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For much of its modern history, Pontiac has been home to legendary cars like the Firebird and GTO. With such dedication to raciness, it might seem a bit odd that when it came time for Americans to buy a Pontiac for much of the 1980s and '90s, they overwhelmingly chose the Grand Am, a car that wouldn't know a smoky burnout from a backyard barbecue.
Although the Pontiac Grand Am blipped into existence during the 1970s, it's the unassuming and over-styled family sedan from more recent decades that most people are probably familiar with. Within Pontiac's lineup, the Grand Am slotted one or two rungs up from entry-level. It featured an attractive price, just enough space for four average-sized adults, and four-cylinder or V6 power.
This was a good enough combination for many people, and Pontiac further expanded the Grand Am's visibility by selling heavily to rental car fleets. However, we were never particularly impressed by the car. Our first hands-on experiences were with the mid-'90s models, and we found them to be uncomfortable, unrefined and lacking in handling ability. More recent models didn't fare much better. Looking to ditch the car's "Bland Am" image, Pontiac eventually replaced the Grand Am with the superior G6 in 2005.
Widely available and convincingly inexpensive, used Grand Ams are adequate enough in most respects to be worth considering for a small family car. Just know that there have always been plenty of offerings in this segment, and many of them will likely prove to be more rewarding to own.
Most Recent Pontiac Grand Am
The last-generation Pontiac Grand Am was produced from 1999 through 2005. It was larger than the previous model, and a more rigid platform combined with a new multilink rear suspension provided better ride and handling characteristics. Sedan and coupe body styles were offered, and both initially came with either a 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 150 horsepower or a 3.4-liter V6 with 170 hp. All early models had a four-speed automatic transmission driving the front wheels.
The Grand Am's basic trim lines were SE and GT, though both contained submodels (SE, SE1, SE2, GT, GT1) with slight variations. The basic SE came with 15-inch wheels, antilock brakes, air-conditioning, radio and power door locks. The SE1 added power windows, a power seat, cruise control and folding rear seat, while the SE2 added the V6 engine, 16-inch wheels, speed-sensitive power steering, an upgraded stereo, steering-wheel audio controls and keyless entry.
The V6-powered GT added "Ram Air" hood scoops for 5 extra hp (175 total), more aggressive gearing, four-wheel disc brakes, a stiffer suspension and exterior styling add-ons like a spoiler and ribbed body cladding. The GT lost some of the items added by the SE2, but Pontiac reinserted them for the top-of-the-line GT1 and then topped it off with a sunroof.
The Pontiac Grand Am came closest to its sport sedan aspirations when equipped with the V6. The tires, brakes and steering upgrades that came with this engine helped as well, and the stiffer-sprung GT cured the SE's excessive body roll. On the downside, both engines were rough and unrefined, and the steering and brakes were rather uncommunicative. Finally, overall mileage with the V6 was below average.
Admittedly, the greater point of contention was the Grand Am's overwrought and unappealing styling. Much of the garishness could be avoided by selecting one of the SE models, but all Grand Ams shared the same interior that was marred by deeply recessed instruments and bulging components. In addition, the seats were mounted a bit too low and thus not all that comfortable, and overall interior materials quality was lacking. A marginal frontal-offset crash test score from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety was a further point of concern.
Overall, competitors like the Honda Accord and Nissan Altima were better cars at the time thanks to their superiority in terms of refinement, interior design and V6 power. But if you are set on a Grand Am, there are a few changes to look out for. A year after the car's debut, Pontiac made a five-speed manual transmission available with the four-cylinder engine. In 2002, the old 2.4-liter engine was replaced with new 2.2-liter "Ecotec" that traded 10 horsepower (down to 140) for better fuel economy. And in 2005, the only Grand Ams on sale were GT coupes; sedans had already been supplanted by the Pontiac G6.
Past Pontiac Grand Am Models
The previous-generation Grand Am was sold from 1992-'98. Both the sedan and coupe came in SE and GT trim lines. The SE started with little besides power steering, a radio and antilock brakes. The GT added a firmer suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels and some aero cosmetics. Air-conditioning, power windows and mirrors, a tilt steering wheel, upgraded stereos and cruise control were optional on both trim levels. Quicker variable-assist power steering was available on GT models.
The greater differences were in powertrain availability. Grand Am SEs started with a 115-hp, 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine paired with either a five-speed manual transmission or a three-speed automatic. GTs were equipped with a high-powered version of that engine that cranked out 170 hp. A medium-powered, 155-horse version of the four-cylinder and a 160-hp 3.3-liter V6 (with considerably more torque) were optional across the board.
The Pontiac Grand Am got many substantial changes over the coming years. For 1994, Pontiac added a driver's airbag and a new 155-hp, 3.1-liter V6 paired to a four-speed automatic. The following year, all three four-cylinders were dropped in favor of one heavily revised one with 150 hp and far smoother operation (thanks to balance shafts). A styling revision came for 1996, as did dual airbags and further powertrain updates.
There were glaring flaws endemic to this generation. The standard steering setup was heavy, numb and slow, and SE models had subpar grip around corners. Ride quality managed to be both soggy and harsh, and the Grand Am's body structure flexed over common bumps.
The interior was similarly miserable. The overly low seats created the impression of sitting on the floor. Further, their thin padding offered minimal back and thigh support, while the backseat was a squeeze even for two.
We see little reason to look at this older-generation Pontiac Grand Am as a used car purchase, especially when other mid-1990s cars like the Ford Contour and Nissan Altima proved more entertaining, comfortable and well-designed in nearly every way. For those determined to buy a Grand Am from this era, models built from 1996 onward are the best picks. Only by then did all engines run acceptably smoothly and come with more efficient four-speed automatic transmissions. Try to find a sample with the more responsive variable-effort power steering -- it was a package option typically bundled with power accessories and cruise control.