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Sampling 2004 Pontiac GTO: Is my Australian dream car any good?

Ross Ballot May 9, 2017 All Things Hoon, Featured 24 Comments

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 my WRX 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.

  • smalleyxb122

    LS1 is okay, but you really want the LS2. It doesn’t remove the negatives, but it makes the biggest positive even better.

    The GTO is a competent handler, but if you are comparing it to a WRX, you are doing it wrong. Gone are the days of “muscle cars can’t go around corners”, but you still have to manage your expectations.

    $11k is to much for an ’04 with the miles and the condition as described. That should be an $8k-$8.5k car in the current market.

    • Ross Ballot

      Agreed on all counts. The LS1 is strong, but the LS2 would be reason alone to buy the car and/or spend the extra money.

      It didn’t handle poorly by any means…it handled exactly like its size. No better, no worse. I’d imagine it can be made to handle pretty well with a good suspension setup.

      $11k was a joke for this thing, given the horrible paint, destroyed clutch, and general trim pieces and other bits that were missing. If it was $7500 it might be worth the time. Otherwise, there’s plenty of other examples out there for similar money in much better shape. $11k for an LS2 car in this condition would be a hard sell even. That said, I think we’re about to see prices take an upswing…they’ve been bottomed out too long now.

  • I really wanted to like the GTO when it was new to the market but it looked so…generic and bland. A good friend bought one but then regretted it saying it was too much car for him for what he needed. I think he would have been happier with a Mustang V6. I think a used Corvette would be a better deal.

  • dukeisduke

    These things like a late ’90s Cavalier, and they don’t have a great reputation for quality. As far the suspension goes, don’t they have a problem with wimpy front lower control arms (ones that bend easily)? At least on the early cars?

  • JayP

    The first new GTOs looked too much like a Catera… which I might have considered over a coupe.
    I wanted to love it but couldn’t even over my New Edge Mustang.

    They just don’t age well. You’d think an Australian car could handle Texas summers.

    • What_Tha

      Well there is a very good reason for that. The GTO/Monaro is based on the VT Commodore, which itself is based on the Opel/Catera design.

  • Land Ark

    There are two types of GTOs out there. The ones that have been beaten on and the ones meticulously owned by someone who only drives it on nice days. I like to think mine is the latter.

    It’s a 2006 which I bought for less than $17k in 2012 with 38k miles on it. I flew from Virginia to Florida after bidding on it on eBay and winning. I never laid eyes on it in the flesh until the guy picked me up from the airport in it. I drove it back home the same day. It now gas just over 50k miles and all in all I have spent about $24k total on it. I haven’t modified it other than getting lowering springs (less then an inch).

    I absolutely love driving it. It has power for days, and like you said, it’s delivered so smoothly unless you really get into it. All GTOs need suspension upgrades. Most had worn out rear springs on the boat halfway across the Pacific. But if you put the right parts on and don’t completely cheap out, you can have a fabulous cruiser with a mean streak.

    I’ve always liked it, I appreciated that it wasn’t retro. Comparing it to the 2005 Mustang, I believe its looks have held up a lot better. I could have bought a Mustang or Camaro or even a Challenger, but I chose a GTO because it wasn’t something you see everywhere and had 400hp compared to a 2006 Mustang with 300. I was never interested in a Camaro.

    But I will say, I definitely know the feeling of bumping your head on the upper door opening. I do it almost every time I drive it, specifically when I’m backing into my driveway.

    I don’t know when or if the value upswing will occur. I thought I was getting in on the bottom 5 years ago. And while I could still get back what I bought it for, the value has certainly not sky rocketed.

    • Ross Ballot

      Glad to hear your ownership experience has been solid. Willing to bet I’d feel differently about the GTO as a whole if I drove yours. I’m in CT if you’re local 😀

      The door opening is mind boggling. For the size of the car, it simply doesn’t make sense.

      On paper there wasn’t a comparison between the LS2 GTO and the 4.6 Mustang. Of course the aftermarket can level the playing field, but 400 vs 300 is no question. That said, I don’t think most buyers who went with the Mustang GT were after absolute performance but rather the looks, sound, and appeal of “what muscle cars used to be.” Remember that commercial with Steve McQueen building the race track in the corn field? That said it all.

  • ptschett

    These were on my radar back before the ’10 and ’11 Mustang updates lured me into the new car realm (where I then promptly bought my first Challenger.) My dad grew up around the original GTOs and thought it was too bland; but to me the original GTO didn’t look all that different from another mainstream US domestic car of its time till it got the rubber baby buggy Endura bumper so even the ’04’s looks didn’t bother me that much.

    Why I didn’t buy one: 1) silly trunk setup with the gas tank in the bulkhead between the cargo compartment and the back seat, 2) every car I could find was yellow, 3) while I stayed employed through that entire time I wasn’t in a position to be making long-range plans till the economy got a little better in late ’09 and by then I was thinking of something new.

    • Ross Ballot

      Ugh, the trunk is terrible. Barely a trunk. Forgot about that.

      • Rover 1

        They moved the fuel tank from it’s original Monaro beginnings and forgot about space.

  • Maymar

    http://consumerguide.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/01129171990001.jpg

    I think we tend to look at the neo-GTO’s “dull” styling in a vacuum, but it’s unfair to overlook that at the time, GM was coming off years of being raked over the coals for Pontiac’s “Ribbed for no one’s pleasure” cladding. The GTO was one of Bob Lutz’s first efforts at GM, leading off marginally more tasteful GMs with nicer interiors than the 90’s stuff.

    http://oldcarmemories.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/autos_pontiac_gto_99gtoconcept-2.jpg
    Of course, the rubes all thought it shoulda looked like the ’99 concept, even though it was kind of awful. They mostly got their wish with the 5th gen Camaro.

