2008 Pontiac G8 GT

Throughout the great front-drive flood, GM’s Holden division in Australia was the ark for big sedans with prop shafts pointed at six o’clock. Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons are a mainstay in Oz and have received continually updated engineering despite the small market. (A good Aussie sales year—a record 1.05 million new vehicles in 2007—equals a disastrous sales month in the States.)

Robert Lutz became the GM product sheriff in 2001, with a directive to inject car-guy sparkle into the insipid, fluorescent-lit catalog. All car guys know that fun lives largest in rear-drivers. The first rummage in GM’s antipodean attic produced the 2004 Pontiac GTO. It bombed, but Lutz and company remain undaunted in their plan to pull Pontiac’s performance bona fides out of mothballs using the next generation of Australian-engineered-and-built rear-drivers. The agenda includes the G8 sedan and, the industry trades claim, a forthcoming sport wagon and an El Camino reboot.

If—a prodigious “if”—it survives hikes in oil prices and federal fuel standards, the strategy promises Pontiac a full lineup of USDA-cut, Euro-style sports machines. That’s not available elsewhere—at least not since Dodge announced the Magnum’s demise after 2008. Will the crowds come, especially when the gas pumps are biting? We’ll know soon, as the G8 is already on sale. Meanwhile, this Pontiac is spacious, fast, and agile. It’s a looker, and it’s surprisingly affordable. It’s the best thing to happen at Pontiac since KITT the gabby Trans Am.

The G8 lives within a narrow price band, and the optional furbelows are few. Just $27,595 puts you into the base G8, with a 256-hp, 3.6-liter four-cam V-6 and the 5L40 five-speed automatic. The GT, with its 361-hp, 6.0-liter V-8 and six-speed 6L80 Hydra-Matic, starts delivering 5.3-second barrels to 60 mph for $29,995. With all options, the GT rises to $32,745. A Hemi-equipped Dodge Charger R/T starts at $31,430 and offers more checkable boxes, including all-wheel drive.

Economic pricing extends to the G8’s options, and our tester had them all: a $1250 Premium package, including black leather or black with red seat inserts; a $900 sunroof; and a $600 Sport package that buys 19-inch wheels and summer Bridgestone tires. Summer rubber is standard on all V-8 GTs, and subbing in all-season 18-inchers runs $150.

Clipped overhangs and sheetmetal that is sucked tight over the wheel arches and cabin give the G8 the crouched stance of a Teutonic high roller. The G8’s skeleton is all-new and 100 percent Australian-developed. At 114.8 inches, the wheelbase is 5.2 inches shorter than a Charger’s and the overall length is four inches less; the width and the height are within a few 10ths of the burly Dodge’s.

Like the Charger, the G8 rolls over a big shadow, but except for the aluminum powertrain, it conquers the crash-test barrier without pricey lightweight alloys. Our loaded GT weighed 4100 pounds, fairly evenly distributed, with 48.3 percent carried by four stamped steel and cast iron links in back that replace the semi-trailing arms of the old GTO. Struts supported by links handle the remainder, just as struts do in those ballyhooed Munich machines.

Like them, the G8 is happy being fast-pitched into corners. It doesn’t sass back with tire squeal, path wandering, or body bounding but stays cool and in control. GM considered offering a base and a sport tune but settled on the stiffer FE2 suspension for the whole line. A good decision, apparently, as the compliant ride hasn’t been murdered, not even by the 40-series tires.

Reckless heroics bring forth understeer, the reason for a so-so 0.85-g skidpad result. But the G8 has a well-stocked toolbox for making confident speed. The steering, a little heavy at a slow canter, is a focused target seeker in action. A steadfast brake pedal serves everything from faint trail-braking to 167-foot denture spitters from 70 mph. The promise of rear-drive? Delivered!

And there’s power, enough to pull quarter-miles in 13.8 seconds at 104 mph. This Gen IV small-block is the L76, a 5967cc V-8 that bellows through its eight-into-two-into-one-into-two-into-four exhaust but lives much of its life as a V-4 to conserve juice. To dodge a gas-guzzler penalty, the cylinder shut-off is aggressively programmed and not altogether transparent. A faint flutter through the steering wheel and floorboard means half the cylinders are asleep. It’s an acceptable trade-off for a claimed 10-percent gain. The EPA says the V-8 makes 24 mpg highway. We saw 18 for one fill-up; the test average was 16.

The six-speed manual offered in Australia is reportedly being saved for a higher-output G8 coming later. Meanwhile, the auto’s programming seeks top gear quickly in normal mode and often downshifts reluctantly and with a neck-bending lurch that needs smoothing. In sport it changes character entirely, holding lower gears for long stretches. There’s also a full manumatic mode.

The G8’s family-car bloodline is evident from inside. At 18 cubic feet, the deep trunk will swallow Jonah—if not the whale. (It already swallows the battery for better weight balance.) Four-bar trunklid hinges waste no space. The dash and the door sills are cut low to improve visibility, and the steering tilts and telescopes. The front- and rear-seat dimensions are nearly identical, and all aboard get generous head, leg, and shoulder room.

Western sizing extends to the thick bolsters on the front buckets, spread wide enough to welcome athletically trained (or McDonald’s fed) torsos. The seats give solid support and proved comfortable over the long miles. The rear seatback reclines at a restful 28 degrees with well-shaped body pockets. Camry drivers would find little to criticize except the lack of folding rear seats. GM says it’s about structural stiffness. A double-wide tunnel is the concession.

Obvious cheap-outs are absent. A soft-touch plastic skin with a high-tech mesh pattern covers the upper dash and looks classy, as does the fine-weave headliner. Deluxe short-stroke buttons govern the systems, and the sunroof opens with a handy VW-style set-and-forget rotary switch. The window and mirror controls are grouped in the center console with the clever hide-away parking brake. Our one suggested edit: Dump the battery-voltage and oil-pressure readout above the center vents. The fat Pac-Man–era pixels look cheap, give vague and unhelpful info, and glow distractingly at night.

No navigation function is offered through the Blaupunkt stereo, even though it seems designed for it. Your choices: a portable aftermarket nav or OnStar’s nav surrogate. The live operator looks up the destination and downloads turn-by-turn instructions, given by automated voice command and through the red-hued info screen between the gauges. It works, but without the all-important scrolling map. And it’s not for folks with privacy paranoia. If you are nav needy, we recommend a trip to the aftermarket.

They call Australia “the lucky country.” Now we know why. Chrysler gets the kudos for reintroducing America to affordable rear drive first. Ford is two, maybe three years away from revealing its plan, if indeed it has one. With the G8, GM finally lets us in on Australia’s hot-sedan secrets. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

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