The Pontiac G8 GT must have seemed like a great idea a couple of years ago.
Back then, gasoline still cost less than milk. The few people who weren't driving SUVs the size of RVs were clamoring for big sedans with V-8 engines. Drivers across America were rediscovering the joys of tire-spinning rear-wheel drive after years of front-drive purgatory that started the last time gas prices got crazy.
Now, the jury is out.
Needing to replace the long-in-the-tooth Grand Prix, the brass at Pontiac called their corporate cousins at Holden, General Motors' Australian subsidiary, and asked if they wouldn't mind sending a few of their popular Commodore sedans this way. You see, down under they like big beefy rides just like we do, and the Commodore is available with a Great Barrier Reef-sized 6.0-liter V-8 tucked under the hood.
Since the dollar was also worth more when this plan was hatched, it was a brilliant way for Pontiac to get its hands on something that looked like real American muscle without spending much money or doing any work. So the Aussies made a few changes, like moving the steering wheel to the left side and swapping Holden's red-lion logo for Pontiac G8 badges, and started shipping them our way.
This took time, of course, and time is the auto industry's worst enemy. In the interim the U.S. government decided that we needed a lot more cars that get 35 mpg or more. Then the price of gasoline broke the $4 barrier, and a lot of people decided that for once, the government might be right. Cars like the G8 were suddenly four-wheel bogeymen.
It's a shame because this is a great car -- a fantastic car -- and probably the best that Pontiac has ever made. Yes, even better than the Bandit's Trans Am.
The overall shape of the G8 is very foreign, but looks good. Not "wow, I've never seen anything that looks like that" good, but also not "wow, I've never seen anything that looks like that" bad. Sort of what a BMW and a Saab would produce if they got together after one too many oilcans of Fosters.
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Brawny and powerful, without any of the gaudiness of Pontiacs past, it is a slimming design that makes the G8 appear more compact than it is. The only over the top details are the nostril-like hood scoops that aren’t terrible except for the fact that they are phony.
What's underneath them is anything but. With 361 horsepower, the G8's V-8 is a serious player. It’s missing the kick in the pants you expect when you first step on the accelerator, the transmission being a little slow to react, but once it gets going you might as well be on the North Shore of Oahu catching a 25-foot wave.
The rush of power is so smooth and linear that if you didn't already understand the appeal of large displacement engines, you’ll be ready to trade your surfer-bead necklace for one now. Pontiac claims that this is the most powerful sedan you can buy for under $30,000 and no one is in dispute.
Zero to 60 mph takes just a bit more than 5 seconds. The quarter-mile? Forget about it; your driver’s license will be history before you finish the run.
That’s fine, because the G8 offers many other pleasures for you to enjoy. The interior is impeccable, if you like black. It’s neat and tidy in a way no plastic-fantastic Pontiac has ever been; the materials throughout are top-notch to the point of surprise. By sight alone it’s impossible to tell the difference between the soft leather on the door panels and the hard plastic that looks just like soft leather on the dashboard -- color and texture match up perfectly.
The hides on the comfortable and supportive 6-way power leather seats are just as well-done, but the six ways do not include the seat back, which is manual. Driving the car like I stole it on a paved figure-8 racetrack, they held me in place just fine and did as good of a job coddling me while sitting in traffic on the way home.
The G8 doesn’t look it, but it is an enormous car. Just a couple of inches shorter than a Dodge Charger, but larger on the inside. You would never expect it to be so roomy from a distance. I’m 6-foot-1 and the driver’s seat can slide back so far that I can’t touch the pedals, but still leave enough room for me to fit behind it the back row. If more cars were like this in the 1990s, that SUV thing may never have happened.
I’ve never been to Australia, but I imagine their roads are a lot like ours. Long, straight and sleep-inducing. Efficient for getting from one end of a large continent to the other, eliminating all of the fun and distraction along the way. So it was a shock to discover that the G8 handles as well as it does everything else.
The construction is rock-solid. The independent suspension is performance-tuned, giving the G8 the feel of a much smaller car in the turns. With the traction control turned off, it’s easy to get it into a controlled slide and bring it back in line with little trouble. The 18-inch wheels are wide, but the tires are not too thin, and Pontiac’s ride engineers scored a nice balance between handling and comfort.
Of course, there is that uncomfortable subject of fuel economy, but it’s not as bad as you would think, if you are an optimist.
The EPA says the G8 gets 15 mpg in the city, 24 on the highway, for a combined rating of 18 mpg. These numbers are exactly what I observed when driving the car as a normal person would, without resorting to any high-mileage driving techniques or juvenile antics. The results are in line with any car this large with this kind of performance, but these days, if the number is less than 100 mpg, no one is satisfied.
There is some good news on that front. Like many of GM’s V-8 engines, the one in the G8 has "active fuel management," which shuts four of the cylinders when you don’t need so much power. It also has a very tall overdrive sixth gear that lets you roll down the highway at 65 mph while the engine spins at a lazy 1,600 rpm.
With the cruise control set at 75 mph, the G8 returned 26 mpg, not bad, but at 60 mph it jumped to 32 mpg. That is 33 percent better than the EPA estimate, exactly the same amount a gallon of gasoline increased when it rose from $3 to $4. So slow down a little bit, and it’s the summer of 2007 all over again. Good times.
Still, as long as gas prices stay as high as they are, Pontiac has an uphill battle ahead of it with the G8. There is a V-6 version available, but it only gets 2 mpg more than the V-8 and has 105 fewer horsepower. Since the GT only costs an extra $2,400, the temptation to go whole hog will probably be too much for many buyers. How many of them there are is yet to be seen.
For Pontiac salesmen wringing their hands over the notion, there may be a silver lining. The Commodore was the best-selling car in Australia in 2007, when gas was running as high as $5 a gallon there. Not the kind of fun fact you normally print in a brochure, but maybe that’s not a bad idea.
2008 Pontiac G8 GT
Base Price: $29,310
As Tested: $31,245
Type: Front-engine, rear-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
Engine: 6.0-liter V-8
Power: 361 horsepower, 385 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 15 city/24 hwy
What do you think of the G8?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.