A numbers game
Marc K. Stengel, Wed, 30 Apr 2008 08:00:00 PDT
Automotive performance never goes out of fashion, but it does gothrough cycles. For the 2008 model year, V8 power and rear-wheel-drive are back in vogue at Pontiac after years in exile. For theGen-4 version of BMW's sizzling M3 coupe and sedan, it's not somuch the rear-drive, front-mounted V8 combination that raiseseyebrows but a stratospheric 8,400-rpm redline that tickles the funny-bone.
Clearly, Pontiac is demanding to be taken seriously again bydelivering ripping performance and four-door, five-seaterpracticality for under $30,000. BMW, on the other hand, has pulledout all the stops by endowing its venerable pocket-rocket with asupercar's sophistication and personality for a price. At a timewhen neo-Puritanism seems to be shaming aficionados into angst-riddendoldrums, Pontiac and BMW are standing tall and declaring for all tohear: Let the good times roll!
Pontiac's new G8 sedan is like a breath of fresh air in a stuffyroom. Just one look, and what seem like 20 years of ever-deepeninganonymity and irrelevance simply fade away. The name G8 may not evokethe kinds of emotions that Firebird and Tempest and Trans-Am oncedid, but its back-to-basics powertrain pairing front engine and rear-wheel drive certainly get the juices flowing.
There are two basic iterations of the new G8. The $27,000 base modelboasts a 3.6-liter V6 producing 256 horsepower, mated to a five-speedautomatic transmission. The GT version is the bigger news,however. Its 6.0-liter pushrod V8 cranks out 361 hp through a six-speed auto, yet it still manages to achieve 15 mpg/city and 24 mpg/highway thanks to computerized cylinder de-activation. (The V6 modelis rated 17 mpg/city, 25 mpg/highway). Even with its hi-po V8, inother words, the G8 GT is capable of 420 miles per tankful of fuel.With a sticker price of $29,310, this G8 is arguably the under-$30,000 performance champ in the contemporary auto marketplace.
Like the reborn (and laid-to-rest) GTO coupe that never quiteendeared itself to enthusiasts, the Pontiac G8 bears an Aussiepedigree thanks to its sibling relationship with the Holden Commodorefrom Adelaide. Styling, however, is Yankee Doodle Dandy, with thesnorkel scoops, wheel flares and subtle flip spoiler that hearkenback to Pontiac's muscle-car heyday. Ah, but there's an importanttwist: This is a Pontiac that can handle as well as accelerate;that's as reassuring under braking as it is flagrant doing burnouts.Finally, All-American muscle meets four-wheel independent suspensionand front-to-rear disc brakes. If you toss it, the G8 can take it, which isn't the fond memory many Boomers tend to harbor about theirPontiacs of yore.
Inside, the G8 boasts one of the more refreshing design makeovers inautomotive annals. Seat comfort, particularly up front, is a paragonof comfort; and a roomy rear bench generously accommodates threeadults. Moreover, an 18 cubic-foot trunk swallows ample luggage. Goneare Pontiac's lumpy, pudgy control knobs that resembled nothing somuch as Fisher-Price playthings. The G8's instrumentation andswitchgear are all grown up, tasteful and easy to use and understand.Deep red read-outs are still frustrating to us members of the color-blind minority (but sometimes it's better not to know how fastyou're going when 361 hp are in charge).
What Pontiac has accomplished with the G8 bodes well for a GeneralMotors division that's fighting to stay viable. At last, here's apractical, real-world and even affordable sedan with both the stylingand the chops to validate Pontiac's once-revered reputation as the"GM performance brand."
It's no coincidence that the engineers assigned to Pontiac's newG8 set out to benchmark their chassis design against BMW'sride and handling capabilities. But it's one thing to aim for a BMW;it's quite another to drive one, particularly when it's a no-compromise thoroughbred like the new fourth-generation M3 performancecoupe.
The stat-sheet alone is enough to drive gearheads to paroxysms offrenzy: 414 hp from a 4.0-liter twin-cam V8 (up from 333 hp in theGen-3 model); a 3,700-pound curb weight that plays a significant rolein sprints from zero-to-60 in 4.7 seconds; a six-speed manualtransmission whose gutsy gearing is tailor-made for an 8,400-rpmredline that many motorcycles might envy; cross-drilled floating-rotor disc brakes that can haul the M3 to a complete stop from 60 mphin just 105 feet.
The M3 is a driver's car, and its complement of driver-orientedtools includes 11 different programmable modes for tailoring torque,traction and suspension settings to driver preference and roadconditions. With no tongue in cheek whatsoever, one of BMW'sintended road conditions for the M3 is the racetrack, and at thecar's debut at Laguna Seca Raceway outside Monterey, Calif.,journalist-piloted M3s were soaring, cornering and drifting like ademented, parti-colored flock of seagulls.
The interior of the M3 coupe is a masterpiece of Bavarian comfort andefficiency: taut leathers, crisp actions from well positionedinstruments, readable displays. Only BMW's iDrive telematicscontroller continues to subject a driver to potential distractionswith its layers of screens and unorthodox readouts. Passenger comfortis exceptional; seats are well-bolstered against centrifugal forcesto the sides, and rear buckets for two maximize both legroom andtorso space.
And then, of course, there is the price of technology. The M3 Coupestarts at $57,275, and a sedan version arriving later in the year isslated for $54,757. (This assumes the dollar-euro exchange ratedoesn't deteriorate to even more perverse levels.) Then, to feed allthose fiery rpms, the M3 requires premium fuel which it neverthelessmanages to consume at a rate of 14 mpg/city, 20 mpg/highway.Perfection, after all, is never cheap, and near-perfection's nobargain either. But where BMW's new M3 is concerned, it's notwhether you can afford this car, it's whether you can live up to it.