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Nashville Scene Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge

Pontiac confronts SUV-envy with its sporty new Bonneville

By Marc K. Stengel

AUGUST 14, 2000:  I suppose only an auto buff would sputter his coffee upon reading last week's Wall Street Journal headline, "Car, Truck Sales Nudged Higher in July." Actually, that's not what made me cough. Neither did the more-or-less predictable news that the bloom may be fading off some SUV roses, as Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chevy Tahoe suffered 12-percent and 21-percent declines, respectively, in July sales versus a year ago.

No, what got me sputtering was news about Pontiac Bonneville. Good, old, lost-in-the-clutter, low-key, middle-class-suburban Bonneville. Its July sales are up by 128 percent compared to a year ago. That's some nudge. Consider, after all, that the Bonneville SSEi I recently drove costs $34,630 (as-tested), which is certainly not pocket change. And the car is a family sedan, for crying out loud. Those are supposed to be extinct in the Age of SUV.

But come to think of it, a base price of $31,635 for the high-end 2000 Bonneville SSEi does compare extremely well with mid-30s pricing for the Grand Cherokees, Explorers, and Tahoes out there. Bonneville also ferries five adults in quiet, snug comfort (or six, if you opt for a front bench in the Bonneville SE). Is there a sea change taking place, I wonder? Do I detect, perhaps, a faint echo of the chant, "It's time for them to go" filtering through our SUV-knotted streets?

Certainly Pontiac is trying to bring about such a change. Bonneville, mired up to its wheel hubs in anonymity for most of the '90s, represents a startling resurrection beginning with model year 2000. What Pontiac has been unable to accomplish in saving the Firebird (whose demise, predicted here in April, was all but confirmed in last week's AutoWeek), the GM division has pulled off with the Bonneville. Their once-tepid dud of a family sedan is now a cool dude. It's lower, leaner, meaner. It's a wide-glide sedan in a top-heavy world of soccer-mom-driven trucks.

I'll state for the record that I'm not the biggest fan of Pontiac's pervasive styling motif. Throughout the model line there is a predominance of snorkels, gills, louvers, and nacelles that clutters body styling. With the 2000 Bonneville (which is basically unchanged for 2001), all these veritable body piercings are either banished or subdued. (In darker paint colors, you might not even know any of them are there.) Only the fog lamps in their little octopus-sucker cavities remain to displease. You will certainly, however, feel that an aggressive, sporty spirit animates this very new car.

Two distinct features are the primary reason why. Bonneville's biggest news in 2000 is its adoption of the engineering platform formerly exclusive to Cadillac Seville. This is a very good thing for all kinds of technical reasons: hydroformed stampings, increased torsional and bending stiffness, lower NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) to name but a few. Sportiness improves, since front and rear independent suspensions have firmer anchoring points. Comfort improves, since vibrations are managed and noise is muted. Even safety improves, since impact loads are deflected and absorbed better.

But it's the Bonneville's second ace that gives the new platform its soul. For several years now, SSEi models of the Bonneville have worn GM's supercharged version of the workhorse 3800 Series II V6. But it took all of the other changes to Bonneville's engineering and design to give this entertaining motor a deserving home. Displacing 3.8 liters, the motor is relatively large for a V6; and it's already notably smooth. Ram a charge of compressed fuel-air mixture down its throat with a belt-driven supercharger, though, and a docile V6 mimics a whipper-snapper V8. The SSEi's 240 horsepower is ample in this full-size sedan category, but it's the supercharger's unique personality of all-power-all-the-time that makes this motor such a blast to drive.

Enjoying the drive is, in fact, the key. Trucks, for all of their novelty of high-perch seating and go-anywhere overcapability, are simply not much fun to drive on paved roads. And I fear that because of last decade's truck glut, a whole generation of commuters simply has no clue that driving can be fun--is supposed to be fun--even if it's also mostly a bald necessity. It's interesting to ponder whether auto buyers in the mid-30s price range might park their trucks if they happen to rediscover the concept of an enjoyable drive. Maybe that's why people who need seating for five or six adults, who know how to pack a full-size 18 cu.-ft. trunk, who want handling that's responsive and a cockpit that's quiet are "nudging" up sales of full-size sporty sedans like the Bonneville.

This very sportiness, moreover, is arguably safer. Amongst towering, high-mass SUVs, the Bonneville's trademark "wide track" stance is low-centered and inherently stable. Two of GM's cleverest technologies go even further in this regard: Magnasteer provides speed-sensitive steering assist that banishes the vague road feel of many competing systems. Stabilitrak puts a computer and sensors to work managing directional control. If the Bonneville skids or veers undesirably, Stabilitrak helps the driver "hold true" with precise, automatic applications of throttle and braking.

It's all quite an impressive performance for this made-over Bonneville SSEi. So impressive, one has to believe, that sensible people are beginning to question some prevailing preconceptions about status, safety, and utility on the road. In the '90s, you knew you had "arrived" when you spent $35,000 on an SUV truck. Now a dramatic bump in sales of the Bonneville makes a convincing argument that you can spend a similar sum to make your arrival even smarter, faster, safer, and more fun.

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