Pontiac G6 (2005)

"This car has the Pontiac 'boy racer' look."
Good: decent handling, tasteful interior,
comfortable seats
Bad: not distinctive, steering,
downshifting transmission

The Pontiac G6 is the replacement for the Pontiac Grand Am, which, if you looked in the dictionary, is pictured right next to the entry for "Rental Car." It was hard to find a more generic, more mediocre car than the Grand Am. Its replacement was long over due. And by any measure, the G6 is a significant improvement.

It's not a bad car. The question is at what price would it be worth buying a G6 instead of, say, a Nissan Altima, or Honda Accord? GM discovered recently that if they sell their cars at deep discount prices ("You pay what we pay"), there are plenty of people willing to snatch them up. But when they go back up to their normal retail prices, even with significant rebates, there are no lines at the cash register any more.

The G6 GT we drove is a case in point. Not a bad car at all. It includes leather seats, a sunroof, steering wheel controls for the radio and cruise control, and adjustable pedals. The base price is $22,555. But by the time you get it out the door, our test car was closing in on $28,000. At that price, why even look at this car?

Now, because of slow sales, you can undoubtedly find cash back deals and financing deals - some of them quite significant, depending upon how desperate the General is feeling in any given month. Check the latest incentives.

And sadly, it appears that that's the way GM has to sell cars now. They have to use the Korean approach - offer more car for the money than the Japanese. Can a 10-year warranty (a la Hyundai) be far behind? GM ought to seriously consider it.

All that said the G6 is a pretty nice, though not terribly distinctive, car. The question, of course, is what you have to spend for it, and what else you can get for the same money.

The G6 is quite a bit more comfortable and spacious than the cramped, old Grand Am. It feels distinctly more modern. But there's still something "rental" about it. We were saddened to discover that no real improvement has been made to the GM steering feel. Front-wheel-drive GM cars always try to pull you straight. You're always fighting the wheel when you're trying to turn. And the G6 still has that unfortunate feel at the wheel.

On the upside, GM has wisely made the wheelbase a bit longer, so the G6 absorbs bumps far better than its predecessor. It also rides quieter and handles better. Cornering was flat and quite good. Overall, the car felt tight, and well put together.

Driving on the highway is far more comfortable than in the G6's predecessor. But for people who drive on the highway a lot, there is one annoyance we found. The transmission downshifts whenever you accelerate, even a little bit.

We suspect that GM is trying to maximize the fuel economy, which is a fine idea. But in order to keep the RPM as low as possible on the highway, they get into high gear as quickly as possible. High gear is fine for cruising along at the same speed. But the moment you need to go even a little bit faster, the transmission needs to downshift. In real world driving, it was a bit of an annoyance.

In general, however, this 201-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine has more than enough of power to move this car around. It gets an EPA rated 19 in the city, and 27 on the highway. The standard G6 comes with a 167-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that gets a far better 23/34 MPG, according to EPA. And 167-horsepower should be plenty for a car this size.

Our G6 GT test car had a nice, all-black interior with a tasteful amount of aluminum trim. There's no comparison between this and the old Grand Am. The old car had a distinctly "Northern-Midwest" (i.e., Detroit) interior. This car's interior, by contrast, is very tasteful. There are only a few colors, and fewer odd angles. The plastics are better. The design is classier. It doesn't feel like a poorly decorated Christmas tree. In general, GM has been trying to improve its interiors, and this is a sign that it's working.

The seats are extremely comfortable. The back seat is an acceptable size. It's certainly an enormous improvement over the tiny rear seat found in the Grand Am, but still not one we would call ample. The trunk is deep, but the long back window and the shape of the car result in an odd-shaped trunk opening, making it a little challenging to put anything substantial back there.

All the controls have a nice feel to them. The instruments are clean and analog - no tacky orange lights or stuff like that, which we confess, we'd gotten used to seeing in Pontiacs. There are radio and cruise controls on the steering wheel. Ventilation knobs are simple, and the integrated satellite radio is very nice. There are deep, hard bins in the doors, a couple of well-placed cup holders and a nice deep bin between the seats. GM even got rid of the pointy piece of plastic on the left hand steering wheel stalk that used to cut into your fingers when you signaled to turn right. Finally!

This car has the Pontiac "boy racer" look. Although it's real metal now, instead of plastic cladding, which makes the car a lot cleaner looking than before, and a lot easier to take seriously. It's a sleek looking car. The styling is very rakish, with a long, sloping windshield and rear window. One downside of rakish styling; because of the shape of the roof and the position of the windshield, medium-to-tall drivers will find themselves leaning forward and looking up when they pull too close to stop lights. But the G6 certainly looks up to date, and should find an audience that likes its looks.

GM cars may not be as reliable as other cars, but they are eminently serviceable. It's easy to download data from their onboard computers, and parts are both cheap and readily available.

Based on GM's recent track record, we'd expect the G6 to be average or slightly below average in terms of reliability.

GM argues that the Pontiac G6 represents a big step forward in their mid-size car offerings. And that's hard to dispute. The G6 is a huge improvement over its predecessor, the Grand Am. But how hard was it to improve over the Grand Am, a mediocre car that overstayed its welcome by half-a-dozen years? So that's not a fair measure. The real measure is how does the G6 match up to the rest of the marketplace?

As far as GM's own competitors go, the Chevy Malibu is in the same price range as the G6, for those who lean toward more practical and less stylish transportation. GM also makes the Buick Lacrosse, which promises more softness and isolation.

But the real competition for a mid-sized car like this comes from vehicles like the Honda Accord, the Nissan Altima, the new Ford Fusion, and perhaps the VW Jetta and the Volvo V50.

For the price of loaded G6 GT, you could have a loaded Accord or Altima, and have a car with spectacular reliability. What would you be missing? We think styling is the only thing the G6 can lord over this crowd - if you like the G6 styling.

So if you find a G6 at a great price - if GM runs one of its bargain basement blowouts - you'll be getting a pretty nice car that's certainly easy enough to live with day in and day out. It's a very decent car. But unless it's a real bargain, we find it very difficult to recommend the G6 over the truly spectacular, and spectacularly reliable cars that also populate this segment.

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