    Now, I’d have been curious to see if the market would have accepted the 3800-powered base model the Aussies got (either the actual supercharged variant, or naturally aspirated), or if it would have been rejected for being “not a real muscle car.” Sure, the Mustang gets to carry on as a standalone vehicle with more distinctive styling, but it could also sell ~100k units a year thanks to the cheaper base models, helping amortize more development.

    I always liked the GTO when it came out, but since we didn’t get them in Canada, it’s always been a little irrelevant.

    • Hubba

      Without the muscle, it’s even worse value compared to a Mustang.

  • Fuhrman16

    I have a theory that if GM had killed off Pontiac in the early 2000’s (afterall, Pontiac really didn’t have much going for it when the Firebird/Trans Am went out of production) instead of Oldsmobile, and this car had been sold as a Cutlass, I think it would have quite done well. The handsome but understated looks and more grand touring vibe was more in line with what Oldsmobile was about than Pontiac was. And calling it a Cutlass was a good deal less sacrilege than the GTO name (especially after the utter rubbish Cutlass’s from the 90’s).

  • Beef Malone

    So you drove a thrashed ’04 and it came up short.. No shit?

    • Ross Ballot

      I’ve also driven thrashed examples of other cars and come away completely impressed, so…

  • outback_ute

    I haven’t driven a Monaro but have driven Commodores which are the same thing with extra doors and more rear overhang. In cornering they do lean heavily on the outside front tyre, but have a decent agile feel. You are lucky the Monaro had the extra toe control links in the semi-trailing arm IRS. My brother in law worked for an auto supplier and I remember a ride in one of their test cars with over 400hp, where each gear change (auto trans) induced noticeable deflection in the rear suspension. No slip from the tyres, but movement of the body.

  • cap’n fast

    on a dare, i sat in one in 2006. concussionville. large door opening required a bridge girder to span the opening for rigidity and roll over requirements. engineers never thought any one over 19.3cm height would ever consider getting in it let alone drive it. a new 2006 with 23 mi. on the clock did indeed wallow around like a beached walrus in heat chasing a harem of females. and no the engine did not make up for the crap fit and finish, fuel guzzler tax, trip to the mri to get head looked at for cracks, the trim falling off in the dealers lot (new car and it was falling off then) the red paint with orange peel, the worst radio gm ever put into a car(at least it wasn’t an 8 track) and some how putting an LS1 and a 4speed into a car and not giving it a posi. that last just made me mad….
    i still liked the car a lot, just not enough the justify the price with the additional dealer greed added in. a case of low expectations being met and exceeded in certain parameters. the 2006 mustang gt was a lot more fun to throw around.

  • Luxury Lexus Land-yacht

    See, I can’t stand how these look in the ‘refreshed’ version, after they’ve been Ponticized.

    MOAR SCOOPS!!!!

    I want low-key, under-the-radar looks with better-than-average warp drive. Considered one for a short time, but I’m low-to-moderately crippled, so clutch use is out. I was going to look at one, after passing by, on a used car lot in Irving, TX.

    Instead, at the time (2011), I got an ’05 RWD V8 Cadillac STS…driven by a guy who pulled into said lot behind us, private sale. Pissed the used car guy off to no end, which made it that much better. Nice car, sure, but still chock full of quaint GM foibles.

    Now, though, I rock a proper Q-ship, a 2008 Lexus LS 460 L. 380 HP and an 8-speed auto make for a car which is disturbingly quick for its size/mass.

    • Ross Ballot

      I love that generation of the LS. My grandfather had an ’07, it was quick but it felt even more so because of how quietly it gained speed compared to how quickly it happened.

  • neight428

    By the time these were introduced, the market was seriously souring on a Mustang design that missed the mark at introduction in ’94 and had no direct competition for a number of years. Meanwhile, big GM was not really putting products in showrooms that enthusiasts would appreciate, but Aussie GM was somewhat, so they threw this out as a stop gap measure during grindingly slow development of the 5th gen Camaro. High MSRP’s, low volume, and the lovely dealer network conspired to make these far more “exclusive” than was actually justified and the market yawned. Styling is obviously subjective, and the GTO/Monaro strikes me as a clean design, and the compromises in the vehicle are understandable and something that early 2000’s enthusiast neight would have happily lived with. Except that they were asking for a significant step up in price that would have got me into any number of interesting vehicles.

  • JBsC6

    By the time the GTO came to the USA…it was long into its life cycle…it was literally at its end …the vehicle when originally released was in style. It just lived in so long that it was no longer stylish by the time it came to America.

    I was never a huge fan as the space for larger tires was impossible….

    AT time I ts interior was heralded as a masterpiece but alas trim pieces falling off and a few chassis foibles didn’t win many people over…

    Dealer greed ATM launch made the pricing on early examples ridiculous and much like the latest viper died at the misactions of greedy dealers so too did the last iteration launch of the 2004 GTO.

    By the time GM added a little more juice to the GTO the following year….the added dealer markup at launch along with its few short comings did the car in…

    I remember driving my 2001 500 hp cam , headers gears red z06 when those two ton GTO s rolled out of the showrooms…

    I didn’t see the value of the added 800 or 900 lbs