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Golf Life: The GTO Returns

After a thirty-year absence from the market, Pontiac has decided to bring back the GTO. No pressure here, right?

The original 1964 GTO was the first and most famous muscle car created during the halcyon days of the mid-1960s horsepower wars. Equipped with a huge 389-cubic-inch V-8 and optional "Tri-Power" carburetor, the original GTO was a true Wild Thing, a hairy-chested power machine barely controllable for all its under-hood rage and glory.

Former Car and Driver editor David E. Davis Jr. likened driving the '64 Goat, as it was nicknamed, to simultaneously losing one's virginity, going into combat and taking a first sip of draft beer. Immortalized in song by Ronnie & the Daytonas and revered by their owners, some early GTOs can command six figures at collector-car auctions.

Sadly, insurance constraints and rising fuel prices slowly choked off the GTO's muscle until it died out entirely in 1974.

Pontiac lovers have had a long wait for an all-new model, as well as expectations that were exceedingly high. So it's no surprise that the 2004 model has been a polarizing force among GTO true believers.

Mechanically, the new Goat has the right stuff. Based on the platform from the Australian Holden Monaro (Holden is the General Motors subsidiary Down Under), the new GTO comes armed with GM's 5.7-liter, 350-horsepower LS1 V-8, the very same engine that powers base-model Corvettes.

With that much power under your right foot, the GTO accelerates from zero to 60 m.p.h. in a very rapid 5.3 seconds, pushing you back hard into the bucket seats. You can almost feel your IQ decreasing as the V-8 pushes to its rev limit. It doesn't quite make you feel sixteen again, but it's definitely a throwback to times when such monstrous engines were the norm, not the exception. (Cooler still, perhaps, the exhaust note was tuned to replicate the sound of the original '64.)

A four-speed automatic transmission is standard, with a six-speed manual gearbox optional for the true retro experience. The car's sophisticated chassis, though, pulls the new GTO light-years ahead of the old one in terms of braking and accelerating. The balance is truly world-class, providing an outstanding blend of cornering prowess and ride comfort.

In truth, the original GTO had far too much motor for its chassis and brakes and was a handful to drive in anything other than a straight line. The new chassis, by contrast, loves to fly fast around corners, and the four-wheel antilock disc brakes are a vast improvement.

Likewise, the new interior is a major step-up. The cockpit is spacious and comfortable, even for my large frame, with good ergonomics and decent visibility. Even the backseat is reasonably roomy.

Where the new GTO has drawn fire is its exterior, which is basically identical to the Holden it was created from. GTO lovers have complained that it is far too bland and fails to draw on any of the original styling cues from the 1960s. I concur.

To my eyes the body looks like a slightly larger Chevrolet Cavalier, not at all in keeping with its mechanical excellence. (GM is supposedly hard at work on design tweaks for the '05 and '06 GTOs.) The new car already has plenty of zing—and there are also rumors of even higher-horsepower engines in the works. Now all it needs is a little bling to go with it.

One other niggle: In order to carry two golf bags, one has to go in the backseat; the trunk capacity is only seven cubic feet.

Still, it will only get better from here. Kudos to Pontiac for reviving the GTO legend. I can't wait to see how it evolves.

Scorecard PONTIAC GTO
PRICE/AS TESTED: $31,795/$33,190
MPG: 17 city/29 highway
ENGINE: 5.7-liter V-8
HORSEPOWER: 350
TORQUE: 365 foot-pounds
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 5.3 seconds
TOP SPEED: 150 m.p.h.

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