Meet Pontiac's Australian relation, the all-new 2008 Pontiac G8. The Pontiac G8 comes from Holden, the Australian arm of parent company General Motors. Designed down under as the Holden VE Commodore, the Americanized version is little changed from its Aussie cousin -- new badges, new grille, and a new hood, plus they moved the steering wheel over to the correct side. This full-size rear-driver is a hit in Australia, but how does it play in the Land of the Free? Read on. $27,595 base, $31,845 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 15-17 MPG city, 24-25 MPG highway.
First Glance at the Pontiac G8: The thunder from Down Under
So why source an American car in Australia? The obvious answer is cost savings. Pontiac wants to restore its "We Build Excitement" image, and the ready-made Commodore fits the bill: Big engine, racy looks, and rear-wheel-drive.
But there's more to the story. Australians, like Americans, spent the 60s and 70s driving big cars with big V8 engines. So Australia -- unlike most of the rest of the world -- understands America's lust for horsepower, even in the face of rising gas prices. Or maybe it's the fact that Australia is a former penal colony; the Pontiac G8 is a natural-born speeder. Whatever the reason, the Commodore is big, brash and powerful -- in other words, it's right up our alley.
The G8 is actually the second Pontiac to be plucked from Oz in recent times. The first was the 2004-06 GTO, which was strong on power but almost completely lacking in style. Not so the G8. Though designed as a Holden, visually it works well as a Pontiac -- though seeing how Pontiac's styling has become so diluted in recent years, it's difficult to say what a proper Pontiac should look like. Still, I think the G8 fits the bill: Subtle and smooth, with a twin-polygon grille, twin hood scoops (link goes to photo), flared fender arches, and a conspicuous lack of the grooved plastic cladding that denoted Pontiac's past days of glory. The only let-down is the design of the taillights -- big clear things that look like aftermarket add-ons. I've seen the G8 in a handful of colors, but I think it looks best in good old-fashioned arrest-me red.
In the Driver's Seat: Unique but monotonous
The Pontiac G8's cabin is refreshingly unique, thanks primarily to Holden-designed switchgear that won't be found (Stateside, at least) in any other GM car. Quality of interior materials is good, though not great. A line of silver plastic helps to break up the all-black dash, but what I really liked were the red inserts on the seats, echoed by red bands on the speedo and tachometer.
Most cars have their power window, mirror and door lock switches on or near the driver's door. On the G8 they're crammed together between the front seats. I imagine this makes the car cheaper to build in both left- and right-hand-drive versions -- Australians and New Zealanders drive from the passenger's seat -- but it gives the G8's interior a monotonous, maddeningly asymmetrical look. It seems silly to stuff so many switches into the center of the dash when there's so much unused real estate elsewhere. While I'm complaining, the huge LED battery and oil gauges, located high on the center stack, seem like a conspicuous afterthought. Surely the designers could have put that space to better use.
Other annoyances: The power seats offer electric height and fore-and-aft adjustment, but the seatback angle is manual, and it's one of those European-style knobs that you have to crank a million times for every half-inch of adjustment. That's not a problem if only one person drives the G8, but if you have multiple drivers who each like the seat adjusted their own way, it's a major pain. And what's with the tiny side mirrors? They're nowhere near big enough for a car of this size.
On the Road: Fast and friendly
The G8 offers a 256 horsepower V6 as the base engine -- a promising start. But the big news is the G8 GT, the model I tested, with its 6.0 liter 361 horsepower V8. Is it fast? Oh, you betcha. Quiet, too, though it vibrates roughly at idle. But the 6-speed automatic is a bit of a wet blanket: Punch the go-pedal and the transmission seems to have a hard time figuring out what to do, even in "sport" mode. Luckily, it supports manual shifting. As for fuel economy, I averaged 18.3 MPG -- quite a bit better than I expected considering how fast the G8 is and how often I floored the pedal.
I'm always wary of high-power rear-wheel-drive cars on curvy roads, but the G8 GT turned out to be surprisingly docile and friendly. The steering isn't quite as responsive as I'd like, but the big Pontiac bites willingly into the corners and displays good rear-wheel-drive behavior, understeering gently until you lift off the gas. That said, I wasn't brave/stupid enough to turn off the G8's stability control system -- the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road has narrow shoulders and steep drop-offs, and I could feel that the G8, with 385 ft-lbs of torque going to the rear wheels, was just itching to spin out. Still, I'd love to take the G8 out to a track where I could safely turn off the electronic safety net and let it all hang out. I bet it'd be one hell of a party.
The aforementioned electronic stability control system is standard in all G8 models, as are antilock brakes and six airbags. But the G8 lacks height-adjustable seat belts -- a surprising omission in a 21st-century automobile.
Journey's End: Mixed emotions
When the G8 first showed up at my door, it was love at first sight. But by the end of test week, my affection had cooled a bit.
I was a bit put off by the G8's lack of options -- you can get a sunroof, a Premium Package (heated power front seats and leather upholstery), and a Comfort and Sound package (dual-zone climate control and upgraded stereo), but that's it. Navigation? Nope. Backup assist? Banished. Adaptive cruise? Absent. All of these features can be found on many of the G8's rivals.
Were I in the market for a full-size car, I'm not sure the G8 would be my first choice. I love the Chrysler 300's looks, though it doesn't feel as fast or as nimble as the G8. The same goes for the Dodge Charger (unless you pony up for the SRT8). The Toyota Avalon is as couth as the G8 is quick, and while it's mind-numbingly dull to drive, its Lexus-class cabin is a tempting alternative to the G8's speed. And if speed was all I wanted, I'd also look at smaller cars like the Infiniti G35 and BMW 3-series.
Still, just as with any love affair, it's easy to overlook the things the G8 does well. It has hectares of interior space and a huge trunk. It's very handsome, and not in a trendy way; the G8's design will stand the test of time. And it's a great value -- let's not forget that the GT model delivers 364 cubic inches and 361 horsepower for just under $30,000. If you like to go fast, the G8 GT is arguably the best bang for the buck this side of a Corvette. Hmmm… maybe I would buy one, after all. -- Aaron Gold