The LS2-equipped Pontiac GTO: an owners retrospective

gtovalley720 [Editor’s Note – Stephen Rubke shared his Pontiac GTO ownership experience with us. Let’s take a journey into the world of Australia’s brief gift to the United States.] There are cars that occasionally come into existence that fill inexplicable voids in the market. The enthusiast market always loved lightweight roadsters, but until the Miata debuted in 1989, the market had been sorely missing such a car for more than a decade. And though pony cars had existed since the 60’s, their hadn’t been a proper muscle car on the market since the early 70’s. By some definitions, a muscle car is a crude machine that has been implanted with a large and powerful engine. Cornering, braking, and all around sophistication were not required. But that definition represents a different time in automotive history. Today, even the base model Camaro and Mustang possess qualities that would have been reserved for luxury cars a couple of decades ago. Where then, does the briefly resurrected GTO reside in the world of enthusiast cars? Is it a muscle car? Perhaps. But I’d venture to call it a true American grand tourer. Okay, so it was actually Australian. But it did lay claim to the GT title, mostly reserved for car of a completely different price range. GTOSFO720 A brief history: The early 2000’s saw Bob Lutz employed at GM to revive certain areas of the giant corporation that had become stagnant in the market. One such area was the Pontiac brand which was as stale as last week’s baguette. Nothing innovative or even interesting from the “excitement” division of GM. While in Australia for some reason, Lutz was given some wheel time in the Monaro- a product of GM’s Holden brand on the southern continent. The car so impressed him that he reckoned it could be brought to American shores and sold under one of our brands (Pontiac, for instance). Engineers, accountants and marketing people worked for a short time and the Monaro emerged in America as the 2004 Pontiac GTO. By all rights, this car was exactly what enthusiasts (like me) wanted: LS1 V8 from the Corvette, RWD, independent rear suspension, 2 doors, and completely unpretentious styling. What actually happened was contempt from old school GTO fans, panning from automotive press, and a mostly failed attempt at marketing by GM. Essentially the car’s Australian roots and general rebadging offended the GTO purists; the press was not at all excited about the restrained styling or civilized manner of a car bearing the name GTO; and no one aside from people who read car magazines had any idea that the car existed. LS2720 A second year refresh with superfluous hood scoops and the new LS2 V8 did little to boost the car’s appeal in the market. The stigma and the general lack of notoriety were too much to save the car from new government safety standards that required a major redesign. GM did the math and buried the GTO. And that leads us to my crossing paths with the car: The year was 2007 and I was a perfectly content WRX owner. Sitting idly in the office one day, I began poking around new car sites and noticed that the 2006 GTO was still being advertised as new. I was aware enough to realize that this was odd since 2006 had been the final model year for the car. Daydreaming ensued and eventually I thought I might take a trip down to the local Pontiac dealer. 34720 Low and behold, the lot was full of 2006 GTOs. I began talking with a salesman (always pain for the true enthusiast as we invariably know so much more than these pathetic souls) and soon arranged a test drive. That was almost certainly a  mistake. The car was an absolute delight. The front buckets were like cushy, leather Lay Z Boys and yet somehow supportive. The instant torque of the 6 liter V8 made my WRX feel like decade-old Carolla. And the sweet, slick shape of the car was quite a bit sexier than the slightly nerdy lines of the Subaru. The salesman at that dealer was far too ignorant to work a deal with me and I left the lot with my WRX. But the seed had been planted and I dreamt of the GTO every night. At some point soon after, my boss mentioned that a good friend of his owned a Pontiac dealership very near by and called to inquire about GTOs for me. Within days, I was making a deal in their showroom. The tipping point was that GM was offering 0%APR for a 5 year loan on the GTO specifically to get them off the lots. I traded in my WRX (which still had a loan balance) and never paid a penny of interest again. In 6 years of ownership, I used the car as my daily driver and logged about 98,000 miles. Here are my impressions and reflections. gtohill720 The Good: The car truly is a GT. Impressively comfortable for long drives and possessing all of the qualities that make high speed and effortless passing on the highway possible. Perhaps its biggest failing as a proper GT was the tiny trunk. Still, 