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2004 Pontiac GTO review: classic MOTOR

By Howard Walker | Photos: Cristian Brunelli, 15 Oct 2018 Reviews

2004 Pontiac GTO review classic MOTOR feature

The Monaro was reborn as Pontiac’s GTO, but was it lairy enough for the Yanks? We went cruising in LA to find out…

"Hey dude, look. A Blow-punk-ta stereo. What the hell is that? So what happens when the thing craps out? You gotta call Australia or something? Bet you can’t get spares for it down at Pep Boys…”

This review was originally published in MOTOR’s January 2004 issue

Say “yo” to Ricky. He’s finally stopped frothing at the mouth at the sighting of our arrest-me-red GTO burbling down Santa Monica Boulevard. Once, twice he’d crossed double yellows to catch up with us. Alongside, it was all thumbs up and nodding heads.

We pull over. Ricky pulls over. He, his bud Tony, and Tony’s girlfriend Ashley – “call me Ash” –pile out to take a closer look. Two weeks before the GTO’s official US debut, for Ricky this was cooler than a Ben and J.Lo sighting in Woolworths.

He’d seen the pictures, read the previews, memorised all the specs. Now here it was in real life, five-seven Vette motor, 261kW, and an exhaust note that sounded like Stallone gargling roofing nails.
He was impressed.

“Now that’s one sweet ride. My old man used to have a ’64 GTO. I helped him restore it. They never should have quit building them. But full credit to GM for not slapping a GTO badge on some front-wheel-drive piece of crap. They had to do it right. Rear drive. V8 power. But man, it does need bigger rims. Seventeens will get you laughed off the street.” We explain that, back in Oz, the GTO runs 18s. Interestingly, the 17s are the same as used on the now-discontinued Monaro CV6.

He climbs aboard – well, you try stopping him. He powers the seat. Stirs the shifter through all six speeds. Shakes his head at that Blaupunkt stereo. But says he’s impressed. Way impressed.
Is it worthy of the legendary GTO badge?

Ricky ponders the enormity of the question. Then starts nodding his head like one of those dashboard-mounted bobble-head dogs. “Yeah, you could call this is a modern-day interpretation of the original. It’s a big V8 in a cool coupe body. With lots of grunt. Yeah, it’s a GTO.”

That’s what we’d come to Los Angeles – City of Angels, earthquakes, drive-by shootings and out-of-control brush fires – to find out. Could a warmed-over Holden Monaro with a big-nostrilled prosthetic Planet of the Apes nose, 16 extra kilowatts and a burbly exhaust be accepted as a true GTO?

Pontiac made a reported 150 component changes to the Monaro, to ensure the car lived up to the fabled GTO moniker. Most of the effort went into bumping up the power, sharpening the launch feel and putting some sex into the tailpipes.

Fast Car History Lesson: Pontiac GTO

GM engineers started with the Monaro’s Corvette-based 5.7-litre LS1 bent eight. They threw in a more aggressive, higher-lift cam, widened the airbox opening and redesigned the exhaust to make the motor breathe easier. The result: a power hike from 245kW to 261.

Getting a proper Yankee muscle car rugga-rugga exhaust note was non-negotiable. GTO program engineering manager Dave Himmelberg says his team spent months developing the twin-pipe, bigger-bore system.

“We needed to hear the off-beat rumble at start-up,” he says. “That’s what makes the emotional connection. Without it you ain’t got a GTO.”

To get a more aggressive off-the-line launch for the standard four-speed HydraMatic trannie (seven out of 10 GTO sales Stateside will be autos), Himmelberg’s crew lowered the final drive from 3.08 to 3.46:1 and sharpened the responses of the torque converter. It worked; the auto GTO is reckoned to be only a tenth of a second slower than the six-cog manual in the sprint to 100 kays.

That’s all the good news stuff. Less good was the need to reposition the fuel tank to meet stricter US rear-impact regs. The only place for it was high up in the boot, behind the rear seats. That had the double whammy effect of slashing boot space in half – now it’s only good for a couple of sets of golf clubs – and raising the car’s centre of gravity.

The only positive: there’s less likelihood of the car erupting into a fireball if it gets rear-ended by some coked-up 16-year-old driving mommy’s Caddy Escalade.

Apart from the necessary nose job to morph the Monaro into a Pontiac, the rest is pretty much unchanged. Thankfully, the Pontiac ‘stylists’ resisted the temptation to apply fake power bulges, bonnet scoops or sky-scraping rear wings and left the bodywork largely unadorned. They’ll leave that job to the hoards of body-kitters chomping on the bit to tart up the GTO into a Fast & Furious wannabe.

