The cars we loved.
Where American cars were concerned, Pontiac was clearly building excitement or the illusion of it with cladding, fins and spoilers. There were a few cars wearing the arrowhead that justified the corporate tagline. Of these the Trans-Am and to an extent Grand Am got all the attention. Pontiac had begun cultivating a performance image with its midsize sedan the 6000. In Special Touring Edition (STE) form, it was one of the best performing sedans in its class and just happen to be one of GM’s most reliable too. There was a big heavy sporty coupe called the GTP, but the European performance emphasis was placed on the sedan, leaving the coupe to more grand tourer duties.
When the enormously popular 6000 was reaching the end of its lifespan, Pontiac needed to find a suitable replacement that fit the family sports sedan image that the 6000 had garnered. Their solution was a special version of the new fifth generation ‘W body’ Gran Prix sedan called the STE. The STE was slightly larger than the 6000, but was wider allowing it to seat four comfortably while retaining its mid-sized rating. Unlike the 6000 with its base 2.5L four, the new Gran Prix STE would be anchored by a pair V6 engines. Early cars came in one of two configurations, a naturally aspirated 3.1 OHV and a limited edition turbo. The base engine only produced 135 hp while a limited edition ASC/McLaren turbo car produced 210hp using the same 3.1 base engine. Only 2000 of the McLaren cars were produced and only for the 1989 model year. Aside from a special ground effects package and wheels, the McLaren was like most other fully optioned STEs.
After 1989, Pontiac would roll the turbo onto the STE’s option list. The turbo system itself was still manufactured by ASC for Pontiac and produced 210 hp if equipped with the five speed manual or 200 with the four speed automatic transmission.
For Pontiac’s of this era, the STE’s overall design shows a considerable amount of restraint. Part of the European mystique was restraint and Pontiac seemed to understand that principle if only with this car. It was still easy to tell the STE from the lesser LE and SE cars due to subtle ground effects, special 15’ alloy wheels and the use of then new Goodyear Eagle GT +4 tires. Inside the STE was where the biggest differences could be noticed and felt, especially in a car equipped with the driver information system (DIC). Here there was a little less restraint as the true nature of the STE would come through. The DIC went through three interactions but they all gave basic readings of average and instant fuel economy, range and average speed. They also functioned as a calendar and compass in a time before cheap navigation systems. Very advanced tech for a non-Japanese car of the period. Like the Japanese cars of the 80’s, Pontiac’s from this era it seemed still got inspiration for interiors from spaceships. When the DIC was combined with the available Heads Up Display (HUD), the STE’s dash looked more like a helm of the Millennium Falcon than a car’s dashboard. The steering wheel alone could operate all of the car’s entertainment functions – and it had a horn!
To the driver, the STE had all the hardware that mattered to keep 3385 lbs. of the STE rooted to the road. A sport tuned fully independent suspension and disc brakes with optional ABS provided quick stop and go (0 to 60 in 7 seconds) that put the Grand Prix STE in Audi and Volvo territory. Not quite the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive, but with a top speed at just over 135 mph, the STE was no slouch.
All the expected amenities like leather bucket front seats, air and power everything was there to insure a comfortable ride for driver and passengers alike, even while cruising at high-speed. The Grand Prix STE sold well, but not nearly as well as the 6000 STE, even though it was an all-around better car. As a result, Pontiac reshuffled the trim lines in 1994 giving the SE model STE like appearance (without the turbo). At one point even the LE model could be had with a sport appearance package for a STE like look.
Eventually the STE model was dropped altogether and split between GT and GTP options packages for the SE. The engine line up had morphed into a new flagship; a 3.4L DOHC V6. The old 3.1 dropped its turbo and gained dual overhead cams to become the base engine. The next Grand Prix would become more powerful, but also bigger and heavier. The age of chasing the “European Ideal” seemed to end with Pontiac refocusing the Grand Prix back to its roots as a large “American Style” personal luxury car in either sedan or coupe body style.