First Drive: 2008 Pontiac G8

2008 Pontiac G8 – Click above for high-res image gallery

Here's a question: what builds excitement? For Pontiac, the General's erstwhile "excitement" division, the answer hails from Oz. No, it's not another attempt to rebadge a Holden Monaro with the lofty GTO moniker, it's to rebadge a Commodore with some G-flava.

The Pontiac G8 has potential, both from an enthusiast perspective and as a means to remake a brand that's lost its sheen in the last few product cycles. Overall, the G8's a looker. With a purposeful stance, flared wheel arches and a nose that makes puttering Prii piss their proverbial pants, the Pontiac G8 arrives with equal parts menace and promise. But beyond outward appearances, what does this new sports sedan have to offer in a segment that's been left largely untapped (save the Dodge Charger)? That's what we're in sunny San Diego to find out.

Real drivers rejoice! We've got what we want... almost. Two engine choices, either a 3.6-liter V6 or a 6.0-liter V8 mounted up front, send power to the rear-wheels. Good and good. Manual? Nope. In a move that will surely be rectified by this time next year, Pontiac has decided that swapping your own cogs is not in a potential G8 buyer's interest. While that's disappointing enough, the two auto 'box offerings are just as dispiriting. If you opt for the 256-hp V6, you're saddled with a five-speed auto with manu-matic. Similarly with the V8, a six-speed slush box shovels 361 hp and 385 lb.-ft. of torque to the back while allowing you to choose your own ratios by throwing the gear selector to the right and pushing up or down for that not-quite-manual experience. Both are fine gearboxes, but for a vehicle that aims to put driver enjoyment first and foremost, it's an option that's sorely lacking from the spec sheet. However, we've been assured that a manual is coming, but launching the G8 without one seems to be the biggest mistake so far.

Getting back to the engines, the base G8 comes equipped with the same 3.6-liter V6 that's found on the entry-level Cadillac CTS. That means sequential fuel injection is used in favor of the direct-injection available on the upper-echelon Caddy. It's a bit of a disappointment that Pontiac opted out of what's arguably one of the better sixes on the market, but again, it's likely to make its way under hood in the future.

That said, the V6 is a good enough engine providing sufficient motivation to match the base G8's 3,885-pound curb weight. The key word in that last sentence, if you didn't pick up on it, was "sufficient." While the six-equipped model can get out of its own way when shoved and the 6,900-rpm redline is fun to cane through the corners, it remains merely adequate. However, a GT model packing 5,967cc of V8 goodness was just a few short words away. Time for a car swap.

Pontiac is stressing that those buyers who've decided a stock V6 will suit their needs won't be losing much in terms of exterior and interior appointments. Outside, the spoiler, fog lamps, color-keyed mirrors and in-your-face front all make the transition over from the GT. The only exterior difference is the quad exhaust pipes on the GT versus the standard dual exhausts on the base model. An optional chrome surround on the door handles is available on both models, but we'd skip it when ticking boxes. On the inside, it's a similar story, but optioning the G8 up with the premium package includes dual-zone climate control, heated seats and leather thrones.

The interior materials are typical nuevo-GM; incredibly improved over the last two decade's offerings, but still lacking in a few areas. The dash gets a swath of soft-touch plastic stretching from A-pillar to A-pillar, bisected by some hard plastic that waterfalls down into the center console. Mounted at the top of that stack is an LED read-out of the oil temp and battery charge. That's the only bit of information you can get from the display, which left us a bit confused since it takes up so much real estate on the dash. Below that is a sizable screen dispalying everything from climate information to where your stereo is set. Overall, it's one of the nicest user interfaces we've seen recently; props to GM's computer geeks. The knobs below control volume and mode, while underneath those are all the switchgear necessary to keep occupants in comfortable climes. Most of the controls feel good to the touch, with the silver knobs getting rubber inlays that keep sensitive digits away from the iffy plastic in between. The seats proved their GT-cred throughout our cruise, with just enough bolster to keep things mildly snug. But if we had a choice, we'd opt for the cloth covered chairs whose grippy material and appearance easily beat out their dead-cow competition – too bad leather is standard with the premium pack.

After suitably molesting every interior bit we could find, we finally got underway. Every G8 comes equipped with the FE2 suspension package, which boasts slightly stiffer springs and sporting dampers. Coupled with either the 18x8-inch or 19x8-inch aluminum rollers (the latter fitted on sport pack-equipped models), the ride is a subtle balance of rigid and relaxed. The steering's variable-ratio rack-and-pinion setup never felt twitchy and the summer tires provided adequate feedback through the wheel. While it's not the most direct tiller we've sampled, we never caught ourselves asking for more, or less.

Pontiac's driving route spoke directly to the brand's intentions for the G8. We'd estimate that 80-percent of the drive was on spaghetti-inspired roads that wound their way through the hills east of San Diego. What minimal time we spent in town or on the freeway was brief and the G8 handled it with ease, including a quick stop to meet the region's incredibly affable boarder patrol officers.

The mountainous roads proved that the G8 is equal parts corner carver and four-door GT. It's substantial heft is obvious at first, but as the road turned twisty the G8 showed that it has the skills to back up its demeanor. Turn in is crisp, with the tires tracking predictably through the bends. Braking force is substantial, although initial bite on the V8 model equipped with slightly larger discs (12.64- versus 11.73-inches up front and 12.76- versus 11.89-inches in the rear) caused a momentary lurch forward followed by progressive pedal pressure on down. And then there's the acceleration.

While the V6 model's minimal motivation was only matched by its sedate sound, the V8 is a glorious combination of aural assault and potent propulsion. With 6.0-liters of All American Australian goodness underfoot, a quick stab of the long pedal drops the six-speed automatic down a few cogs and rockets the G8 into extra-legal speeds at a moment's notice. It's quick, entertaining and only sucks about two miles-per-gallon more fuel compared to the V6 version thanks to cylinder deactivation. If you're going to go for a G8, the GT is arguably the best version to get – until a GXP version is released.

The thought of an amped-up G8 is incredibly appealing and the mind reels with possible powertrains and suspension setups. One of our hosts for the day made it clear that a GXP is a natural consideration saying, "If we weren't considering [a GXP model], we should be fired." Same with a coupe. Agreed on both fronts and may we suggest Pontiac check out Holden's just-unveiled Coupe 60? We'll let you two talk.

While we understand that the release of a serious high-performance model should come later in a product's life-cycle, and as much as we enjoyed our time behind the wheel of the G8, there's always the sneaking suspicion that Pontiac left something on the table with the quick (by GM standards) release of the G8. The lack of a manual option, a direct-injection engine and a handful of other minor gripes left us wanting a little bit more from the experience. The G8 is rife with potential and may finally bring Pontiac back from the brink, but until the higher-ups decide that we're worthy of those extra goodies – from interior materials to powertrain options – the G8 remains a viable choice for buyers looking for rear-driven, V8 power on a moderate budget. With all the option boxes marked, you'd be hard-pressed to crack the $32,000 ceiling; not a bad value for a vehicle that offers drivers most of what they want and little else.

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