speed. In response to competition, the GTO just got faster, with big block motors, ram air induction, hood-mounted tachometers, and wild paint schemes. However, by 1973, the party was pretty much over. New emissions and safety requirements along with an oil crisis marked the end of the muscle car, with the American automotive industry plunging into a state of deep malaise. Fast forward to late 2003, and domestic performance was back. From supercharged Mustangs to the freaking Chevrolet SSR, America was in a new renaissance of muscle, and a reborn GTO sounded like just the car to take on the competition with.

Rumble In The Bronx

Pontiac Gto 2

Was the 2004 Pontiac GTO fast? Does an underprepared camper shit in the woods? Here’s what Car And Driver managed to get out of the 5.7-liter GTO — the slowest one sold.

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If you want necks snapped, row hard and keep the gas pedal flat. The all-season 245/45 BFGoodrich g-Force T/As are mere shrimps on the barbie of the LS1 V-8. The GTO charges headlights ablaze out of a toxic cloud of tire smoke to turn 5.3 seconds at 60 mph and 14 seconds flat in the quarter-mile at 102 mph, clobbering with big-bore snort new import coupes such as the Infiniti G35 and Mazda RX-8.

Speed is wonderful, but it needs to come with sensation to be memorable. Whether the “oh god” spleen-mashing silent violence of a fast electric car or the primal banshee wail of an Italian V12, speed should feel a little bit antisocial, lest we become complacent. Thankfully, the GTO obliged, and Car And Driver summed it up best:

Best of all, the GTO vents USDA Prime V-8 grumble out of a genuine dual exhaust (the Monaro’s interconnecting H-pipe is there, but blocked off for meatier noise). The pops and thuds of backfires on the overrun sound positively illegal, like you’d pulled the cans and were heading for Paradise Road.

Now that’s what a fast, V8 coupe should be all about. However, the acceleration and noise might be the least-impressive part of the Pontiac GTO. I’ve been lucky enough to experience one, and came away enamored with its velvet-glove refinement.

Pontiac Gto 1

It’s a big, soft grand tourer that still handles better than you’d expect. Not only is the steering well-weighted, the chassis balance is set up in a properly approachable manner, hanging the tail out should you ask, reining it in with ease, and still defaulting to manageable understeer when seriously overdriven. Ride quality leans more Bavarian than anything, the whole car is surprisingly precise for a 3,800-pound bar of soap, and the GTO feels better screwed-together than any American GM product of that time. Forget a Cadillac, this was the best GM car you could buy for several years.

Growing Pains

Pontiac Gto 3

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Despite spine-snapping bark and Rottweiler bite, the Pontiac GTO did have a few problems. Arguably the biggest problem on a day-to-day basis was the fuel tank. Due to pesky American requirements for not barbecuing occupants in rear-end collisions, the tank was moved from under the trunk floor to inside the trunk, right up against the rear seats. This raised the center of gravity and cut trunk space down to a mere 13 cubic feet. That’s less than you get in a Toyota Echo.

Pontiac Gto Interior

Of a more pressing matter in the GTO’s day was its styling — it just wasn’t lairy enough for American tastes. Instead of being some macho-posturing, testosterone-laden object of bedroom poster lust, the GTO was conservative, demure, and under the radar. Oh, and it’s not just me who thinks this way — Car And Driver noted the GTO’s tame appearance back in 2003, calling the styling “a snooze.” The soap bar looks and derivative greenhouse did make it look a bit like an oversized Sunfire, and I can totally understand that failing to resonate with American audiences.

Bulking Up

Pontiac Gto 5

In an attempt to overcome the somewhat anonymous styling, General Motors did the only thing it knew how to do — it threw more power at the problem. For 2005, the 5.7-liter, 350-horsepower LS1 V8 was out, and the six-liter, 400-horsepower LS2 was in. Oh, and the GTO also gained an unceremoniously grafted-on pair of nostrils as standard equipment, rather than as part of an optional package. The extra kick in the trousers pushed the GTO to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds, as per Motor Trend, but the car still didn’t look particularly wild. Keep in mind, the Chrysler 300C and retro-style 2005 Ford Mustang were on the market at this point, both offering far more flash with reasonable performance.

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For 2006, the Pontiac GTO carried over almost unchanged. A few new colors joined the palette, new taillights joined the party, minor switchgear changes occurred, and that was it. Sales jumped from 11,069 units to 13,948 GTOs, but the car still never met its initial 18,000-per-year sales target. Australian publication Drive reports that by June 14, 2006, the last GTO rolled off the line in Adelaide, and it was curtains for Pontiac’s two-door import.