Los Angeles is a tough test of the GTO’s street cred. Unlike Detroit, where the muscle car is still king, LA is a city of imports. Here the love of the big-horsepower Yankee muscle car has been replaced by the love of big-horsepower Krauts: AMG-tuned Merc CL65s cranking out 450kW, tuned twin-turbo Porsche 911s laying down 500kW and bad-ass Beemers by the boatload.

And those are the fat cats with money. When it comes to kids, nine out of 10 wouldn’t be seen dead in anything American. Here, they worship at the altar of Honda and Mitsubishi, tuning up Civics and Eclipses and dreaming of a new 350Z to street race.

Add to that the perfected LA ’tude. As in attitude. As in, “Hey, I’ve seen it all before.” Nose in the air, eyes right forward, with a “why should I give a shit?” glare. We feared the worst with our little red Aussie-built GTO wannabe.

In search of a caffeine jolt to start the day, we stop outside Amelia’s Espresso Bar, right on Main Street, Santa Monica – ground zero for LA cool. Before the key is out of the ignition, the beaming face of
26-year-old Gianni Diaz is filling the side window.

“I saw you guys pull up and thought, ‘Hey, that’s the new GTO’. You gotta let me take a look.”

Turns out that Gianni owns Amelia’s and is a big GTO fan, on account of his uncle having four GTOs in his 14-strong old-car collection. Gianni himself has a year-old Audi A4 with a chipped motor, lowered suspension and aftermarket alloys.

“I dig it. I dig it a lot. What’s it going to sell for? Forty grand? Whoa, $33,000? That’s a deal. They’re going to clear every one. For someone who wants a four-seat Corvette at a fraction of the price, this has to be the car.”

Gianni digs the shape, too. Doesn’t agree with popular opinion that the styling is as exciting as a lump of tofu. Doesn’t agree that the car needs GTO trademark cues, like an air-sucking bonnet scoop.

“It’s all about the motor. And having that Corvette lump under the hood and a six-on-the-floor gives it credibility. Just listen to that exhaust, man. But the first thing I’d change is the wheels; those 17s just look way too small.”

Gianni asks if we want java, disappears inside and two minutes later emerges with two cappuccinos and his buddy, Phil. Phil Boston, 31, knows all about the Monaro/GTO partnership, on account of him being an Aussie, splitting his time between LA and Sydney. And, no kidding, Phil is a genuine Hollywood movie director.

“I’m stoked to see the Monaro in the US. If it’s received half as well here as it has been back home, it’ll be a real success.

“But what I can’t understand is that in Oz a Monaro costs around $59,000. That converts to $US42,200. Yet the US price is, what, $32,500? How can they ship the car halfway around the world and charge
10 grand less than what it costs back home?”

We nod in agreement, mutter stuff about market conditions and competition, drain our coffee cups and leave. He has a point, but then there’s no way GM could charge 40 large for a GTO when 35 grand buys a full-house 290kW Mustang Cobra, $32,000 gets you a sexy Infiniti G35 Coupe and $27k gets you a new whiz-bang Mazda RX-8.

Time to head to Beverly Hills and the traffic-choked Sunset Boulevard for a little elbow-on-window cruising. But before we hit the Strip we get distracted by a glitzy shop front displaying an Aston Martin Vanquish, big-winged 911 Turbo and racks of chrome wheels the size of Tasmania. The folks at By Design Automotive will surely rate the GTO’s ‘cool’ quota.

“Give it a few weeks after launch and there’ll be supercharged GTOs on the street packing 450kW. All the Corvette tuning stuff should bolt right on,” says Gordon Mandich, the 20-something sales boss
at By Design. He’s not interested in the styling. Hoist the hood, he says. Gazing down on the LS1, he’s already checking out where a blower might go.

“Finally, a Pontiac that you can really modify,” says Gordon, who drives a chipped Honda S2000 that’s good for 210kW at the rear treads.

Is the Monaro bitchin’ enough to be called a GTO? “Me, I’m not really into American – even Australian – cars,” says Gordo. “But I think it’ll do well. A lot of people will love the idea of Corvette power in a four-seat coupe. And I do like the understated look. It would have been so easy for Pontiac to screw it up with big wings and loud graphics.”

