Can Pontiac Compete with the New Camry? You Bet!
Ruff, Marcia, Medical Economics
The impressive Grand Prix shakes up the family sedan market. But the Camry, now redesigned, is no pushover.
The choices are distinctly richer this year for anyone looking to buy a new family sedan. One of the best-regarded models ever to take the road, the Toyota Camry, has been redesigned inside and out. And Pontiac-a brand more familiar to young singles than to families-has reworked its midsized Grand Prix to appeal to a much broader audience. Both cars warrant a close look.
Pontiac Grand Prix
The 1997 Grand Prix, redesigned for the first time since 1988, is an amazingly good car. The new version is longer, wider, and more powerful than its predecessor. It's also more solidly built and handles with confidence and responsiveness. Compared with the Camry, the Grand Prix is more stylish and offers more for the money. What a pleasant surprise.
Pontiac's stylists have tended to push their designs toward the garish. The sleek new Grand Prix is a departure, elegant rather than excessive. It comes as a coupe or sedan, with both models sharing the same swooping roofline. This gives the sedan an uncommonly stylish profile, though at the cost of an inch less rear headroom than in the more traditionally shaped Camry.
The Grand Prix has a slightly larger trunk than the Camry-about two cubic feet more-but a narrower opening. Camry has a full pass-through into the passenger compartment, thanks to a folddown rear seat. The Grand Prix offers only a ski-size pass-through in the center of the rear seat. If you order the optional integrated rear child seat ($125 in either car), the Camry loses 60 percent of its passthrough and the Pontiac loses it entirely.
I was struck by the high level of thoughtfulness reflected in the Pontiac's interior appointments. The readable, fanshaped gauges are a red-orange that's easy on the eyes at night. The rotary-knob manual climate-control system is simple and effective. The shifter moves cleanly, never falling into the wrong gear. Storage cubbies are lined with grippy rubber mats that reduce rattles and come out for cleaning. A second power outlet (in addition to the cigarette lighter) can be found on the side of the center console.
Beyond the basics is an array of helpful features. Standard ones include a tirepressure monitor that tells you when a tire is soft, and an oil-life monitor that reminds you to change your oil. A battery-saver turns off lights that you've accidentally left on.
Optional amenities include steeringwheel audio controls (a feature I've come to appreciate more and more) and EyeCue, a head-up display that projects speed, radio station, and turn signal on the windshield. (If you don't like that, the display can be turned off.)
Only one item stands out as a big mistake. The heated-seat option warms the driver only-a disparity guaranteed to induce resentment in your passenger. I have aesthetic reservations, too, about the interior. The omnipresent plastic is, well, just too plastic-looking, and there is an overall busyness of buttons and seams that's less appealing than the Camry's simpler interior.
But overall, the Grand Prix has a roomy, comfortable compartment, well-suited to be the command post for such a fine-handling vehicle. And that's the major distinction of this car: It's fun to drive.
The Grand Prix is the first car based on GM's upgraded midsize platform. (The Buick Regal and Oldsmobile Intrigue, based on the same one, will debut later this model year.) Pontiac has made excellent use of the platform, producing a car with a rock-solid structure, a well-balanced suspension, accurate and unwavering steering, and a comfortable, controlled ride. Anti-lock brakes are standard.
Buyers have a choice of three trim levels, each with a different power train. The Grand Prix SE (base price $18,779*) uses a 3.1-liter, 160 horsepower V4 that is a noisy, indifferent engine. A much better choice is the GT version (base price $20,659), which has G. …