Time Is A Healer

Pontiac Gto 6

Over the past 17 years, something funny has happened to the GTO’s competitors: They’ve all aged like milk. The 2005 Ford Mustang now looks like the cartoonish pastiche it is, and it has some hilarious build quality issues like paint not adhering to its aluminum hood and leather door card inserts flopping down at the drop of a hat. The Chrysler 300C that was so cool in the mid-aughts was another fashion car that now looks like the four-wheeled equivalent of a Von Dutch trucker hat. Sure, it’s nostalgic, but its trashy nature is showing. Besides, those Chryslers go through front end components like no tomorrow, and often weren’t cared for particularly well.

In contrast, the Pontiac GTO has only grown better with age. Sure, parts support can be a bear, but the staid lines have aged well, and the interior stands the test of time. It’s a wonderfully mature yet sinfully powerful bruiser that seems to transcend class much the way that the Volkswagen GTI does. You can turn up to a no-prep race or a corporate managerial job in a GTO and not look like a complete buffoon at either location. What’s more, it’s still quick and lovely to drive by today’s standards. These days, with a little bit of digging, you can pick up an LS2-powered GTO for under $20,000, and still have it be sublime. For anyone infatuated with the car when it was new, it’s still a hero worth driving. If that doesn’t make it a hit, I don’t know what does.

(Photo credits: Pontiac, Holden)

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Marques Dean
Marques Dean
2 months ago

There were a bunch of reasons why the GTO didn’t sell well. First was the styling,people thought it looked too much like a Chevy Cavalier coupe (plain Jane looks,didn’t really stand out). The second was the dealers themselves were part of the issue. Dealers refused to let potential customers test drive the cars and they were tacking on thousands in ADM(Adjusted Dealer Markup),despite GM swearing up and down that the cars would be sold around $33-$35K at that time. GTOs in dealer inventories at the time had ADMs as high $7-$8K, they ended sitting like lawn ornaments at the dealerships while Ford was selling Mustangs left and right. Even today decent low mileage examples are overpriced and those have to scrutinized so you don’t end up buying a rebuilt wreck.
Another lost/wasted opportunity by GM.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
8 months ago

I’m in the camp that they aged well, I would pick one of these or a G8 up in a heartbeat if I lived somewhere with a 2 car garage lol but alas living in NYC it’s expensive enough to own ONE car!

Brian Carrington
Brian Carrington
8 months ago

this was the best GM car you could buy for several years.

This is a low bar, especially in the early 2000’s.

Dangerous_Daveo
Dangerous_Daveo
8 months ago

I do wonder if the over styled HSV version would have done better in the US.

Myk El
Myk El
8 months ago

I currently own a yellow 2005 example with the 6-speed manual. I’d never had the experience of owning a RWD V8 manual and wanted that chance while I could. Challengers and Mustangs are all over where I live and I just didn’t want what everyone else had.

I acquired it in June from a GM employee who reports to the person who designed the interior. Said the gauges were inspired by a watch he fancied. Hearsay, but does make for a good story.

Anyway, this car is such an amazing example of people hating a thing for what it isn’t as opposed to appreciating what it is. I have chosen to love the Aussie Grand Tourer it is instead of disliking the muscle car it isn’t. It’s fun to drive. I like the look, always have. I have no want of an aggressive looking car.

While I’m not especially tall (5′ 11″), my height is in my torso rather than my legs so I have to take care with ingress (egress is easy), but once in, I can get comfy. I’ve driven it from Michigan to Arizona (with a 2 month stop in Colorado), so it’s good for road trips.

It’s clearly developed a bit of a cult following. When I go to car gatherings, folks have liked seeing it. With the exhaust noise and the yellow coloring, it’s a bit juvenile, but so am I.

The folks who always seem to want to race: EV owners (mostly Tesla, but there was a Polestar 2) and lifted pickup drivers. I have a “do not engage” policy when driving it. Yeah, I like the feel of acceleration, but I’m gonna let them risk getting in trouble alone.

Ben
Ben
8 months ago

The styling problem with these is that they look like a poorly tarted up Grand Am. I actually like the Grand Am look (possibly a consequence of growing up at a time when every other car in the high school parking lot was one), but these look like someone threw a bunch of cheap aftermarket cosmetic parts on one. It looks worse than the bog standard, dime-a-dozen sedan that everyone on your street already owned.

In that sense I suppose it has aged well, but only because a boring and homely car is still boring and homely 20 years later.

05Mil Machine
05Mil Machine
8 months ago

Friend of mine had a 6.0 GTO like these. I always laughed about the volume knob being on the passengers side.

Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
8 months ago

I think these would’ve been more beloved had they been Monte Carlos instead. It would’ve been a huge step up from the W-Body cars and the styling is similar enough that it would’ve seemed like a natural evolution.

Data
Data
8 months ago

I saw the Monaro first on a visit to Australia and thought it looked cool (The Holden looks better). When it came stateside as the GTO, I didn’t think it deserved the name either. I’m Gen X and have no nostalgia for the original, so I think that says something.

Nice Midnight Oil reference. Now I have an ear worm.

Out where the river broke,
The bloodwood and the desert oak,
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels,
Steam in forty five degrees

sentinelTk
sentinelTk
8 months ago

Every time this comes up, I have to make the argument that branding is where this failed. Had they marketed it as the next Grand Prix GTP or GTX, I think it would have been much more popular. Still would have struggled in a dying segment (non-luxury coupes), but it would have fared much better than calling it a GTO.

My dad (who used to drag race GTO’s) had first shot from our local Pontiac dealer when they hit the lot. Walked into the showroom, said “That’s not a GTO” and left without even a test drive. They failed to grab the nostalgia the boomers wanted while at the same time failing to do anything fresh to bring young enthusiasts to the brand, all despite it actually being a good car….

Andrew Bugenis
Andrew Bugenis
8 months ago

While I don’t necessarily agree that comparable performance vehicles from the time have aged poorly, the GTO has certainly aged well and come into its own. I really didn’t like it at the time from a styling standpoint – way too 90s soap bar. (I think the G8 did a great job improving on it. RIP G8 ST.) Much like the fourth generation Camaro, the look has aged well and I love seeing them on the roads. (Assuming I recognize the GTO – as nice as it looks, it is still very anonymous.)

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
8 months ago

In February of 2006, with my first teaching job in hand, I bought a CPO 2004 Pontiac GTO with 5,200 miles on it. Because the first thing you should do when you get two nickels to rub together, is commit 25% of your take home income to a loan payment on a fast car, right? RIGHT!?! Yeah, I am not a smart man.

I loved my GTO. The interior was the nicest I had ever sat in. Just the sound of that of that LS-1 firing up gave me, in terms I wouldn’t learn for several years after, “the fizz.” Having all that power at my disposal, actually made me a much calmer driver. I felt no need to maintain momentum. I could just wait for a gap, and put my foot down.

The honeymoon period, however, was quite short. Holy fucking hell was that thing a lemon. That piece of shit was the very definition of a Friday car. I only owned it for 3-1/2 months, and it spent 31 days in the shop in that time. I drove no less than 10 loaners during the various periods of downtime, mostly waiting for parts from Australia. Had I been the original owner, it would have been an easy lemon-law case. Since I bought it used, I had no choice but to trade it in at a loss to get out from under that fucking albatross.

Jacob Rippey
Jacob Rippey
8 months ago

Something that I don’t think has been mentioned yet is that the roll out of these GTOs in dealerships was also a self-inflicted wound. They would allocate these cars to high grossing Pontiac dealerships…which were in the midwest…you know, the people who don’t want a RWD sportscar. Few of these cars made it to fair weather states, which is a darn shame.

JDE
JDE
8 months ago
Reply to  Jacob Rippey

Some of us like V8’s and rear wheel drive. Maybe less so in large 4 door Family cars like say the G8 with a V8, but certainly for summer bruisers. Probably the biggest thing that did these in was the jelly been styling. The aforementioned G8 was a much more attractive, and I realize much more useful with the extra doors, but no 2 door, and with the end of the F bodies, this unfortunately failed to reinvigorate the Poncho sales.

GM used to do the autoshow in motion things where they trotted out the newest GM had and some competitors to compare to. the GTO was squatty when playing hard in a straight line, but overall it was a fun car. it was not inexpensive for the time, but I would certainly take one with out AFM, but the debate whether the LS2 has or does not have AFM is sometimes heated for sure. Holden’s had the feature was disabled on Holdens, but enabled in G8’s until 2008 and then in 2009 enabled in the home country on Holdens.

sentinelTk
sentinelTk
8 months ago
Reply to  Jacob Rippey

Growing up in the Midwest, I’ll disagree with you. Mustangs were everywhere. Chevy dealer had no issue moving Vettes. The Solstice surprisingly didn’t sit on the lots long. And the people they were targeting with the GTO? Yeah, they were raised on and still love RWD muscle cars.

Loren
Loren
8 months ago

Holden made a two-door by just using 4-door fronts which besides looking funny are so short, an adult can’t get in back without standing there waiting for an electric motor to run the front seat up first. It’s a seriously dumb thing and God-help any rear seat passenger during an emergency or if the seat motor fails. Yes I had one, six-speed Magnusen supercharged.

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