2 full sized suitcases could be fit without trouble. Gas mileage wasn’t bad at all. 6th gear at 70mph registered barely 2000rpm and generally returned about 26~27mpg. By 2013 standards, 400hp is barely impressive anymore, and many in the GTO community were determined to add power. Due to a combination of fluctuating income and California emissions standards, I never committed to any power mods. That said, I contend that the stock power of the LS2 was enough to get me out of 98% of all traffic situations where expedient passing is required. Personally, I felt that the car’s restrained styling was an asset. I removed the spoiler and eventually swapped hoods with an 04 car to make my GTO as stealthy as possible. And it worked. Most people were positively shocked when I mentioned that it had a 6 liter V8 making 400hp at the crank (I always feel compelled to specify where the power is supposed to be happening)… and that it was RWD… and that it was built in Australia… and that yes, Pontiac had brought back the GTO name for 3 years. For people who cared enough, each introduction was an opportunity to tell the story that GM wasn’t able to. Consequently, that relative rarity and obscurity led to a tight knit community of other GTO owners that became even more supportive when GM began to silently abandon the car. The Bad: In spite of the paper specs, the suspension on the GTO was essentially junk from the factory. Many cars suffered from strut failure and tire rub. It was a travesty. Even in good condition, the handling wasn’t very spectacular. It was a heavy car with narrow tires. The steering wheel was large and the pedals were spaced far apart compared to more focused sports cars. Naturally, the factory shifter wasn’t amazing, but there were a few aftermarket options that corrected this adequately. As previously mentioned, the trunk was a joke because the fuel tank had to be relocated into an upright position behind the rear seats, allegedly for North American crash/safety standards. Not a big deal to most, but this car was my daily driver, my only car, and that lack of storage occasionally became an annoyance. Also, because I’ve worn a uniform for most of my jobs, the GTO very noticeably lacks any coat hooks. Granted, I doubt that Ferraris or a Veyron has a coat hook, but this is a freaking Pontiac were talking about. Reliability wasn’t bad for me, but I have heard horror stories- especially from the 2004 cars. In addition to the sorry suspension, the fleet as a whole suffered from common issues such as cabin flooding when parked in the rain, ignition cylinder failure (impossible to turn the key and start the car), sun visor arms breaking, headliner sagging, fuel lines rubbing on engine covers resulting in possible fires, BCM(ECU) wires chafing behind the glovebox causing all sorts of problems, radiator end-tank cracking, and probably a dozen other little things I’m forgetting. My 06 was a victim of a good majority of those issues, but none were really recurring and most were fortunately fixed under warranty. And as an avid hater of plastic engine covers, I had removed mine within a week of ownership thus negating the fuel line rub. For a daily driver, it was respectably reliable for me. I had hoped to keep the car for a long time because I truly liked so many things about it, but changes at home and market forces made that proposition unrealistic for me. For starters I had a baby. The GTO could accommodate a baby seat and a stroller… but just barely. It worked, but it was a real effort where I didn’t necessarily want one. I’ve always been willing to make sacrifices for cars I loved, but I began to look for possible options. The other issue was that parts for the GTO are becoming a pain to acquire. GTOs that get any body damage in accidents are almost certainly totaled by insurance companies these days. I have a friend who can’t find a replacement headlight assembly for less than $800. Consequently, the value of the car itself has been on a steady decline. P1010904-001 Through a series of half-assed efforts, I recently came upon a 2005 Saab 9-2x Aero (the fabled Saabaru) that had the right criteria for my new mission. I was hoping that the offer on my GTO would be a low-ball and I could just walk away with no regrets, but the numbers were just good enough for me and I ended up making the trade. It feels like I’m right back in my old WRX, which in a very real way I am, and that’s a good thing. But the GTO was a great car that connected me with many good friends and almost always put a smile on my face. It’s a shame that most of the world has already forgotten this little Australian gem, but I consider myself very fortunate to have had one for as many years as I did. It served me well and it will be missed. [Images copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Stephen Rubke]

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