All photos © 2008 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.
Unlike GM's newest all stars, the Cadillac CTS and Chevy Malibu, the Pontiac G8 is not a new product developed specifically for North America. It is technically an import from Australia; a rebadged version of the rear-wheel-drive Commodore VE sedan on loan from Holden, GM's Australian division. We've been down this road before with the Holden Monaro-based GTO sold from 2004 – 2006. Enthusiasts promised GM that the GTO would be a big hit, but we didn't buy them in big numbers. Apparently all is forgiven, as GM's back again with the G8.
Forgettable styling is not an issue with the G8 as it was with the GTO. Pontiac designers took the stately form of the Commodore VE and added their own corporate face with recessed twin grilles and a split lower air intake incorporating a pair of fog lamps. The hood features sporty nostrils that are semi-functional, meaning that while they don't redirect air directly into the engine, they do allow it to pass into the engine compartment to aid cooling.
The integrated chin spoiler, subtle side skirts, and tasteful wing
placed atop the rear deck ensure that this Pontiac won't be mistaken for a Saturn, and the G8 wears its fender flares like a muscle shirt pulled tight over a set of standard 18-inch, five-spoke wheels. The Ignition Orange color of our tester was also a pleasant surprise, and those body-color door handles are like finger nail polish that matches the dress.
Open the G8's unusually light doors and you'll encounter this sedan's biggest target for criticism: its interior. Being sourced from Australia, the G8's switchgear is not from the familiar GM parts bin, though it feels fine to the touch. Our tester came equipped with the Premium Package that also adds padded leather to the center armrest, shift lever and door panels, which nicely offsets the two types of textured black plastic
that dominate the dash.
The center console that cascades down from the windshield interrupts a lone strip of silver plastic bisecting the instrument panel, while ridiculously large digital gauges for the battery voltage and oil pressure top the center stack. Below that, you'll find a 6.5-inch LCD screen
containing the user interface for the 11-speaker Blaupunkt stereo and HVAC system. At the bottom are the knobs and buttons that control those systems, and they don't require a peek at the owner's manual to use. The steering wheel has a large diameter that some performance enthusiasts might not like, but the redundant controls for the stereo are unobtrusive and work well. The turn signal stalk on the left side of the wheel, however, feels like it might break off in your hand.
The heated seats in our tester were wrapped in cowhide and featured 6-ways of power adjustment. Altering their incline, however, required twisting a knob on the side of the seat back that was hard to reach and difficult to turn. The driver and front passenger chairs are wide and have bolsters that aren't so extreme they interfere with a comfortable cruising position, but they're there for you when lateral G forces come calling.
Rear passengers, meanwhile, get a contoured bench with a bottom seat that's tilted sharply upwards. This allows taller folk to sit comfortably without scraping their heads, but shorter passengers might feel like they're being swallowed whole. The relatively low beltline on the G8 also allows for a large greenhouse that gives both the driver and his passengers an unimpeded view of the environment that's whizzing by, which in our eyes compares favorably to the claustrophobic cabins of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger.
Our particular G8 didn't arrive with a navigation system or XM satellite radio, and when we visited the Pontiac G8 microsite to build our own, we discovered that that these in-car entertainment options are not available at all. This could exclude the G8 from some shopping lists, but there is an auxiliary jack in the dash for an iPod or MP3 player. Unfortunately, our attempt to plug in was greeted with an annoying buzzing sound.
We eventually switched off the tunes and gave our ears over to the aural entertainment of the L76 6.0L V8. This motor produces 361 horsepower and 385 pound-feet of torque. It is the heart and soul of the G8 GT. Our very well equipped tester rang up at just $31,245 but starts at $29,310, which means this is the most powerful passenger car for under $30,000 in the U.S. The Dodge Charger R/T starts above $30,000 and though its 5.7L HEMI V8 produces 5 pound-feet of torque more than the LZ6, it's down 21 horsepower and tasked with motivating a heavier car.
Like every V8 in the LS family of engines, this one generates a ton of torque so that it never feels labored pushing around all 3,995 lbs. of the G8 GT. It also features an Active Fuel Management System, otherwise known as cylinder deactivation technology. With the transmission in Drive, cylinders 1, 4, 6 and 7 switch off under light loads to save fuel. When this happened we felt the smooth operation of all eight cylinders give way to a slight vibration that could only be felt through the pedals, and passengers never perceived it.
One can't judge the G8's almighty engine without taking into account its six-speed automatic transmission. We lament the lack of a manual gearbox in the first year of availability for the G8 GT and hope that will be corrected after G8 GXP arrives next year, but the six-speed auto ain't all that bad. At first, we hated it. In normal operation the six-speed is programmed to do whatever it can to conserve fuel. Throttle response is dialed way back, you're in sixth gear before you know it, and any opportunity to deactivate half the cylinders and save fuel is taken. In D, the G8 GT does not feel like a 361-hp sports sedan.
Flick the shifter over to Sport Shift mode, however, and you get a direct line to the V8 engine's office where it's been waiting to take your call. The number of synapses between the throttle and your right foot shrinks and the six-speed will stay in each gear until it is absolutely certain that you're done with it. The G8 GT does allow you to change gears manually but asks that you push the floor shifter forward against the forces of inertia to upshift, which is back asswards. A pair of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters would've been more intuitive to use and an attractive alternative to the impending manual. Rather than messing with the manumatic, we left the six-speed in Sport Shift mode and were rewarded with prodigious power on demand.
Unlike most rear-wheel-drive American iron, the G8 GT is more than just a drag strip queen. The Zeta platform on which it's based will be shared with the upcoming Chevy Camaro and is granite strong. This allows the FE2 suspension package to handle potholes without a quiver and hold a curve without complaint. There was a perceptible amount of body roll, as well as squat and dive when starting or stopping hard, but there's just something about being driven by the rear wheels that anyone who owns a front-wheel-drive family sedan needs to feel to appreciate. Those people who live with understeer on a daily basis will never want to go back after driving the G8.
Steering, however, is rather heavy at low speeds, which might turn off buyers who don't understand the exact definition of a sports sedan. We found it highly communicative, though the wheel does demand attention while cruising at highway speeds when the 18-inch wheels wearing P245/45R18 summer tires begin to wander off course. Arresting their rotation is a drama free affair thanks to the twin-piston calipers clamping on 12.64-inch discs up front and 11.73-inch discs in the rear.
We count the 2008 Pontiac G8 GT as another all star in GM's arsenal of new products, and like the CTS did for Cadillac, the Enclave did for Buick and the Malibu did for Chevy, it instantly embarrasses the other products in Pontiac's lineup and demands its competition come back with something more. We didn't notice the missing in-car entertainment options and navigation system one bit after the first smoky burnout, and the second, third and fourth time we lit up the rear rubber proves that the G8 GT is definitely not a toy of which we'll soon tire.