The slowing-moving traffic on Sunset shows up the one pain-in-the-neck trait of the new GTO: the reviled and hated GM one-to-four skip-shift. As with the Corvette, in a bid to eke out every last bit of fuel economy, a computer directs the gearshift from first to fourth if you’re not accelerating hard. So amble gently away from a traffic light and you suddenly find yourself chugging away in fourth when you really wanted second.

We roll into the forecourt of the glitzy Beverly Hills Hotel for a chat with Chardo Mejia, valet parker to the stars. For a fella more used to parking Lamborghinis and Lotuses, how does the GTO stack up as a style icon?

“It’s a Pontiac, are you kidding? It has no style. It’s the kind of shape that you could lose in the parking garage. The original GTO was cool. This is just, well, ordinary. At least the cops won’t notice you
if you’re speeding.”

But then Chardo’s tastes are a little refined. While we’re talking, a Botoxed blonde minx with pneumatic boobs hops out of a black-windowed LS430 Lexus. Chardo turns to us: “Sorry, gotta go.”

Before GTO Judgement Day comes to an end, we head to the beach at Malibu in search of a surfer dude. Back in the ’60s, the GTO was part of the California surfing culture. Does the new GTO have the same appeal to today’s surfing crowd?

“Is that the new GTO? Is it out yet?” says Kyle Rae, a 29-year-old production assistant with an LA advertising agency. “Man, that sounds real sweet. What kind of motor’s in there?”

Kyle walks around the car, trying not to dent the Pontiac’s bodywork with his towering board. He checks out the interior. Tries out the driver’s seat for size and nods in approval.

“Nice car. But they shouldn’t have called it a GTO. Too much history. Too much baggage. Too many high expectations. Me? I’d have called it something different. Something Australian. What about Pontiac Bondi? Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

It’s better than Pontiac Dundee.

Blast from the past on classic MOTOR

FAST FACTS 
2004 Pontiac GTO

BODY: 2-door coupe
DRIVE: rear-wheel
ENGINE: 5.7-litre pushrod 16-valve V8
POWER: 261kW @ 5200rpm
TORQUE: 495Nm @ 4000rpm
COMPRESSION: 10.0:1
BORE/STROKE: 99.0mm x 92.0mm
WEIGHT: 1690kg
POWER-TO-WEIGHT: 154kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: six-speed manual
SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); semi-trailing arms with toe links, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
L/W/h: 4821/1841/1395mm
WHEELBASE: 2788mm
TRACK: 1570mm (f); 1570mm (r)
BRAKES: 3297mm ventilated discs, two-piston calipers (f); 287mm solid discs, single-piston calipers (r), ABS
WHEELS: 17 x 8.0-inch (f & r), alloy
TYRES: 225/50 R17 (f & r)
FUEL:
 70 litres, ULP
PRICE: USD32,500

Oz GTO has real muscle 

Until the current 285kW upgrade, HSV’s 260kW (and original 255kW) GTO was the closest match to the warmed over 261kW US GTO. Bet the Yanks are dirty about the 285 jobbie and the 300kW GTS.

The GTO legacy

Before John Z DeLorean started building his doomed gullwing-doored sports car, before he ripped off the British government and before he tried to do a little cocaine dealing, he was chief engineer at Pontiac.

Back in 1963, DeLorean came up with the bright idea of plonking a big-ass 6.5-litre bent eight into a dull Pontiac LeMans two-door coupe. He called the $US295 option the GTO package, ripping off the Ferrari GTO name. The rest is history. It was arguably the first-ever ‘factory hot rod’. GM insiders doubted they would flog 5000 a year, but by 1966 more than 100,000 GTOs were being snapped up.

By 1974, soaring insurance rates and government restrictions had put an end to the muscle car era in the States. Sales tumbled to just 7058 and the GTO quietly slipped away. Today, the most valuable GTO is one of the so-called Judge models, with the Ram Air motor. One of the 108 GTO Judge convertibles built in 1969 could fetch upwards of $US100k.

Lutzy’s involvement

It was Monaro love at first sight for GM product guru Bob Lutz. At the New York motor show in April 2002 (just six months after its Aussie reveal), Lutz was excited about bringing the Monaro to the US. “I can tell you we are planning to bring the Monaro to America as the legendary Pontiac GTO.”

Five Little-known GTO facts

- Ronny & The Daytonas hit it big with Little GTO in 1964
- GTO is shorthand for Gran Turismo Omologato
- Americans nicknamed it ‘the Goat’ instead
- Vin Diesel drove a purple ’67 big block GTO in xXx
- The original ’64 GTO did 0-100 kays in 7.6sec