1999 Pontiac Grand Am
1999 Pontiac Grand Am Expert Review: New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
A vastly improved chassis backs up bold new looks.
Pontiac is launching a totally new Grand Am for 1999 with new exterior styling, a redesigned interior, a re-engineered chassis and suspension, a bigger optional V6 engine, and more convenience features. Dealers are moving the '98 models out as fast as possible to make way for the new one, which is beginning to arrive in showrooms and roll out onto the streets now.
Bold, new styling with aggressive ribbed body work is designed to draw even more attention to this sporty compact than before. Redesigned interiors make it more comfortable, while new convenience features make life a little easier.
But the best news for the Grand Am is its re-engineered chassis and suspension tuning, which improve handling and ride comfort substantially over previous models.
Last year's Grand Am offered look-at-me styling, but the 1999 model takes this a step further with Pontiac's trademark ribbed body cladding. Ribs are everywhere. They start at the front bumper, wrap around the front fenders, along the doors, down the rear fenders and around the rear bumper. The design is carried through the side mirrors and even the optional rear spoiler employs the rib theme. It all works together, making the new Grand Am a sportier, more attractive car than the '98 model. Body-colored door handles and side moldings enhance the sporty look. Add cats-eye headlamps, a twin port grille, round driving lamps and that wide track stance and there's no question this is a Pontiac.
That wide-track Pontiac stance is even more athletic this year. The front track--the distance between the left and right tires--is a significant 3.3 inches wider, yet the width of the car has increased only 1.5 inches. Likewise, the wheelbase has been stretched a substantial 3.6 inches, while the overall length of the car is slightly reduced. In effect, the wheels have been pushed farther out toward the corners of the car. This gives the Grand Am a more aggressive, sporty appearance. It also increases stability at high speeds, in corners and in cross winds. Grand-Am's 107-inch wheelbase is the longest in its class.
Beneath the Grand Am's sporty appearance is a structure that is 32 percent more rigid than the 1998 model. Pontiac says the new unitbody structure is more rigid than either the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique or the Nissan Altima. That's good news for drivers and passengers because the stiffer unitbody on the 1999 model allowed GM engineers to design a new three-link rear suspension for more precise control of the wheels and better noise and vibration damping. That adds up to improved handling and ride quality, areas where previous Grand Ams left something to be desired.
More good news: Bigger front brakes have reduced braking distances by 14 percent, according to Pontiac. New aluminum brake calipers reduce unsprung weight, which should improve handling in bumpy corners. All Grand Ams come standard with antilock brakes (ABS) and electronic traction control, both of which make the car easier to control in limited traction situations.
Pontiac is proud of the new Grand Am's rear cornering lamps. Small round lights positioned on the corners of the rear bumper are designed to complement the standard backup lights by directing light at 45-degree angles to the sides and rear of the vehicle. They should help illuminate obstructions and ditches when backing up at night.
Two-door coupe and four-door sedan versions of the Grand Am are offered. The extra two doors cost $200 at all trim levels and the sedan offers slightly more rear headroom, but otherwise they are nearly identical.
A 150-horsepower 2.4-liter twin-cam 16-valve 4-cylinder engine comes standard. An optional 170-horsepower 3.4-liter V6 offers substantially more power than last year's 3.1-liter V6. All Grand Ams come equipped with electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmissions.
Three trim levels are available, SE, SE1 and SE2. Base SE trim comes with air conditioning, aggressive P215/60R15 tires mounted on 15-inch wheels and many other standard features. Grand Am Coupes in SE trim start at $16,395.
With cruise control and alloy wheels, a Sedan in SE1 trim retails for $17,995 and should be very popular.
At the top of the line is the $19,495 Sedan in SE2 trim, which includes the V6 and low-profile P225/50R16 tires on 16-inch alloy wheels.
Grand Am's bold exterior is carried through inside with a sporty retro-dash. Circular hoods shroud the instruments and ventilation ducts and remind us of sports cars past. It's an attractive look that adds to the sports appeal of the Grand Am. Warm, red light illuminates the instruments, which are large and easy to read. Audio and climate controls are angled toward the driver for easy access and heating, ventilation and air conditioning are adjusted with big round knobs as God intended.
Strapping on the new Grand Am reveals that the seating position is slightly higher than before. Coupled with a lower cowl and thin A-pillars, that makes it easier to see out front. The Grand Am we drove was equipped with a four-way manually adjustable driver's seat, which we found to be comfortable during our stint around greater Miami. A six-way power driver's seat is optional with SE2 trim and Grand Am engineers put a lot of effort into its adjustable lumbar support.
Several features add convenience to the Grand Am. Automatic lighting control can be set to switch on the headlights at nightfall, then turn them off 20 seconds after the ignition is switched off, giving the driver some time to unlock a house or garage door. Battery rundown protection automatically turns off all accessory lights after 20 minutes in case they were left on by mistake.
A delayed locking feature can be programmed to automatically lock the doors within seven seconds of closing the last door. That eliminates the need for trusting passengers to lock their doors and permits quick retrieval of forgotten items. When the driver removes the key from the ignition, three chimes indicate the system is activated. It locks the car seven seconds after the last door is closed. If a door is opened before that time, the timer stops and starts over when the door is closed again. Exterior lights flash twice and the horn beeps to confirm the doors are locked.
A related system automatically locks the doors when the shifter is moved out of the park position. They automatically unlock when the shifter is placed in park and the ignition is turned off.
A day spent driving around greater Miami revealed that the 1999 Grand Am offers a smoother, more controlled ride quality than the 1998 model. There's a noticeable absence of shimmy and shake and rattles over potholes. It's also much quieter inside.
Miami's busy roads provided little opportunity to fully explore chassis dynamics, but compared with the previous model, the new Grand Am feels taut. It provides sharper steering response and makes the driver feel better connected to the road.
We focused on driving a sedan equipped with the standard 2.4-liter engine and the SE1 trim package as that's what most people are expected to buy. With its relatively flat torque curve, this engine delivers plenty of power around town and offers good acceleration for tackling freeway on-ramps. The four-speed automatic offers smooth, positive shifts and seems a good match for the engine.
The 1999 Pontiac Grand Am is a vast improvement over the previous model. Ride quality has been improved substantially and, though we did not get an opportunity to fully test its handling dynamics, the suspension seems to control the wheels more precisely than before. Its new interior is more attractive and more comfortable and new features add convenience.
All this comes at little cost as prices for the 1999 model have essentially remained unchanged over 1998 levels. When that is weighed against the improved driving experience, the all-new 1999 Pontiac Grand Am has a lot to offer.
Bold new styling makes the 1999 Grand Am look even sportier than the 1998 model. Now it has the hardware to back those looks up.
Options As Tested
SE1 trim includes power windows, power mirrors, cruise control, AM/FM/cassette stereo, four-way adjustable driver's seat, split folding rear seats.
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