Big, brash, packed full of technology, powered by a Cadillac Northstar engine with front-wheel-drive and 4-speed auto. The GXP is Pontiac's flat-out performance version of its senior sedan. But, we wonder, is the Bonneville a car of today or the last of the line? Warranty 3-years, 36,000 miles; base price $35,995.
The Bonneville has a distinguished history dating back to 1956. It has always been Pontiac's luxury model, always loaded with features, often powered by the division's most powerful V-8's. Perhaps the Bonneville's greatest years were in the Wide Track era when its width and long, straight silhouette were shown to best advantage. Or some might say the more recent SSEi epitomised the Bonneville's character. Certainly the 2004 GXP has all the elements needed to define this legendary name in a contemporary, very-wedge package. The former supercharged V-6 has been replaced with a Northstar V-8; a performance-tuned suspension deals nicely with the added power and larger disc brakes can slow it down in a hurry. What really sets the 2004 Pontiac Bonneville apart, however, is the extensive amount of technology packed into its aggressive-looking shape, in particular the way this is reflected by the busy interior. A fairly recent restyling sets the mode for future Pontiac design, yet we wonder if the age of the wedge may be coming to an end.
In the Driver's Seat
This is probably the most over-designed dashboard in the history of the automobile. In addition to five huge and not especially attractive black-on-white dials there are a total of sixty buttons, eight adjustable air vents, and seven information panels. It's a good thing Pontiac includes HUD (heads up display) because the potential for distraction is enormous though I do like the way the instruments change to red on white when the lights are switched on. The rest of the interior is quite attractive, especially the seats with their suede-on-leather inserts. Up front one definitely gets a sense of sitting in a tight cockpit, which I suspect is intentional. Storage is limited, the console being given over to CD slots. Front seats are firm and provide fairly decent grip but rear seat legroom, considering the size of the car, is none too generous. Passengers back there are well-treated with their own air vents, ashtrays, grab handles, and storage pockets; forward vision is blocked by large headrests and passengers may wish those side windows weren't so stingy. The trunk is vast, comes with a ski pass-through. Heated front seats are a welcome advantage in cold weather. A quiet ride is assured as wind and tire noise is subdued.
On the Road
The first thing I noticed upon driving away is the car's size. It's big and feels even bigger because the driver has no idea where the extremities lie. There's a heaviness to the way it responds; for example Pontiac claims a 0-60 time of just over six seconds yet acceleration feels slower. Like a 300-pound lineman the Bonneville seems to gather up its energy before charging. (Hard not to like the burble of the 275 hp 4-cam Northstar V-8, though.) The electro-magnetic steering seems fairly responsive but lacks road feel and the turning circle is rather large. Roadholding is quite remarkable for a car in which the engine sits entirely ahead of its front axle but Pontiac's engineers have always excelled at suspension tuning; the StabiliTrac system helps avoid skids and traction control maintains the straight-and-narrow. 18" aluminum wheels reveal massive disc brakes with calipers highlighted in red (that just happened to match the color of our test car). Expressway cruising, however, is where the Bonneville excels, particularly on curving Appalachian runs or through the mountains of Vermont. And if you're stuck in traffic, well, there's always that 8-speaker Monsoon sound system to keep you amused.
Perhaps the best way to define the Bonneville is to describe a typical buyer. (My opinion, not GM's.) "Mid-level male exec in his late 30's or early 40's; lives in the burbs; spends hours on expressways; fascinated by technology and wants his car to be loaded with electronics; has a sentimental yearning for old-fashioned Detroit values; likes to drive hard." If that's you, you'll love this car. It's not me because I prefer my cars simple, elegant, driver-friendly. Somehow, as modern as it is in many respects, the Bonneville seems to dwell in its own history. That instrument panel is almost laughable, while the wedge shape is an idea whose time has passed. And for goodness sake, a car that professes to be a performance sedan must have a 5-speed or even 6-speed automatic with manual shift capability. The Bonneville has neither. Pontiac doesn't advertise this car and sales are not impressive; the dealer who handles GM's media cars in my area admitted he'd sold only two this year. So is there a future for the Bonneville? Maybe, though not for long. Still, if this is your car, by all means buy one while you can and hang on to it. (A special thanks to GM for letting me hang on to the Bonneville for three weeks. It was not a hardship.)